Recently I have been encouraged to revisit the topic(s) of centering, grounding, mindfulness, and presence in a new article. In particular, I want to answer the following questions often posed to me:
· How do I actually do it?
· How do I get centered and become grounded, more mindful and present in life’s difficult moments?
· As Dan Harris puts it in his book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — how do I know when I’ve achieved it?
Today I offer a review and a few quotations from Dan’s book, which I received from a friend a few weeks ago and could not put down. I especially appreciated the fact that Dan began his practice of meditation “kicking and screaming.”
As a TV news anchor for ABC, he had opportunities to interview renowned teachers and gurus, including Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra and His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Dan’s humorously detailed skepticism was eventually replaced with wonder and a dedicated practice of his own, which led him to describe his changed way of being as 10% happier.
From 10% Happier:
“I … learned that you didn’t need to wear robes, chant Sanskrit phrases, or listen to Cat Stevens…. The instructions were reassuringly simple:
1. Sit comfortably… Just make sure your spine is reasonably straight….
2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath….
3. This one, according to all of the books I read, was the biggie. Whenever your attention wanders just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath…. The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath, over and over again.”
Dan’s prescription reinforced everything I’ve learned about meditation and try to do in my own practice and bears repeating. Simply:
· Sit quietly, comfortably.
· Feel the breath coming in and out of the body.
· When you notice the mind wandering, gently come back to the breath.
It takes courage, time and repetition to develop a new habit, as it does for any new endeavor, exercise, or change in routine. The book put it into language I could understand:
I didn’t like it per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique…. It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind…. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.
As an Aikido student, voice student, yoga student, I totally get that if you want to get better at something, you do your techniques, your scales, and your postures over and over again until they lead you to proficiency, effortlessness, and presence. And so I strongly connected with his reference to meditation as “a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind….” I may not achieve Nirvana. And, the practice is an end in itself.
Another helpful resource on centeredness is Doug Silsbee, PCC of Presence-Based Coaching.
Doug is a thought leader in the fields of Presence-Based Coaching®, leadership development and resilience. He is a speaker, leadership coach, trainer of coaches, and author based in Asheville, NC. Doug’s coaching and teaching work integrates somatics, mindfulness, developmental psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, and leadership theory.
One of the questions I’m most often asked is: How do you center yourself, especially in a difficult moment? I found Doug’s core body practice on centering thoughtful, practical, and easy to understand. As Doug suggests, you learn to center yourself in difficult moments by practicing an exercise like this one over and over again until it becomes your default under pressure. Centering is not automatic. A strong center is similar to any strong muscle. It is developed through practice.
Core Body Practice: Centering
We can learn centering by organizing ourselves in relation to the three dimensions possessed by all physical objects:
· Length. Check out your posture, and organize yourself in relation to gravity so that you are supported effortlessly. Place your feet slightly apart, knees unlocked, and pelvis rocked forward slightly to straighten the spine. Sense the bottoms of your feet, where the floor presses against them. Relax your shoulders, letting them drop. Hold your eyes open, letting your gaze be soft and your peripheral vision be available to you. Allow your jaw to relax. Imagine that the top of your head is connected to the heavens as if by a string. Drop your attention to your center of gravity, two inches below your navel.
· Width: Gently rock your weight from right to left. Find the neutral balanced place in the center of this dimension. Sense the equal weighting on each of your feet. And be aware of your width, of the space you take up. It can be helpful to sense what it is like to walk into a room and take up space, feeling an expansion in your chest that gives you more room.
· Depth: Align yourself from front to back. Again, a gentle rocking back and forth from heel to toe can help us find the balance point. We are accustomed to focusing out in front of us, but there is also space behind us. Bring awareness to this, sensing the room behind you. Imagine weight and mass behind you, as if you had a giant, massive tail extending out along the ground. Allow yourself to feel supported by this mass and to let your belly soften and open.
This is scalable. By this, I mean that you can take five minutes or more on each of the three components, or you can quickly and easily shift into the centered place. Centering is an internal state rather than a specific body position, and you will soon find that you can center yourself sitting, walking, or brushing your teeth. With practice, centering yourself will feel like a quick and effortless “coming home” and be almost an instantaneous shift in awareness.
For now, use your time to explore and sense into the experience of each of the three dimensions. Center yourself at least ten times a day. Initially do this standing up. Then practice in different circumstances, sitting down, in meetings, before conversations, and in preparation for stressful events. See how you experience yourself differently, and what happens in your relationships.
*The centering practice is adapted from Richard Strozzi-Heckler (The Leadership Dojo; Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd, 2007).
Building awareness of the uncentered state gives you choice in the moment.
I snapped at my husband: “We’re going to do it.” (Subtext: whether you want to or not.) He snapped back, escalating conversation into confrontation — a common occurrence in uncentered conflict.
I don’t snap that often, so I had to take a look at my reaction. To do that I centered myself.
As Tracie Shroyer put it: “Something about intentionally taking a deep breath slows everything down. It brings perspective, quietness and calmness to a crazy situation.”
· How do you get centered, become grounded, mindful and present in life’s difficult moments?
· How do you know when you’re centered?
· What makes you lose it?
· How can you catch yourself and re-center sooner?
What Makes You Lose It?
When emotions are high, it’s like being in a car that’s out of control.
A few years ago, I found myself in a skid on an icy bridge. I reacted, turning the wheel in one direction and then another. I forgot all I knew in that perilous moment about how to handle a car. High emotion can cause a similar kind of reactive state. As Daniel Goleman writes in Emotional Intelligence, something triggers our emotions and the brain’s limbic system starts driving us into perilous emotional territory:
At those moments, evidence suggests, a center in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda. The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering this reaction crucial moments before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had a chance to glimpse fully what is happening, let alone decide if it is a good idea.
Centering lets you regain control by engaging your thinking brain. As you center, you strengthen your ability to make a wise choice. The path between the primitive limbic brain and your rational thinking brain is reinforced. And the oftener you make this connection, the faster you train your brain to center during emotional turmoil. “Plasticity” is the term neurologists use to describe this ability of the brain to change.
Choice of attention — to pay attention to this and ignore that — is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, we are choosing, and our choices make a difference.
— Paraphrase of W.H. Auden
Additionally, centering allows us to listen to ourselves. Emotions give us important information. Uncentered and reactive, we lose access to that information. When we center, we have the ability to reflect on what just happened.
Wow! That was a pretty sharp response. Let me try that again.
Centering takes practice, a different kind of practice than we’re used to. Emotions are dramatic. We’re used to acting them out and feeling justified in doing so. The reason to center must be stronger than the drama.
What is your purpose for this relationship? What do you really want here?
Catch Yourself and Stop
You can’t center until you notice you’re not. Building awareness of the uncentered state gives you choice in the moment.
Catch yourself and stop. Stop talking. Stop thinking uncentered thoughts. Take a breath. Reflect. Be willing to change.
· Switch attention from external to internal. Bring mind and body together.
· Focus on your core, an internal point in the center of your body just below the navel. In Aikido, we call it One Point.
· Feel your feet on the floor or your back against the chair.
· Lengthen your spine and the back of your neck.
· Relax your face, jaw, shoulders.
Stop the judgment — it doesn’t help. Emotions happen. What you do with them is where you have choice. When you stop and center, you’re reinforcing the neural pathway to the thinking brain. Your emotions will still be there. The difference is you have access to them now. You’re in the driver’s seat.
Pause and Center
If you’re caught off guard, pause and center. Even in the middle of a sentence. Be quiet for a moment. Say: “Please let me try that again.” Or, as I did with my husband, “How about a do-over?”
It’s never too late to center and put yourself back in the driver’s seat.
Decide to center yourself 5 times today, whether you need to or not. And let me know what happens!
Process or Possession?
We are what we do repeatedly.
Will centering ever become automatic? asks the hopeful workshop participant.
Perhaps — if you have a strong enough purpose; if the neural pathways are reinforced often enough; if you’re as interested in making it the new go to place as you are currently interested in living the drama of the uncentered state.
Centering Is a Process
If you practice consistently, you know that center isn’t a lasting state of being. Centering is a process, not a possession. In a difficult conversation, for example, you’ll find yourself re-centering periodically, coming back to purpose, re-focusing on what you really want from the interaction.
This coming back to center gradually changes and improves the quality of life.
Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to be overcome.
I’ve written many times over the years about how to notice and come back from the uncentered state. Mostly, it just helps to be interested in this. If you are, you’ll practice. Are you happy with your life as it is? If you are, no worries. You’re already probably pretty centered most of the time.
On the other hand, if you’re often regretful about something you did, said, didn’t do or didn’t say, if you act out your emotions instead of talking them through, if your general state is anxious, stressed, or overly judgmental, that’s another reason you may decide you want to practice something that will change your life incrementally over time.
Enjoy the Process
It’s important to have fun with centering and mindfulness practices, and to know that you may not see a difference today or even tomorrow. Keep practicing, and look back in a year or two. You’ll see what’s changed.
In my workshops, I ring a centering bell periodically so participants can practice returning to center. So many people have asked me where to find the bell that I put an mp3 file of the sound on every page of my website. You can download the sound and listen to it anytime.
Take a moment now to listen and center.