To count or not to count…

Counting my breaths is a habit that has become ingrained by years of Ashtanga yoga.  Five breaths in this asana, twenty breaths in that asana, oh and a hundred breaths in Tolasana (that was always a challenge); I counted my practice away until it was over.

People, Woman, Yoga, Mat, Meditation, Physical, Fitness

And now my yoga has slowed down, but I still count the breaths – ten breaths, twenty breaths, thirty breaths.  I’m still counting!

There are definitely some benefits to counting.  It’s a good way to measure the time in an asana and regulate the practice.  It helps me to ensure I challenge myself sufficiently, without letting myself off the hook as soon as I start to feel any discomfort or impatience.  It helps me practice evenly in the poses I like and the poses I don’t. It does help to focus the mind. Focusing on a count is obviously better than focusing on tonight’s supper or the things I must not forget to do tomorrow!

And yet, the more I practice and count, the more I feel that counting is actually distracting me from being really aware of what is happening in my body.  I am focused on the counting in my head, instead of being fully present to the sensations of my legs, back, arms or even breath. I am slightly disassociated from my body when I count. I am focused on the end goal, rather than the moment, and sometimes my breath speeds up if I am particularly eager to reach that goal.

And yet, when I don’t count, it is a real challenge to judge how long to stay; staying long enough for the asana to be challenging, yet not so long that I lose my sense of ease and balance.  It’s a new skill to notice the beginnings of discomfort, acknowledge them and then decide to continue a little longer before choosing the right moment to complete the asana.

I often get into an internal narrative about how long I have been there, and whether it is long enough, and of course that is even more distracting than counting.  Some days I am impatient and can’t wait to move on, while other days I get so comfy in a pose I could stay there all day, so my practice is less even.  I don’t know whether that matters or not. Maybe I just need to acknowledge that every day is different.

Of course, there is always the kitchen timer option!  A timer can be useful for longer, restorative holds, as it does get rid of that internal narrative about how long I have been there.  With a timer, it is easier to let go of impatience and allow whatever is there to be.  But it also removes the challenge of listening to my body and making the right judgement.

And like so many things in yoga, there is a metaphor for life here too.  How many times do I set myself a target of work to do, and complete it no matter what (even when I am tired, thirsty or need the loo); I ignore the inconvenient messages from my body.  Whether it is completing my blog post before I go bed, tidying one room of the house every day, sorting out my email box before I go home or analysing that spreadsheet before I move onto another task, I set myself goals and focus on completing them, rather than truly listening to my mind and body, and using that to judge how much to do.  I would probably be healthier and more productive if I took that break when my body is sending me thirsty/tired signals, rather than soldiering on to reach the target I have set myself.

So, later today I need to tidy and sort out my younger son’s bedroom (with his help, I hasten to add).  Should I:

  • A) Work for half an hour and then stop, no matter where I have got to
  • B) Do half a bedroom and then stop, no matter how long it takes
  • C) Stop when the time feels right – when I have made some decent progress, but before I feel tired and irritable (even if that is not very long at all!)

Answers on a postcard please….

 

 

Intuition and Lazy Questions

Intuition is often touted as the best way to make a life changing decision. We need to tune in to our gut feelings, get in touch with our inner purpose and the direction to take will become clear. But is intuition always all it is cracked up to be?

Psychologists distinguish between two types of thinking, System One and System Two.   Daniel Kahneman, in his great book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”  describes them almost as two characters inhabiting the same person since they work quite independently of each other in different parts of the brain.

System One operates mainly beyond conscious awareness, scanning the environment, making connections between what is around us and our bank of stored memory.  It is on the look out for threats or stimuli that need a response.  System One comes up with quick intuitive judgements about all our every day decisions (and many of our larger decisions as well).  Once System One has decided on an opinion or course of action, it sends signals to the body through “gut feeling”, intuition, bodily sensations and emotions.  System One can sort through many memories and emotional connections in a very short space of time, which can lead to uncannily good intuitive decision-making in areas where we have expertise and experience to draw on.  We can, however, find ourselves following System One’s directions with very little conscious thought, sometimes entirely on autopilot.

System Two is our conscious, cognitive analysis.  If you are asked to calculate 34 x 16 you will need to use System Two to work it out.  You would also use System Two to work out which is the best type of stationary to order based on costs, quality, delivery times and features.  System Two would also be pretty good at helping you build a complex spreadsheet, based on the data analysis you will need to do.  System Two is pretty good at all this logical analysis but it does not do creative, intuitive leaps very well.

System Two is often lazy, and can be easily overloaded with complexity.  This leads to all sorts of cognitive bias as we then start to default to System One again.

When we ask System Two to perform a very complex analysis, such as what career would best suit me, what school I should choose for my children or what house I should buy, it sometimes gets overloaded and defers back to System One.  System One is not very good at logical analysis, but it is great at substituting an easier question for the difficult one.  If we ask System One what career would suit us, it might substitute the easier question of “What career do people like me tend to do?” and then start sifting through the memory banks for familiar careers that appear to be inhabited by similar people.

The Brexit referendum is a good example of a very complex question which most people probably answered using System One thinking.  We might have started out trying to use logic and reason to follow the complex arguments about the impact of Brexit on the economy, but since the arguments are so complex that even economists cannot agree, most of us probably defaulted to System One thinking and substituted the easier question of “How comfortable do I feel mixing with people from other European countries?”  Having come up with an answer in System One, we then looked for logical arguments to support this answer.

System, Network, News, Connection

Here are a couple of examples from my life to illustrate:

Yoga Teacher Training

I have been investigating yoga teacher training courses recently.  I’ve visited a variety of potential teachers in the last few months to explore my options and been to some interesting and varied classes. It’s a complex decision with many factors to weigh up – cost, time commitment, quality of training, success rate of graduates, likeability of tutors, curriculum, and the thorny question of which profession body to align with.

In the end, my System Two gave up and referred back to System One, which substituted the far easier question of “How did I feel when I was in each teacher’s class?”  Well, that made the answer obvious, and so the decision is made!  Of course, System Two is now justifying it with all sorts of rational arguments for why the chosen course is actually the best course for me – the residential weekends, the style of yoga, the experience of the teachers – even though none of these features had particularly jumped out at me when I simply looked at information on the website

How to Evaluate the Performance of Our Service

And here is a work-related issue for contrast.  We are currently grappling with the complex question of how we evaluate the performance of our teams in work.  There are many factors to consider.  What data and evidence should we use? How much resource should we invest?  What framework should we use? Who really needs to know the answer and what will they do with the information?  How will this drive improvement?

The questions are complex and the answers are not obvious.  System Two should be working hard to solve this!  However, since it is so complex, it is very tempting to let System One take over.  Now, System One will never be able to solve these problems, but it can substitute an easier question, which is “How much do I enjoy doing this sort of analysis?” Since the answer is that it is not really my favourite task, System One will send this message back, and System Two will pick it up and start to create a rational answer for the harder question based on my intuitive response. I am likely to argue the case, in all good faith, for putting less of my resource into this task, and genuinely believe my own rational arguments.

Being more aware of cognitive bias and the workings of System One and System Two can help us to recognise the times where System One thinking may not be doing a great job and we need to activate our System Two thinking, even though the analysis is tough.  It can also help us to recognise when System Two has reached it’s limits, perhaps because the problem is just too complex to analyse logically, and we need to let System One and our creativity and  intuition have a go.

The Downside of Following Your Gut

We are often told to follow our gut these days.  It’s not bad advice either!

I think some of the best decisions I have made were based on a strong intuitive sense that something was right for me.  After a lot of mulling over options and chronic indecision, my husband and I made up our minds to move to Wales quite suddenly, after spending a lovely afternoon in a garden in Wales.  We just had a flash of inspiration, and made the move within a few months.  An opportunity came up for a secondment at work, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do; I didn’t need to analyse it.  I started writing again after a break of several years, after an insight that came to me while meditating; I stood up and knew that I needed to be doing something creative, and I started writing the next day.  All three of these decisions were absolutely right for me.

Gut feeling is the limbic brain’s signal to us, based on it’s subconscious analysis of the options open to us.  And true, listening to our own intuition can often help us to tune into what we really want, and develop a clearer sense of the right choice for us at this particular time.  Intuition has been shown to be just as effective a way to make a complex decision as rational analysis.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought

However, psychologists have found a few cognitive biases that we are all prone to and we need to watch out for, especially when we are relying on intuitive decision making. The neural pathways in our brains develop in such a way that these biases are inevitable, as the more well used a pathway is, the easier it is for our brain to continue to use the same pathway. Simply being aware of these biases might help you to spot them in your own thinking patterns, and avoid falling into these common traps.

  1. The Familiar

We tend to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar.  We favour jobs that are quite similar to other jobs we have had.  We are more likely to take a job in place we know or take on a course with a college we have studied at previously.  If we are struggling with a problem at work, we will tend to favour the tried and tested solution rather than looking for a new way to solve it.  Sometimes, we just favour the status quo over making a change.  I know that I will certainly stay in a job unless I am pretty sure that the new job is considerably better than the old.  So, if you are struggling to make a decision, and one option is very familiar, while the other is less so, perhaps you should choose the unfamiliar option; your brain is has probably already overrated the familiar option and underrated the unfamiliar option when weighing them up.

2. The Default

We are also more likely to follow the “default” option.  If it is assumed that every employee will take out an occupational pension, unless they fill in a long form to say they do not want to, then the take-up will tend to be high.  If employees are assumed not to want a pension unless they fill in the form, then take-up will be lower.  If you find yourself clicking the button for the default option on your computer, or accepting the status quo rather than returning a form, just ask yourself – does the person or organisation who set up this default have your best interests at heart?  Do they know better than you do what the right option for you is?  (Sometimes, especially with computer programmes, the default genuinely is the best option for the average user; sometimes, however, the default option has been set up to suit someone who wants to sell us something or manipulate us).

3. The Crowd

If we do not have a strong opinion about something, we are very likely to simply follow the crowd.  This is not always a bad thing; after all, there are likely to be people in the crowd who know more about the options that you do, especially if you are pretty clueless.  But if you find yourself mindlessly following the crowd, do check in with yourself.  Is it likely that most of the crowd are able to make a better decision that you are in this situation, and that your needs are similar to most other people in the crowd?  If not, don’t follow them!

4.  The Plan

Simply asking people whether they intend to do something actually increases the likelihood that they will do it and getting them to think through how they will do it increase the chances of them doing it even more.  If you write down a plan for how you will find out about a course that you want to do, work out the route to the open day, think about what you will wear and what you will do when they get there, you are much more likely to follow through on your plan.  If you already have a plan to do something, make sure you are not over-committed.  Is this plan still the best option for you?

5. Confirmation

Once we think we know something, we look for information to confirm our beliefs and we discount other information.  If you already think you are no good at Maths, you will look for further evidence to corroborate this belief (maybe the test that went badly, or what a teacher said to you three years ago) rather than focusing on the evidence that might contradict your belief (the teacher that told you could pass with a little bit more work).  This is why people tend not to change their political or religious beliefs very often.  We often need to really work at being open to information that contradicts our beliefs.

6. Overconfidence

We usually tend towards optimism and overestimate our abilities and chances of success (unless we are prone to depression, in which case we tend to have a more accurate view).  Most of us find it hard to accurately assess our own potential and how likely we are to succeed.  Optimism can be very valuable in building resilience and the persistence to keep trying in the face of initial failure, but it doesn’t always lead to accurate predictions about the future.  When we are overconfident we may fail to take sensible preventative steps or develop contingency plans.  It’s great to be optimistic, persistent and resilient, but there is no harm in having a back up plan!

7. Loss

We hate loss.  And this tends to create inertia.  Psychologists have found that we are roughly twice as unhappy about losing something as we would be happy about gaining it.  Once we have something, we value it more than we would have done if we didn’t have it.  This is why free trials work so well; once we have that premium subscription to a service, we value it more and don’t want to cancel our subscription.  So, once you have been offered a job or a college place, you value it more than you did before the interview.  That is why it can be so hard to say no to a job offer.

8.  Short-Term

We are also very prone to valuing short-term gains over longer-term benefits (even more so if we are teenagers).  The short-term gain of earning some money to spend now often outweighs the longer term gain of studying for qualifications which may help us earn more money in the distant future.  Most of us could do with a little help to remind us to prioritise our longer-term goals – pensions, fitness, career development, savings, qualifications and so on.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try:

  • Thaler & Sunstein – Nudge
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

 

A Chakra Based Approach to Career Development

Chakras are some kind of mystical sources of energy beloved by tree-hugging hippies, right? Until quite recently this was pretty much what I thought. I had chakras filed away along with various other bits of yoga philosophy that seem a bit supernatural or hard to believe, as “interesting but probably not real”. After all, doctors have never actually located these chakras in the body.

I know from experience that different yoga sequences produce different energetic responses in the body, ranging from calm and grounding to light and euphoric, but I hadn’t really made the link with the theory of chakras.

However, I have recently been doing some research, (particularly Anodea Judith’s book,  Eastern Body Western Mind)  and it turns out there is more to the chakras than you might think. The chakras are thought to be the energy centres of the body, each with a specific function and associated with a particular part of the body. Each chakra is also associated with life stages, needs and developmental  tasks, which is where the link to career development comes in. Each chakra is associated with both a stage in childhood, and an adult developmental task.

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The structure of the chakras and the developmental tasks they are associated with is very similar to some Western psychological models, including   Maslow’s Hierarchy of  Needs,Erikson’s Stages of Pyschosocial Development and Super’s Developmental Stages.

The first chakra, located at the base of the spine is associated with grounding and survival.  It is associated with the baby’s task of feeding and surviving, and also with the early adult task of learning to survive independently and make a living. People with insufficient development of this chakra may struggle to make enough money to cover their needs, even when they have the skills and qualifications to do so, perhaps because they sabotage their own attempts to make a living, refuse to conform to social expectations or lack self-discipline. They may feel unstable and fearful, and at some level be unsure if they have the right to exist. This chakra is similar to the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in that until basic physiological and survival issues are addressed, issues related to the higher level chakras will go unaddressed.

The second chakra is associated with lower abdomen and also with sexuality and pleasure seeking.  It is linked to the childhood tasks of getting needs met and the early adult tasks of forming sexual relationships. Over-development is associated with hedonistic choices, which might lead to ill-advised workplace affairs or putting pleasure ahead of work!

The third chakra is linked to the solar plexus, and is associated with action in the world, purpose and self-esteem. This chakra is most obviously associated with work, since it relates to our most purposeful activities. It is similar to the fourth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, self-esteem, since we often find self-esteem through purposeful activity. When it is over-developed, people can end up becoming workaholics, being power hungry, competitive, manipulative or arrogant. When it is not well developed, people can be too passive and struggle to take action at work. They may suffer from low-self esteem and feel they are a victim of circumstances. Where this chakra is balanced, people feel they can take on challenges confidently and have balanced ego strength. This chakra is also associated with the childhood task of developing autonomy and the adult task of establishing a purposeful career.

The fourth chakra is associated with the heart centre, and our relationships to others. When it is balanced people expereince self-compassion and compassion for others. It is associated with the childhood task of forming friendships outside the family, and the adult tasks of forming lasting relationships and family. Career related issues may arise as people try to balance family and work roles. Where this chakra is insufficiently developed, people may struggle to form relationships, and experience relationship difficulties at work, since they may lack empathy and compassion. This chakra is the bridge between the upper and lower chakras; some people never cross this bridge, but remain preoccupied with issues at the lower chakras.

The fifth chakra relates to creativity and communication, and is associated with the throat. If it is deficient, people may find it difficult to speak up and get heard. They may not feel they have the right to speak, or they may struggle to produce creative ideas. They may find it hard to network or promote their ideas. Job interviews and public speaking may be a struggle. This chakra also relates the childhood task of learning to create things, and the adult task of self-expression and creation, and to Maslow’s need for self-actualisation. It is balanced when adults are able to contribute to society though building a business, building a house, creating arts and crafts, starting a community group, gardening or writing, for example.

The sixth Chakra is located at the “third eye”, and is associated with vision, intuition and perception. When it is balanced people can use visualisation as a tool, and get in touch with their intuition to make sound decisions. They are good at recognising patterns. They may be able to remember their dreams well and think symbolically. They may also be able to relate to archetypes, such as the hero, the mother, the teacher, the artist or the father. These archetypes can be inspirational, but can also be limiting if people associate themselves too closely with one archetype.  This chakra is associated with the adolescent task of establishing a personal identity, and growing self-awareness, and the adult task of searching for meaning, which can intensify as children leave home and careers plateau (Super’s maintenance stage).

Finally, the seventh chakra is located at the crown of the head, and is associated with wisdom and spiritual understanding. It can be associated with sharing knowledge with others, particularly late on in a career, as a mentor or advisor, and disengaging from the competitive rat race, through retirement. This is rather like Super’s disengagement stage, but it is more positive in that it emphasises spiritual growth.

So, what would be the advantage of using the chakras rather than a Western model of developmental stages?

  • Some people might relate better to the chakras, particularly if they already have an interest in Eastern philosophy
  • The chakras can provide a way of organising the career story, identifying themes and making connections,  that might make more sense for some people
  • The later chakras have more association with positive growth where the Western models emphasise decline in later life
  • Working with chakras can suggest a range of potential solutions, including working with the body, energy levels, posture, breath, creative expression,  intuition, meditation, dreams, affirmations, symbols, stories, myths and legends, as well as more traditional approaches to career development
  • Some of these solutions have the potential to bring about deep change, particularly if practiced over time, which will support the ability to manage multiple career transitions and issues rather than just provide  quick fix for the problem at hand.

Present Moment Wonderful Moment

“Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in this present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.”

This is a really simple but brilliant mindfulness exercise given by Thich Naht Hanh in his book Peace Is Every Step.

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Whenever you feel regretful or sad about things in the past, and mistakes made, or when you find yourself worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, you can use this exercise to let go of your anxiety and rumination and ground yourself in the present moment. You can repeat the exercise a few times, connecting each line with your breath, in and out.

You can do this at your desk, sitting in a traffic jam, in a meeting or standing in a queue. It’s a great way to connect to your breath at any time of day.

Of course, you might be wondering what is so wonderful about the present moment! Good question! It’s worth taking a minute to think about it. What can we say?

Well, for starters, you are alive, and that already makes this present moment better than most of the present moments there have ever been. Sometimes, that is enough.

Chances are, unless you are in a war zone or trying to cross a busy road, you are physically safe and that is a bonus. You are may even be experiencing comfort, a lack of pain, lack of hunger and thirst if you are lucky.

Most of the time, if you look about, there is something you can take pleasure in – a pretty flower, a handsome tree, a friendly work colleague, your home comforts, children playing or people helping each other.

But best of all, in this present moment, none of the mistakes and losses of the past are real any more. None of the possible things that could go wrong in the future are real. The only thing that is real is what you can see, hear and feel right now, and most of the time, what you have right now in the present moment is pretty good.

 

The Tyranny of Must and Should

“I must decorate the house.” “I should loose some weight.” “I really must tidy up the garden.” “I should get a promotion or a new job.” “I should make sure my kids have a home cooked meal at the table every night, using cutlery and table manners.” “I should keep busy.” Whose thoughts are these? They are in my head, but I’m not sure they are really mine.

The clues are in the “musts” and “shoulds.”  Pretty much any time we notice ourselves or someone else using these words, there is another voice present. And surprise, surprise, it’s often a parent, although it could be a teacher, friend, boss or partner.

When we are children, our parents are there to watch over us every minute, to keep us safe, teach us to behave well and be sociable.  As we get older, teachers and other adults also take on part of this role. By the time we are old enough to act independently and look after ourselves without constant supervision, we have internalised the voices of our parents and teachers.  Even though they are not physically there to watch over us, their voices are inside us, keeping us safe, well-behaved and sociable.

A child starts to walk to school on their own and their parent’s voice inside their head reminds them to look carefully before they cross the road.  Teenagers are starting to think for themselves, and reject some of this parental guidance, but nevertheless, the internal parental voice will guide them some of the time, though probably not as often as the parents would like.

Parental voices become our conscience and our guide. Our values and moral compass are developed out of these voices, and our inner health and safety monitor is too. Most of the time, this is a good thing. It keeps us safe. It helps us uphold good values. It helps us fit into society and hold down jobs. Most of the people who created our internal dialogue meant well! We should be grateful to them.

But sometimes these voices create a prison of “musts” that don’t serve us so well. “I must tidy the house,” is ok if it stops the house from becoming an unsanitary tip, but not so good if it means I can never relax in my own house. “I must get a promotion” could help me to work hard and achieve my potential, which could be satisfying, but it could also prevent me from seeing what will really bring me satisfaction at work and take me into a role that doesn’t meet my creative needs. “I must keep busy” makes me very productive, but sometimes stops me from enjoying the present moment or taking time to reflect.

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So, maybe it is time to notice all those “musts” and “shoulds” in our internal dialogue, and ask how well they are serving us. It is time to notice who exactly is telling us what to do and how to behave and whether we still like their advice. We need a little quiet time with ourselves to find our true selves and intentions. We need to find values and goals that reflect our authentic selves.

i genuinely would like my kids to have a healthy meal as a family most nights, but no harm will come to us if we eat pizza with our fingers in front of the telly once a week. In fact, it is fun and brings us closer. I do like stretch, creativity and challenge at work, but a promotion isn’t necessarily my best path to a satisfying role. I like to potter about in the garden, and it doesn’t matter if it is a bit untidy; in fact it might even encourage the wildlife. As long as the house isn’t a health hazard, it is fine. And being healthy is more important to me than being thin.

Helpful Buddhas Meditation

This mediatation is brilliant for the end of a frustrating day, and it can actually be quite entertaining as well, and reminds me of the lighter side of life. I first came across it in Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path with Heart”.

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Sit quietly and tune into your breathing. Imagine that the earth is filled with Buddhas (or whatever wise guides you prefer), and every person you have met today is one of these enlightened beings, there just to teach you a lesson. Each person exists entirely for your benefit and is acting to help you learn something new.

Your task in this meditation is to discern the lessons that have been offered to you today.

So, if you have just been to a job interview, and found they had a favoured internal candidate all along, perhaps there is some thing to learn about non-attachment or compassion.

If your boss has been piling the work on, the lesson could be around finding your wellspring of calm in the face of it all, or developing your assertiveness skills.

If you have been stuck in a heavy traffic jam on the way home, maybe all those drivers were there to teach you to accept your boredom and turn it to mindful acceptance.

A bullying colleague could be there to teach you to to find the inner strength to believe in yourself, ask for help or change your situation.

The more you use your imagination, the more you can see the ways all these wise beings are helping you. What I love about this meditation is that it can make difficult situations feel lighter and de-toxify difficult relationships.

If you have never meditated before, see my post onReally Simple Meditation to help you get started.