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Presence in Complexity Series #5: Embodying Congruent States

To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system.

To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system.

Wow, what a world we live in!

It’s a New Year. And, we face a level of risk and uncertainty that I’ve not experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis. My father is in the hospital, facing difficult decisions about surgery. My plans for the next weeks are completely subject to events. It can feel that there’s not much ground to stand on.

We are all constantly sensing and reacting to what is going on around us. When things are difficult or chaotic, this can be triggering in many ways. Our inner condition is sometimes completely invisible to us. More often, we just believe that our impatience, urgency, fragmented attention and tight shoulders are the inevitable results of our circumstances. We tell ourselves that we’ll take some time off when the project is complete. Or when our new team member gets up to speed. And, we endure.

We miss the fact that our taking on the condition of the system makes us part of the problem. To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system. Our nervous system has become inseparable from the organizational culture and the system dynamics around us. We have lost our perspective, and with it, our capacity to be useful.

This, from a client engagement a few years ago:

I worked with a leader a few years ago who had established an audacious business goal with her team. Ruth was a brilliant and charismatic leader, but in spite of her stellar track record in a very specialized role, also harbored inner doubts about her qualifications, and feared that she’d be “found out.” The stakes were high for her whole team.

In an unconscious effort to prove herself and accelerate the initiative, Ruth often dominated her tense and fast-paced team meetings. She interrupted, taking over others’ ideas, creating re-work, and disenfranchising team members in the meantime. This hyper-driven results orientation was adding to the stress in the system, and incurring significant costs in performance, workload, and team members’ ownership of the business goal.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence.

One of the great discoveries of the human condition is that we all have the capacity to direct and organize our attention in ways of our own choosing. We can de-link our inner condition from our outer circumstances.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence. We can become an antidote to reactivity. We can be both a symbol and an instigator of a different way of being.

De-linking provides the freedom to choose an organizing principle, an inner state, that is in fact helpful and supportive of the future we intend to invite. We become internally congruent with a value, a cause, a destination that matters to us. This freedom gives us the possibility of becoming ever more intentional about what we take a stand for.

It is crucial that we embody what matters to us. Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice. A future we care about. A culture of curiosity and experimentation. Relationships that are compassionate and supportive.

As I write this, I am awaiting a call from the hospital in New York where my father is facing a difficult treatment decision. There is no question about where my embodied commitment lies. I have a very busy couple of weeks ahead of me. And, if he chooses to have surgery, I’m going to be with him.

I am fully congruent in this. Sure, there are complexities that will need to be managed, events rescheduled or cancelled, and consequences. But, for me, that’s just details. My priorities are clear. I am going to be with my father.

Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice.

Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice.

Holding the focus of what we care about is not simply a matter of a mental picture, or a set of words that describe what is important to us. It’s a matter of taking these things in so that we experience them as a felt state, as an inner condition, as an organizing principle.

Ruth was prime for coaching. She intuitively knew that she had become part of the problem and recognized that she needed to shift something. Over time, she began to see how she was adding stress to the system. She experimented with replacing the old narrative that it was “all up to her” with a new narrative that her “team had the chops to deliver” on this goal. She began to organize her attention, and actions, around the assumption that her team could solve most of the big strategic and resource deployment issues that they faced. She didn’t have to provide constant motivation.

Embodying this new narrative took time and practice. Ruth increasingly saw her urge to interrupt, and let it pass. As she held back more and more, she also explicitly communicated her confidence in her team’s resourcefulness. She settled her own internal state, which in turn helped team meetings become more relaxed, productive, and creative. She asked questions, sat back in her chair rather than leaning forward, and allowed pauses and silence where previously every moment had been pressured and packed.

She extended calm confidence into the team environment. They in turn stepped into this new space in astonishing new ways.

Here’s the key. The behaviors that become problematic for us as leaders were acquired previously in our lives in conditions that no longer exist. But, because these behaviors worked at the time, they became embodied as tendencies that tend to emerge under pressure and stress now, decades later.

When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

We can harness the same mechanisms of neuroplasticity and embodied learning to develop and integrate new congruent states, organized around commitments, futures and values of our own choosing. When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

  • What habits do you engage in that actually reinforce unhelpful dynamics in your relationships?
  • What resourceful internal state do you wish was available when this happens?
  • What conditions produce this state? And, how might you practice it when those conditions are not present?

Presence in Complexity Series #4: Resourcing with Presence in Challenging Times

We live in very unpredictable times. And, this has profound effects on our moment-by-moment experience.

We live in very unpredictable times. And, this has profound effects on our moment-by-moment experience.

Complexity, for leaders who are accustomed to making things happen, is an uncomfortable space. Lack of predictability can trigger us in ways that reduce our resourcefulness when we need it most.

As a ready example, note your own reaction to the recent US election. What has been your mood? How are you reacting to breaking news? How do you feel this in your body?

Whatever your belief system, we live in very unpredictable times. And, this has profound effects on our moment-by-moment experience.

Complexity triggers our attachments and aversions. Where we sense opportunities to reinforce our identity, our energy ramps up and we act to build ourselves up.

Conversely, when we feel under threat, aversions arise. We naturally act from fear when our sense of who we are is put at risk by circumstances we can’t control. Both attachments and aversions are likely to cause us to respond in ways that are less than helpful.

Awareness of our internal experience, and specifically of the physical sensations that are always present within us, turns out to be a powerful doorway for resilience and creativity.

Please try this brief experiment.

Take a brief break from reading. (I know, I know… it’s a cliffhanger and you’re super busy and you just want to get the takeaway and move on. But, consider …. right now, you’re actually either avoiding doing something you don’t want to do. Or, you’re seeking to learn something new. Either of these will be well served by your taking an actual break. Pausing is a win either way. Trust me on this!)

Now, read this paragraph. Then close your eyes. With awareness, take a full inhale, hold it briefly, and then allow a very long, slow and complete exhale through your nose. Be fully present. Sense the breath exiting your nose. Feel your chest and torso settling. At the end of the exhale, notice how you feel different. Specifically, what changed? Identify three words that describe how you feel different. Now, close your eyes and do this…..

— Pause for experiment! —

Directing attention itself changes, and regulates, the condition of our entire nervous system.

Directing attention itself changes, and regulates, the condition of our entire nervous system.

These three phenomena did not happen because you took a breath. You take many thousands of breaths every day. Whatever changed did so because you directed your attention to your breath, and more generally, into the sensations that are constantly present in your body.

The experiment asked you to shift your attention from cognition (like the reading and meaning-making you’re doing in this moment) to the present-moment sensations that arise in your body (like during the breath pause.) You could repeat the breath pause, and if you do it sincerely and with attention, you will get very similar results.

By experimenting in this way, we can discover many amazing things. Here are just a few; there are many more. All come factory-loaded in the world-class performance package included with your precious human body!

  • in any moment, we can choose where to direct our attention
  • we have an attention selector. Neuroscientists call this “executive control.” It is like the channel selector on a TV, that can be used to direct our attention where we choose
  • inside us is a wealth of constantly changing and dynamic experience
  • sensations provide rich information about ourselves, including how we are reacting to our context
  • directing attention itself changes, and regulates, the condition of our entire nervous system
  • attention brings us into the present moment, making us immediately more aware, creative, and resourceful.

There is a lifetime of fascinating things about the workings of human consciousness to explore here. Please don’t take these claims on faith. Investigate for yourself. Verify, from your own experience, how these claims hold up.

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Complexity is a feature of our context. We are constantly being buffeted by events, many of which are unpredictable and therefore triggering. This requires different ways of leading than we are prepared us for.

We can learn to lead in complex and dangerous times with creativity, resourcefulness, spaciousness, and choice.

We can learn to lead in complex and dangerous times with creativity, resourcefulness, spaciousness, and choice.

Leaders are trained to observe the world, collect data, and base decisions on that data. It is crucial for leaders to recognize the dynamics of complexity in our context.

However, if we focus our attention exclusively on what’s happening in the world, we will gain important information. And, we will miss essential information about our internal condition, as we are reacting to this context.

Attention practices are essential. We must learn to sense, within our own aliveness, how our context is affecting us. This is revealed, with immediacy and clarity, in the rich tapestry of sensation-based information within us. It is revealed only in the present moment.

From this foundation of awareness, we can build the capacity to cultivate inner conditions of our choosing. We can learn to lead in complex and dangerous times with creativity, resourcefulness, spaciousness, and choice.

This is not futuristic. This is now. The exponentially increasing risks and complexity as we face a very uncertain future require this of all of us.

I invite your reflections and comments:

  • How, specifically, do you experience triggering inside yourself in the current context?
  • What do you sense is being asked of you now?
  • What are you doing to resource yourself in order to respond creatively to this context?

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?