“It is on no map. No true place ever is.” – Melville
Trying to describe the nature of the mind is a little bit like giving directions to a place that is on no map. How do I tell you how to get there? It might be easier to come along with me and see for yourself. If you pay attention along the way, you’ll learn how to get there on your own.
This is the last in my 4-part series on Life Coaching Basics. I started out with my best description of what a life coach does, with a reminder that there are some things you just have to experience first (and getting coached is one of those things). Then I presented Martha Beck’s beautiful model of The Change Cycle. It’s a great starting point for making sense of things when everything is changing and you’re wondering what to do. Next I dove deeper into the subject of how our essential self speaks to us, and how our bodies convey important signals to listen to.
The final part I’ll cover in this series is perhaps the most important, and also the most challenging to grasp at first. Since we are using the mind to consider the mind, it’s a little…well, mind-bending! I like to call this “Yoga of the Mind”, because it’s really about building flexibility, balance, and strength (yes, all three!) in your THINKING, in the same way that most people think of yoga doing this for your BODY.
Turning Your World Upside Down
Lately I’ve been trying to stand on my head for at least a few minutes each day. Not only does it help align my spine and bring energy to my body through the brief reversal of blood flow, but it helps me literally see the world from a different perspective. Up is down. Down is up. It’s not just making fancy shapes with your body, it’s literally yoga for your mind.
In order to change your experience of the things that happen in your life, your awareness needs to change. That means, not only your thinking, but becoming aware of what you are thinking.
Becoming the watcher of your thoughts requires asking the question, “What am I using my mind for?”
Most of our thoughts are repetitive patterns that have entered into our mind and have taken hold in a certain way, rigid and unable to bend. When something comes along that tweaks these rigid and unbending thoughts, it hurts! It feels uncomfortable…maybe like reaching down to touch your toes if you’ve got a stiff back. Depending on your learned responses to dealing with uncomfortable situations, you may resist. Or you may say “you can’t” do it. Feeling angry for being left out, you may blame the situation. Or you make up excuses so you won’t have to try. Or maybe you’ll conceal your discomfort and pretend you don’t feel it, while forcing yourself to reach for your toes anyway. You may end up with a torn hamstring.
But imagine if you were flexible in your thinking. If your thoughts weren’t so rigidly anchored in place, but had just enough strength to support you (this is important!) and just enough flexibility to move when they were placed under stress.
In other words, what if you could constantly create the right balance within you to adapt to change?
We’re a culture of extremes, and we’re under the influence of so many messages trying to convince us that if we look hard enough, or work hard enough, or have enough security, there will be an “answer” to our latest problem. Or if we just hang on tightly enough to the right identity that we won’t have to worry anymore. We are constantly in search of an “end game”.
Mastering your mind means loosening your mind’s grip on any particular thoughts, starting with the ones that are governing the painful actions and feelings in your life. Want an example of a painful thought? Start with any statement containing the words “have to” or “can’t”. These words contain an all-pervasive, self-defeating quality that usually points to some rigidity that could be balanced with more flexibility. Question the thought.
What? Question my thoughts?
Yes, this is the mind-bending part. It means you must become the observer of your own thoughts. This is where a coach can be extremely helpful when you’re beginning this process. It helps to have someone ask you questions and then hear yourself speak the answers out loud. Then feel how those thoughts land in your body.
Ask yourself, “Is it really, absolutely true?” If you can think of even one example of how the thought isn’t true, then the answer to this question is NO. You’ll find that many of the thoughts that govern our actions actually are not absolutely true. Yet we’ve given them absolute power over one or more areas in our lives.
It can also help to watch another person go through it. Byron Katie’s The Work is a very powerful and simple model of four questions to examine any painful thought. It took me several passes before I could accept or even understand what was going on. I finally was able to drop my skepticism when I had to answer the four questions myself out loud, in front of other people. The Work is a central component of Martha Beck’s life coaching model also, and when I listened to my own answers, and how rigidly I defended them, I knew that the discomfort was a sign that I was stretching new parts of my mind!
The subtlety of this process is that it can’t be a purely mental game. You need to feel how your thoughts connect to your body and your essential self. Like yoga, it must involve BOTH mind AND body in order to have a balancing effect. Otherwise you’ll have simply taken one set of rigid thoughts and replaced them with another set of equally rigid thoughts. You can become totally immersed in and devoted to taking yoga classes, purely motivated by the desire to get your body into certain shapes. Without examining your intentions, you can use “mind over matter” and your sense of competition to force and strain your body to bend into certain shapes. You can get injured, and then question the practice of yoga itself. Instead, question your approach to the practice of yoga, and connect your thinking with your actions in your body.
Yes, it is a gradual process. Like in Square Three of the Change Cycle, the true steps are small but consistent.
But once it becomes a way of life, and a way of adapting to the place of not knowing (which is really where we all reside, all of the time), it can become a gateway to true freedom and joy, not just in your mind, but in the wholeness of your soul.
Photo credits (used through a Creative Commons license):
Toes in headstand: Andy Polaine – http://www.flickr.com/people/apolaine/
Grand Canyon headstand: lululemon athletica – http://www.flickr.com/people/lululemonathletica/
Jumping off a cliff: Abhinay Omkar – http://www.flickr.com/people/abhiomkar/