Annabel, let’s call her that, was at her wit’s end. She’d requested an ’emergency’ conversation with me after a week of greater than usual turmoil. Like most high achievers in modern corporate Africa, she was spending more and more hours at her desk and less and less with her kids. She wasn’t meeting the idealized obligations she’d set out for herself as a mother, nor the overly ambitious targets she had set for herself, and her team. To top it all she was anxious, exhausted, and on the verge of giving up.
In the conversation that followed which was peppered with tears and bouts of frustrated silence, she talked and lamented until her emotions reached a boiling point. Without warning, Annabel suddenly launched herself from the wooden bench on which we’d perched ourselves in our ‘outside botanical’ coaching space, punched the air and stomped her feet in frustration and yelled. ‘Where do I go with all this bloody anxiety? Where do I go with all this frustration and exhaustion? Where do I go when I find myself so overwhelmed that I can’t even cope with tomorrow, let alone the rest of the year?”
She raised some very valid questions.
Creating inner order in a chaotic world – a new paradigm of awareness
I could relate to everything she said. My own high achieving, leadership journey saw me doing pretty much everything Annabel was doing. I was more like a machine than a human being – obsessed with doing more, getting results and presenting the ‘right’ image to the world. It took near on physical collapse, through extreme burnout (which took me almost 2 years to recover ) before I agreed to let go of the idea of pushing harder to get results and look at what was going on inside.
It was a powerful journey of discovery which took me into years of research and explorations into neuroscience, somatic self-awareness, emotional resilience, functional medicine, language, communication embodied learning, philosophy, mindfulness, meditation, and the inner wisdom traditions. On the way, a whole new world opened, not only in terms of how to improve my leadership but also how to live a more meaningful, healthy and happy life. Developing a sense of inner order and a place to go when I’m stuck or overwhelmed has given me the capacity to be more mentally agile and emotionally resilient, which is why I’m inspired to share my insights with others today.
Our western cultural model has us believe that the world happens to us and we have little choice in how we behave
We are taught to believe that our mental activities, our emotions, and bodily sensations are the way things really are. Our fixations and habits are not seen as habits we have acquired but as the way, things really are, particularly when we are overwhelmed and stuck. this leads us to believe that there is something wrong with us: That we are broken and need fixing. With this way of looking at things, we can easily become trapped in our ‘stories’: Stories about ourselves, the world and the people in it. This leaves us feeling internally conflicted, chaotic and a victim of circumstance.
There is a path we can walk to become our best selves
We are not broken, and we don’t need fixing. Washing machines and cars break, human beings heal and evolve. Sometimes we need that big fat ‘klup’ – South African slang for a wakeup call – to get us there. After all, this is the only way we humans learn and grow.
There is a path we can walk to become our best selves by creating, what I think of, as a sense of ‘inner order.’ What do I mean by this? We can pro-actively shape our emotions, thoughts and physical reactions by stepping away from the story. With awareness and choice, and by mastering a set of boundaries or distinctions, (think internal GPS here), we can find somewhere else to go when we’re losing the plot.
With a different paradigm, we can begin to practice developing a more graceful and elegant way of showing up by deliberately crafting a radically different future to the one we create by staying stuck in our stories and repetitive experience. Although the mainstream model for most change efforts involves grafting new skills, tools, and strategies onto our existing dysfunctional frameworks – it isn’t enough for the world we live in today. We first need to unlearn before we can learn anew, and then commit to re-learning a new set of dynamics which are emotional, mental, physical and spiritual in nature. This is the essence of mental agility and emotional resilience.
Internal states produce external actions that impact relationships and create results.
What type of results are you getting?
Everything we do or get done in an organization is done through people. Think about it for a moment. The last strategy you created, the last product you launched, the last piece of technology you developed was all created or delivered through interactions with others – through verbal and technological conversations, and through relationships. The productive working space we share with others is a co-ordinated space of connection, communication, and resonance which arises between people. We often glibly refer to it as a culture. The effectiveness of this collective space determines the results we get.
The space we occupy is a collective space of emotions, language, and physiology
This quote by Maya Angelou is an old favourite of mine: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Think of the last interaction you had with someone – what do you remember? The chances are that you’ll recall your experience of the situation – positive or negative (we normally remember the negative). Your experience coupled with their experience will trigger a combined reaction that determined a very specific type of future -for you, them, and the organization. Did the experience generate a future of excitement and possibilities or one of cynicism and resentment? The perceptions held by each party in the way the interaction took place had a huge impact on the outcome.
Creative learning spaces
Our internal map of the experience will have been either positively productive or negatively reactive. To continually create a future of resourceful possibilities necessary in today’s uncertain world, it makes sense to ignite those internal dynamics which are geared towards generating positive outcomes for ourselves, and others. This involves learning.
Creating different reactions means creating different learning spaces between people – ones that are not just conceptual but also embodied and practiced. Our everyday experiences at work provide the platform for us to experiment, evolve, and create different habits and patterns. This involves learning new skills and ways of operating. Many wisdom traditions have centuries of insight into these dimensions which provide a great foundation if we are willing to step back and observe differently.
Creating a sense of inner order – 7 steps
The first step is awareness – awareness beyond what’s going on in our head, to focus on what’s going on in our physiology. So often we think of our body as simply another way to get our head to a meeting. But what’s going on in our body informs how we think and behave and the results we get. Whether we’re aware of it or not, every second of the day, there is an endless stream of communication taking place below the neckline – emotions, feelings, and sensations which are shaping what we pay attention to, how we respond, how we interact and the results we get. The emotional state we are in and our awareness of the emotional state determines the choices we make. If we are not aware of it we have little or no choice.
2. Focus and attention
Focus and attention is the new currency of business. If we don’t develop the capacity to pay attention, our focus it drifts and gets distracted. According to this survey, almost 50 percent of the time our mind is ‘off task,’ distracted, addicted, stressed and disengaged. It takes skills to pull ourselves out of reactive mode and put ourselves in a place of focus and choice. It’s called ‘Centring’. Centering is not just a mental activity but rather an embodied choice, which is created through mindful, embodied capability which over time, builds new patterns of behaviour. Getting to grips with Centering requires that we develop skills of capability and experience instead of just understanding concepts and strategies.
3. Develop a learning mindset (Beginners mind)
Life constantly provides us with opportunities to evolve and grow, but we often put up barriers, consciously or unconsciously, which stop us from engaging in change, being inclusive or reaping the learning opportunities in any situation. Some of these include refusing to admit that we don’t know, wanting everything to be perfect, lack of patience, self-doubt, fear of failure and fear of losing control.
A learning mind is also an agile mind. The capacity to actively shift ‘state’ at will to adapt to the circumstances we face and create a resourceful outcome, for ourselves and others is one of the hallmarks of a learning organization. Changing our mindset to one of learning and development means embracing skills like willingness to be wrong and qualities like humility, courage, grit, persistence, together with a curious, questioning mind.
4. Personal Power
Personal power is not just about being tough or pushy – forcing our way through something, getting aggressive and beating someone else into submission. Personal power is the ability to be clear on our choices and being able to take a stand for what we believe in the face of resistance, challenge or demand. It is about having the internal dexterity to know where to go in the face of negative feedback from others without getting angry, reactive or taking the easy way out. Personal power is about becoming present enough to remain connected to others in often trying circumstances and finding a workable solution that suits the bigger picture rather than personal egos.
Acceptance is a vital quality for dealing with change and disruption. Once again it is not a decision but an embodied skill. Only when we find acceptance, can we find peace. Acceptance is not about giving up or giving in. It is holding on to what we care about in the face of circumstances that don’t necessarily represent that. In acceptance, we might not necessarily like what is happening to us, but we are able to find a level of peace with our situation without falling into anxiety, resentment or cynicism. In acceptance, we let go of the need to control or be liked and instead, find an authentic way of responding; one which is real and relaxed. In acceptance, we find a way to dance with the flow of life and play the game without whinging and moaning about it.
6. Health and well-being
Health isn’t just about what we eat, or whether we get enough fluids or hours of sleep. It is a sense of vitality and aliveness which includes the mind, emotions, body, and spirit. It is also a commitment to know and take care of the things that matter to us in life and doing what it takes to create this sense of wellbeing with gratitude and joy rather than resentment and obligation. Its also knowing about what we care about, what’s important to us, what we value and making moment by moment conscious decisions to approach this with integrity and aliveness.
Lightness is a place of awareness and embodied attention. Do we get all bent out of shape when something doesn’t quite go our way, or can we find ways to reframe it and hold it in our consciousness without judging it, fading it or fixing it? Can we hold our emotions lightly without obsessing about them or getting drowned in them? Can we recognize that our opinions are just opinions instead of treating them as facts? Can we avoid getting caught up in our sense of rightness and righteousness and instead get curious about our fixations and attachments and ask why we value them so highly?
Developing lightness isn’t just about mental agility, it means learning to be a different observer of ourselves. It means embracing qualities like curiosity and a childlike sense of wonder. It means learning to be playful when intensity and ‘seriosity’ threaten to consume us. It means having the depth and security within to let go of what we think we know and learning to live with the ‘facticity’ of an uncertain future.
Developing a sense of inner order is a journey – and not an overnight process. By applying some of these steps, we begin to cultivate different skills and values that can have us shift our way of showing up: And the way that other people respond to us. As we learn to cultivate a sense of inner order, we can consciously choose how we want to be in the world rather than reacting to the demands outside of us. Only then can we develop the ability to fully be ourselves and create different futures that matter to us, to our leadership and to our organizations.