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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.