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Conflict Basics 3: Mindfulness and Bodyfulness

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” ~James Joyce, Dubliners.

Mr. Duffy is not alone! Millions of people live in their heads, unaware of how limiting it is for both themselves and those around them. In this post, I would like to introduce the notion of three centers of intelligence and make a case for the body and the emotions as legitimate and valuable domains of knowing and learning.

Modern science is now validating what many traditional cultures have known for centuries. Namely, that our brains are not the only seat of intelligence available to us. As Fritjof Capra points out in The Systems View of Life, “The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living cognitive system.” We have significant clusters of neuronal cells in both our heart and our gut. This does not mean that our hearts and guts have brains per se, rather it implies that in addition to our brains, we have two highly sophisticated cognitive systems that can greatly amplify our overall intelligence. Let’s explore how using all three of these centers can lead to greater ease in our work and in our lives.

Recall that when our amygdala takes over, we temporarily lose access to our executive functioning. This leaves us to cope with the threat via our fear-based responses of flight, fight, or freeze. Once our amygdala kicks in we experience a hormonal and chemical cocktail flooding our nervous system that will last from anywhere from 90 to 120 seconds. During that time we are virtually without access to our higher reasoning capabilities.

Our brains are not the only seat of intelligence available to us – we have two other highly sophisticated cognitive systems that can greatly amplify our intelligence.

Compounding the challenge when get triggered are two additional considerations. The first is that the superb brain circuitry that allows us to escape from ferocious beasts in the wild can also be set off by threats to our ego that we experience in the workplace. The second is that we might be working under conditions that constantly put our systems on high alert, conditioning us to be ready to attack or flee as a result of even minor provocations. Remember, when we get triggered, both instinctual and conditioned responses become activated. Instinct will trigger, flight, or freeze, while conditioned responses are likely to show up as biting sarcasm, condescension, attack on another’s character and other behaviors that show a distinct lack of empathy, any of which are extremely detrimental to individual and team performance.

The practice of mindfulness has been demonstrated to be an effective means of unhooking from triggered responses. Mindfulness is usually taught through the very simple approach of watching your breath and returning to it whenever your attention wanders. The challenge in applying mindfulness to defusing triggers is that it takes considerable time before you see much progress.

Mindfulness is not for everyone. If you suffer from ADHD, being instructed to sit quietly and watch your breath is probably going to feel like torture. However, applying mindfulness to the body can produce practical results in a short time. We might call this approach ‘bodyfulness.’

Rarely discernible without practice, there’s a series of bodily signals occurring when we get triggered that are highly useful in preventing us from acting unconsciously. These signals happen quickly, and below our normal level of awareness. It’s possible to observe them in action, and thus to gain some ability to influence our otherwise unconscious behavior. If we train our attention on what is happening in our bodies: to the sensations we feel, and the emotions that grip us, we can map the early warning signs that will alert us when we are about to be triggered. With that enhanced awareness we can intervene in the cycle before we are in a full-blown amygdala hijack, allowing us to mindfully create different and hopefully better outcomes for ourselves and our colleagues than what our unconscious conditioning currently allows.

Applying mindfulness to the body can produce practical results in a short time.

What follows is an entry ramp for applying mindfulness to your body. Before you begin the practice, grab something to take notes with. It will help to record your observations.

Stand comfortably with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Take a couple of deep breaths, breathing in and out through your nose and allow yourself to relax. Breathe into your belly and allow your back to lengthen as if your head was being lifted slightly by a cord coming out of the top of it. Rock back and forth on your feet and flex your knees a couple of times. Find a stance that is comfortable and where you feel grounded.

Now, scrunch up your face and let it go slack and repeat that two or three times. Make fists and tense your arms and shoulders then relax them. Repeat that a couple of times. Same with your legs. Grip the ground with your toes and relax. Suck in your stomach and hold it and then let it go with a strong exhale. Tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups will help you bring much greater awareness to your body. Shake out your limbs and come back to a grounded and centered stance. Notice how it feels to be calm and relaxed. Really sense into this state, because in a minute it is going to change. Take a sort of whole-body snapshot in your mind’s eye and store it for reference, you’ll come back to it in a few minutes.

Next, bring to mind a recent conflict or unsettling event. It should be something that activates your body and emotions and has a noticeable effect on your state. For now, just recall the contours of it, don’t go too deeply into details. As you think of it, stay connected to your body. Be on the lookout for any of the following: tension around the eyes, clenching your jaw or your butt or your feet, locking your knees, making fists, tension in your shoulders or neck, churning in your stomach, shallow or rapid breathing, sensations of heat or coolness, numbness or tingling anywhere in the body. Look for anything that is taking you out of that calm, centered state you were just experiencing a few moments ago. Also, tune into your emotions, are you angry, sad, anxious, fearful, disgusted, etc? Take note of what is happening at both the physical and emotional level. Rate, on a scale of one to ten, the intensity of whatever it is you are feeling.

Stay connected to your body.

Next, add more detail to the memory and let it unspool through your body. Replay conversations or arguments, allow yourself to feel more intensely the situation. Again, using that one to ten scale rate your experience of what is occurring in your body as you recall in more vivid detail what happened that unsettled you.

Now, shake out your limbs, stomp your feet a few times and take some deep breaths. Take a few minutes to record your reflections on what happened for you. Be as specific as you can in your notes. What changed in your physical and emotional bodies as you recalled the big picture? What happened when you added more detail to your recall? Was there a smooth progression, or was there a sudden shift? Did tension in one area of your body spread to other areas? Did you feel like you were fully in control the whole time, or was there a moment when you felt like there was a runaway train coursing through you? Repeat this exercise a few times using different challenging situations from either home or work, observing and recording what your embodied responses are.

You will be amazed at what your body can reveal to you.

Study your notes for clues about the early warning signs your body sends you. Look for patterns that show up regardless of the event. Once you learn your body’s response patterns to triggering events, you can gain more control over your reactions. For example, whenever you feel yourself starting to clench up, you can shift your posture and breathing, you can voice your discomfort, or if necessary, change the subject or take a short break before proceeding. People I’ve worked with over the years report great success in using body awareness to stay more grounded and to open up a wider range of options for coping with the conflict they are experiencing. This takes time and practice, but if you devote yourself to exploring this realm you will be amazed at what your body can reveal to you.

Many thanks to Marion Chapsal for her help in shaping this post and for her illustrations.

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