This article deals with a number of core mental qualities which underpin our ability to keep ourselves on track, moment-by-moment, in the midst of profound stress and change. These qualities also underpin our ability to question and “challenge” thoughts and feelings that drive behaviours which we wish to change.
As an example, we may wish to show up with the courage to negotiate incoming requests, sometimes, perhaps, saying “no” when we may feel that saying “yes” isn’t the right thing to do in the circumstances. This may apply to people who like to “please” others.
In this example, the core value that we may wish / need to bring to the situation might be the value of “courage”. The challenge is, that it is easy to get caught up in our old patterns of thinking, feeling and doing. The subconscious mind will “assume” that such patterns have kept us alive. The subconscious, highly risk averse mind says that it is “unsafe” to change the pattern just in case it is genuinely dangerous to our survival. In this way, coping behaviours “designed” at earlier times in our lives to keep us “emotionally safe” are re-kindled… again and again, often blocking behaviours needed for both well-being and success.
Such well-being and success require that we are able to see things clearly in the moment when we need to bring forth the most skilful and appropriate response (the Moment of Choice (“MoC”)), remembering that we are, in fact, safe to challenge the self-limiting beliefs that create self-limiting behaviours, so we can be liberated to show up in ways that serve our true goals and aspirations for ourselves.
The Trouble With Minds
Our evolution has painted a beautiful design that creates within us immediate impulses to resist / move away from sensations that we consider unpleasant and grasp / move towards those regarded as pleasant. The problem is that, in the main, our assessment of “pleasant” and “unpleasant” are simply learned responses encoded within our narrative. Whatever our learning we are, of course, likely to move away from genuine physical pain or something which is genuinely likely to cause us such pain. That response is biological and useful. What is less obvious however is why we react similarly, and uniquely, to other phenomena as though they were genuine pain or the threat of genuine pain. Such reactions and the impulses which drive them are often less useful.
Think of a situation that has made you angry or anxious. Perhaps you see an email from someone who has, in your perception, hurt you or whom you have had a conflict with. Or maybe someone says something to you that causes you to be angry. What happens? For many people the autopilot takes over and we immediately react. The reactions themselves are different person by person. It the reactions are likely to be unskillful and require “damage control” later. It what is really going on? What are we really reacting to? How often is it that the original reaction was unjustified? Based on a misunderstanding or a habitual way of perceiving the stimulus? We often see what our subconscious mind presents to us rather than what is really present.
In “higher resolution,” what happens is as follows.
- A “stimulus” arises in our environment (e.g. someone says or writes something to us),
- We subconsciously appraise the stimulus and triage it for “salience” (asking the question, “is this something I need to pay attention to..?). We do this by comparing the stimulus to a “database” of events in our past which look like or associate with anything which caused us feelings of significant discomfort in the past. We often cannot consciously remember what the original event was, but we are certainly able to feel the emotional charge resulting from the hidden (implicit) and reconstructed memory. Paul Ekman calls this process “automatic appraisal” and it occurs beneath our awareness, very quickly (Ekman 2007).
- If emotional “salience” is detected (from memories of past experience of strong emotions), an emotion will likely be triggered.
- Once this program is triggered a variety of physical and psychological sensations are experiences (thoughts and feelings) which will drive certain behaviors. The feelings are often unpleasant and our immediate motivation is to get rid of them.
- We will then take actions that we believe will remove the unpleasant sensations and their cause. This is known as a “coping strategy” and is, often, misguided, causing behaviour that takes us “off track”.
Work by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz (Rock and Schwartz 2006) has shown that the neuroendocrinology of so-called “social threat” (defined as threats to our sense of such things as status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) is virtually identical to genuine physical threat. These often show up as emotional and physical manifestations of fear and anger that tend, while running, to lead to less than optimal choices of action. But whereas reaction to genuine threat is identical among individuals and cultures (and elicits universal emotional responses), what is perceived as a “social threat” is very different person by person, and has significant cultural determinants. In other words our response to such social threat is encoded by our unique, context-by-context learning.
Once we have an embodied, not just cognitive, understanding of this we are able to recover our free will and make genuine choices about what were hitherto habitual impulsive choices of reaction driven by our biological reaction to perceived threat (sensations and thoughts associated with fear or anger being the main ones).
The goal is to improve self-awareness to such a degree that we are able to first discern and then simply, and for a few moments, observe our reactions to phenomena arising. Simply sit with it and know that the sensations and thoughts are driven by protective mechanisms and assumptions about the world which have been encoded long before you can remember. This is what Robert Kegan calls the “psychological immune system” (Kegan and Lahey 2009).
So in this series, let’s have a look at some trainable, core, mental qualities which, once trained or strengthened, provide a necessary foundation for our ability to be at our best even when conditions are “adverse”.
Cultivating presence is foundational to staying on track with what we really care about rather than being distracted by thoughts, emotion or physical distraction. It is arguably the most important of all mental qualities and the starting point for all behavioural change. For this purpose we will define “presence” as “the ability to maintain awareness of what is happening, right here, right now, as a “witness” or “observer” of our experience in the moment”. Some writers might refer to this quality as “awareness”.
Maintaining “presence” or “awareness” is easier said than done for most of us. We tend to get caught up in the flow of our experience rather than being able to be aware of it as it arises, as if observing from a slight distance.
Because of the importance of this quality, we will spend some time looking at it and what may undermine it. We also suggest one simple practice which can help us to cultivate presence.
The Importance and Power of Presence
Let’s assume that whatever results we may be looking for in our lives, in order to get those results we generally need to do something (or, at least, consciously choose to do nothing). Given this “truth”, what is it that is informing action or non-action? Its choices. Decisions that we take moment-by-moment. But what is informing these choices? Well, one perspective is that it’s “information” which being processed by our mind related to surrounding context. Taking a higher resolution snapshot we could say that the information gets processed, creating predictions and then intentions, which lead directly to the choice (and therefore to the action).
So this is where it gets interesting. What is the information we are using as an input to the processes that create our thoughts and choices? What are we “present” with as we make choices that lead to actions which in turn create positive or negative results for us? Are we always “present with”, or attending to, the information leads to a “skillful” choice given what we really want to achieve? Or are we, in that moment, attending to, or present with, our habitual patterns of thinking. Such patterns may be: likes and dislikes, emotions and thoughts arising or other phenomena that can create noise, masking, in the moment, our true goals. Do we even know what we are “attending to” in that Moment-of Choice?
We all have goals. There may be outcomes we are looking to achieve or simply ways that we wish to “be-in-the-world”. Maybe, at times, we can hold these goals and intentions in our conscious mind. There are other times, however, when we may have lost presence with these goals and, instead, are acting in accordance with one of our “subconscious, hidden, goals” (Kegan and Lahey 2009). For example, it may be that our desire to win an argument has temporarily overcome our aspiration to show up with empathy and kindness in a particular context. When this happens we can say that we have lost “presence” with our true goals in a moment-of-choice (“MoC”) and, instead, been present with other, possibly less useful, particularly to our longer term goals, information coming up from the deeper recesses of our egoic mind.
Particularly in the modern “always on” world of information overload, distractions abound. The trouble is that given our biology we are, to a degree, genetically wired to notice them. If we didn’t we would have died out as a species at a time when the world was much more hostile than it actually is today! The frequency of external distraction in today’s world, however, together with the biological reality that the brain can only attend to one conscious process at one moment in time, threatens to seriously undermine our ability to be mentally effective. Add to this all the distractions which arise from our mind (which doesn’t give up ruminating about the past, planning the future, strengthening “identification” and contemplating how we may be being seen) and we are heading for serious problems unless we can remain present.
Presence is simply the ability to be able to pay attention skillfully to what is happening in the present moment. In particular, it is knowing what our mind (and emotions) are doing so we can direct them towards thoughts which are likely to support our true goals, rather than the short term directives of our “autopilot”. Unless we cultivate presence we will be continuously hijacked by either external phenomena (like emails, texts or other distractions coming in when we are in a conversation with someone or attending to an important task) or thoughts about the future or the past (known as the “default state”).
Thankfully, we now know that the faculty of presence can be trained or strengthened through intentional practice and, when cultivated or strengthened, we have the foundations of a mind that can serve our goals and aspirations. In other words, to quote Kegan, “we have a mind”, rather than the mind “having us”.
An Initial Practice for Presence
From what we have mentioned above it might be evident that a first step is to understand the patterns of our own minds that may lead to our “going off track”. The practice below, which could be done several times each day (hourly is a good start) has a number of objectives.
- Understand the patterns of our “default”, wandering, mind
- Redirecting thoughts and actions towards what is actually most useful in the moment, and
- “Wiring in” the commitment to keep attention on track, making distraction less likely.
Set an hourly timer on one of your “Weapons of Mass Distraction”. When the timer goes off, ask yourself the following:
- What was I doing in the moment preceding the timer going off?
- What was I thinking about?
- What was my immediate intent behind these actions or thoughts?
- How do these relate to any “conscious” goal I actually have?
- How do these work against my actual intentions and goals, short and long term?
- What was my emotional state?
- What have I learned from this?
Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life, Macmillan.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life, Hachette UK.
Kegan, R. and L. L. Lahey (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization, Harvard Business Press.
Rock, D. and J. Schwartz (2006). “The neuroscience of leadership.”