Presence in Complexity Series #3: What Does the Body Have to Do With It?

Everything, really! Our body structures our interpretations of the world around us, generates our reactions to things around us, and determines the actions we take. Attention in the body is the key to staying resourceful when the world isn’t cooperating. It is how we can bring bringing awareness and choice into our reactions to the world.

These urges drive our relationships, our connections with what’s important, our curiosity, and our avoidance of danger.

These urges drive our relationships, our connections with what’s important, our curiosity, and our avoidance of danger.

In the previous post, we saw how our identity gets challenged in complexity. We are constantly confronted by our limits. We know we can get things done, but our project is plagued by delays. People we usually can count on disappoint us, and we find ourselves angry. Something unpredictable happens, and we tell ourselves we should have seen it coming. Or, we are surprised by our over-reaction to a provocation that ordinarily wouldn’t seem a big deal.

The person we imagine ourselves to be would sail smoothly through all this. But, the person we actually are isn’t sailing smoothly at all!

We find ourselves set back on our heels over and over again by realities that confront us with gaps in our capabilities. Or, call into question the very competencies that give us pride and meaning and a sense of self.

Relax… this is simply complexity challenging our identity! It’s normal!

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Identity is an embodied phenomenon. Our identity, our reliable sense of self, is held in place by attachments and aversions. Attachments are urges towards experiences that are safe and pleasurable and that reinforce who we believe ourselves to be. And aversions are urges to avoid what is unsafe, unpleasant, or challenges who we believe ourselves to be.

Attachments and aversions can be felt in the body. For example, the tightening in our belly as someone gives us difficult feedback is an aversion. The small surge of energy when we see an email in our inbox from someone we made a request of is an attachment. The impulse to eat just one more cookie is an attachment; the resistance we feel to drafting a touchy email is an aversion.

When we begin to look, attachments and aversions are everywhere. They are the direct experience of the urges within our body as it constructs and defends our identity. These urges drive our relationships, our connections with what’s important, our curiosity, and our avoidance of danger.

Attachments and aversions are… the direct experience of the urges within our body as it constructs and defends our identity.

Attachments and aversions are… the direct experience of the urges within our body as it constructs and defends our identity.

These urges are constant and vigilant. They steer us automatically towards what strengthens identity and away from what threatens identity.

How is this pragmatic?

In our coach training and our work with leaders in complexity, we practice awareness of our interior experience. We slow ourselves down. We pay attention. When we focus on our experience, there is lots of information. We miss it when we are running fast, but the information is there for the reaping. We just have to learn how to look.

We can use this information to guide us as leaders and humans. Sensing attachments and aversions reveals our body acting to strengthen or defend identity. We can learn to stay present to our body’s precursors to action, intervening and choosing before it is too late to choose.

Five minutes ago, as I sat here writing this blog post, a text message arrived. A close colleague was inviting me to collaborate on a choice piece of work overseas, three weeks from now. I could feel my attachments. My heartbeat quickened. My energy rose. I sat up straighter. I watched my thoughts began to race as my nervous system automatically began to figure out how to fit this into an already packed calendar. I watched myself generate stories to justify doing so: this work would pay well, it’s overseas in a cool place, it’s with a high profile client, it would be fun and gratifying to work with this colleague, etc, etc…

All true. And, I recognized the feel of this pull. I saw clearly how the opportunity tugged at my identity by triggering multiple attachments. I saw that these strong identity-driven urges to say Yes were leading towards a commitment that would require abandoning several other promises that I had already made to my family and to another project that is very important to me.

In the past, I would have found a way to make it work, and cleaned up the messes later. Now, I am able to see that my attachment was hijacking me. I replied to my colleague that I appreciated the invitation but couldn’t make it work. And, I came back to writing this blog post, sitting on a rainy morning next to my wife and my dogs, writing what is mine to write.

Our nervous system is designed to avoid dangers like hungry lions, and operates fundamentally the same with the creation and preservation of identity.

Our nervous system is designed to avoid dangers like hungry lions, and operates fundamentally the same with the creation and preservation of identity.

It is the body’s job to keep the organism safe. The mechanisms to do so are elegantly designed to handle this, reliably and below the level of awareness. Our nervous system is designed to avoid dangers like hungry lions, and operates fundamentally the same with the creation and preservation of identity. Like angry spouses. Or, people with power who want to give us feedback. Our body is constantly organizing itself, through attachments and aversions, to navigate the world in ways that construct and protect our identity.

Unless and until we bring awareness to illuminating the inner workings of these drivers, they run us. We can learn to recognize the experience of our identity being challenged by unpredictable circumstances. We can bring awareness to, the precise physical sensations that indicate our personality is involved in our reactions. We can do this long before our slower and more deliberate thinking processes can figure it out.

We can use this awareness in many ways in order to become more fluid, creative, and resourceful when the world doesn’t show up in the ways we wish it would.

Consider, in relation to some significant aspect of your current conditions that you experience as challenging:

  • What is important to you in this situation? How does this situation contain opportunities or threats for your identity?
  • What are you attached to? What aversions are at play?
  • How do you experience these attachments and aversions in your body? In your emotions? In the stories that you tell yourself about what might happen?
5 replies
    • Eleo
      Eleo says:

      I loved reading this and reflecting on the questions…My attachment to recognition and acceptance from others still hijacks me and I am now able –most of the times– to feel and acknowledge the pressure on my chest and throat much before I become conscious of my self talk..so I know the aversion is ON inside of me. I breathe and tell myself the truth but the arousal in the body stays on for a while still..Any tips?

      Reply
  1. Lisa Critchley
    Lisa Critchley says:

    Doug, congratulations on doing what’s right for you and in keeping with your values and prior commitments in the face of such a compelling opportunity! I applaud your raw honesty in this post allowing us to peek into your emotions and decision making as attachments and aversions play out the “dance” in your mind. I could see myself as a person who loves new experiences and saying “yes” often and trying to squeeze in so many things in a day. Your post stands as a poignant reminder especially in this season of over commitment.

    Reply
  2. Paul Roe
    Paul Roe says:

    Great post Doug thanks,
    I could especially identify (!) with your example on the text invitation you received. I am challenged by invitations both external and internal that are so compelling and keep me constantly busy. And yet I have a fundamental desire for spaciousness & calm…but I don’t give heed. Sometimes figuring out attachments/aversions is not easy and choosing effective responses to stimulus is less than clear. Perhaps its about really figuring out what’s important/valuable; a chance to perform/give a masterclass in an exotic location for a good fee or stay at home walk on the beach, visit the botanic gardens, read a book and drink a majestic coffee leisurely in Dublin. I do get torn!

    Reply
  3. Susan Hugo
    Susan Hugo says:

    Doug, Thanks for the gentle reminder around attachments and aversions. As 2017 launches this idea to honor my inner voice and somatic responses will play an importamt role in decisions I choose. Thank you again for sharing your learnings and wisdom

    Reply

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