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Presence in Complexity Series #7: Resilience: De-Coupling State from Context

Directing attention instantly and directly modifies our inner condition.

We live in extraordinary times.

It is a new form of agency to begin to discover that we can affect our mood, our sense of ourselves, our outlook on life, and our thoughts simply by directing our attention where we choose.

What do you mean? No drugs, no therapy, no decades of self-improvement reading? Really? Just directing our attention? That sounds too good to be true!

Well, yes and no. Yes, directing attention instantly and directly modifies our inner condition. And, with practice, we can build increasing fluidity at accessing new perspectives and greater resilience through our factory-loaded capabilities.

And, no, it’s not always that simple, and, even when it’s simple, it’s not necessarily easy. Let’s break this down a bit.

The cognitive portions of our nervous system (most frequently represented by the brain) are working constantly to make meaning of the world. We rehash prior experience in order to learn from it. And, we plan for the future by anticipating problems and opportunities and preparing for them.

The nervous system is exquisitely designed to ensure the survival of the organism in order to perpetuate the species. Most often, in our contemporary world, this is more about perpetuating identity and a pervasive sense of self than about physical survival, but in marginalized groups, in war, in poverty, with refugees, physical survival is indeed what is at stake.

The brain engages in identity-preserving “survival” activities relentlessly and automatically.

The brain engages in identity-preserving “survival” activities relentlessly and automatically. Seeing our thinking processes from the balcony perspective reveals an obsessive pre-occupation with re-living the past and preparing for the future. Triggers range from the mundane (a mildly irritating email, or something we suddenly remember we forgot to attend to) to challenges to our identity (a professional public failure, a conflict) to the traumatic and overwhelming (the experience of a car accident, violence, racism or sexism.)

Obviously, these are very different scales of triggering, but the fundamental processes of disruption of what we experience as “normal” are related. Our stress hormones go up, our heartbeat increases, our thoughts become rapid. We are triggered and reacting. Our inner condition has been disrupted by the outer context.

In many leadership contexts this experience of disruption, reactivity and disorganization is pervasive and continuous. We get caught up in the mood, pace, and intensity of what is going on around us. We “take on” the state of the system.

The more responsibility we feel for what is happening around us (and clearly this is the case for most leaders) the easier it becomes to be in a continual state of reaction. Our inner state becomes entangled with our context as we react to events unfolding around us which are not predictable and over which we have little control.

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Sound familiar? You, like I, live in a complex world that is continually challenging your identity. You experience this complexity as triggering precisely because you can’t master and control what is happening. And, you have been trained to believe that you should be able to do so.

The good news is that you can begin to cultivate the capacity to de-couple your internal state from the context. The cognitive function of “executive control” can be harnessed to direct your attention to something of our choosing. For example, per a previous post, directing your attention into sensation instantly changes your experience of yourself.

Here, the Subject to Object move of adult development becomes visible and pragmatic. You learn to step outside yourself and take a profoundly liberating balcony view. These four small shifts add up to big resilience:

  1. We can’t lead if we are entangled with the system around us: overwhelmed by, and therefore undifferentiated from, our context.

    Sense, and name, what is happening in your context. This naming makes it visible and knowable. It puts you on the balcony, seeing clearly what is triggering you or what feels overwhelming.

  2. Sense, and name, your own reactions to this context. Bear witness to how your identity is challenged, how you are taking on the stress of the system, how your thoughts are racing and shoulders hunched and attention span decreasing. Take a balcony view of our own experience.
  3. Consciously direct your attention in order to interrupt the automaticity of your own nervous system’s response to triggering. This begins to reveal agency in self-regulating your own state. Your balcony view here is that your state reacts to, but is not determined by, the context.
  4. With practice and sustained witnessing, you may arrive at the transcendent realization described by Viktor Frankl. After years in a Nazi concentration camp, he wrote that “the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This is the essence of resilience: the de-linking of our internal state from the context around us. This is liberation.

I don’t claim that this is necessarily easy. The four shifts described above may take years of practice. Old and deep wounds heal slowly and may always remain triggerable.

Yet, this de-coupling of state from context is crucial for leaders. We can’t lead if we are entangled with the system around us: overwhelmed by, and therefore undifferentiated from, our context. Our internal state has become part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The actions that arise from this state are likely to perpetuate or exacerbate the prevailing dynamic.

We must embody optimism and creativity and boldness and kindness even when the system around us is overwhelmed and reactive and chaotic and mean-spirited.

Leaders must learn to de-couple their state from the context. We must embody optimism and creativity and boldness and kindness even when the system around us is overwhelmed and reactive and chaotic and mean-spirited. This resilience is key to leading in a way that is transformative.

Begin by cultivating your executive control of attention. Well-grounded research  demonstrates that as little as 8 minutes a day of consistent meditative attention practice produces long term increases in well-being, the capacity to take new perspectives, and to sustain equanimity in the midst of disruptions. That’s a pretty big ROI for learning to de-couple your state from your context!

Of course, Frankl was a remarkable guy. It’s patently unrealistic to expect to attain his liberating realization after a few 8 minute meditation sessions. We performance driven perfectionists naively think we should be able to make anything happen, and happen on our timeframe. This belief is a toxic recipe for suffering when operating in complexity: things really don’t work that way at all.

Relaxing, being present, and engaging in our worlds in new ways is both liberating and calls for more patience than our driven world easily supports. Baker Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident; practice makes us accident prone.”

Start now.

  • How does your inner state reflect the outer conditions in which you lead?
  • How are you taking on the conditions of your context?
  • What exceptions have you noticed? What is an experience of your state being very different from what was going on around you?
  • How might you experiment with de-coupling your state from your context?

Post-Election: 11/9 and the Throughlines of Resilience

Yesterday was a very difficult day.

I went to bed on Tuesday night with the election trend clear, but not knowing the outcome. I awoke at 6 a.m. yesterday to find out that the candidate that I felt scared by had won decisively. I understand that for many, this was great news, and I appreciate that there can be reason and caring behind this view.

I was in shock. I woke my wife, wanting to share the moment with her, but quickly headed out for day three of our Presence-Based Coaching retreat.

At breakfast, the group looked shell-shocked; some students were crying, others trying for humor, there was a sense of disbelief. Not everyone wanted the same candidate. Not everyone even voted. But together, we all felt the tsunami that crashed ashore Tuesday night.

I was working with my own emotions. Outside, it was cold and drizzly; inside me, it felt like all was lost.

9/11 had the sense of nov-9a seismic shift and the undeniable emergence of a world that I didn’t recognize. I had the same feeling the day Reagan was elected, when Kennedy was shot, during the Cuban missile crisis. In those seminal and traumatic moments, it seemed everything I knew was under threat. Yesterday felt the same: that deep existential dread. And, we were to be leading a coach training retreat?

By the end of the day, our group of 21 students and Sarah Halley and I had moved into a very different place. I think the container of our group and the structure of our retreat were strong enough to take the tremendous shock of the unexpected election results and use that energy to deepen our experience and forge something powerful and useful.

I want to share some of what helped; it’s generalizable. All of these had previously been designed into the program. And, we moved a lot around to serve what was needed in the moment.

Our practice, in PBC, is to be present and work with what is happening. These practices are personal and coaching-related. Yesterday they had new immediacy and relevance:

  • Community: We began the day by sitting together. We stayed present with each other, and with ourselves. All had time to voice whatever they cared to say. There were tears, anger, shame, fear, gratitude, caring. One person had to leave the room and return. The process took a couple of hours. By the end, something had shifted. Community and connectedness are key ingredients for healing. It begins with feeling heard and respected.
  • Meaning-making: In PBC, polarities are a lens for exploring tensions and competing commitments. We sense these dynamics within ourselves, in our relationships and teams, and in society. Yesterday, our students coached each other through a powerful somatic coaching exercise to illuminate and integrate polarities in service to what we care about. And, we understood, with greater compassion, the nature of the polarization that has rent the US in this election cycle. It is reassuring to have language and distinctions for interpreting and making meaning of disruptive events.
  • Grounding and settling: We (including me) began the day feeling shaken to the core, fragile, raw. We took reflection time in the afternoon to be alone on the land. Trees were still growing, the sun poked through clouds, kingfishers swooped up the river that has been flowing here for a half billion years. It was deeply settling to simply be outdoors. No requests, no drama. Nothing in nature supports the illusion of permanence. When we are outdoors, it feels easier to relax, to accept whatever is true, to settle and ground in the faith that everything runs its course.
  • Perspective-taking: Last evening, we did a coaching practice called the Grand Tour. This practice invites us into the perspective of big time, and we are able to sense ourselves as the inevitable product of everything that came before. We see ourselves as a unique person with an invitation to contribute to what happens next. This big context gives our commitments a new and deeper meaning. We are inheritors of our current situation. And, we each, in our little corner of the world, are an authors of what comes next. What we do matters.

These four themes provided the container for 23 humans to move through strong shock and grief, to come together, to practice some crucial coaching skills along the way, and to metabolize our shock and grief into intimacy, presence, and readiness for whatever is next. It was a privilege to share an extraordinary day with these extraordinary people. In the midst of shock and disruption, our process of being present together will stay with me and inspire me well into the future.

I know that this work isn’t done. I still feel waves of grief and fear. I suspect that some extraordinarily difficult times are ahead. And, I feel optimistic, awake, and ready.

All of us are in this together, whoever you voted for, or if you didn’t vote. Please share:

  • How are you resourcing yourself internally in this new reality?
  • How are you resourcing with others?
  • And, what might you share that would inspire and support others?