“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper” W.B. Yeats
In my last post I discussed the effects on our nervous system and resulting impacts on daily functioning from living in world that surrounds us with stimuli that is more intense and comes at us faster than ever before. We need to give ourselves breaks from the bombardment to reduce stress and take off the glove of dulled senses. We can also mitigate some effects of this hyperstimulation.
Through refinement of our senses we are capable of picking up on things we never dreamed of. When we relax and choose where to place our attention, expansion of awareness occurs. Our senses can reach out to meet our environment, our loved ones, the universe, etc. If you take the time to notice the breadth and depth of your awareness when stressed and overwhelmed, you will probably notice a contraction into a very narrow sphere of awareness.
The good news is that the solution is quite simple.
The bad news is that we are complex creatures living complicated lives. Implementation of the solution can be quite difficult. There does need to be attention paid to our habits, how we chose to spend our time and construct our lives. I propose a 3-pronged approach. Read More
As the cool water envelopes my feet I sense my continuity with the water, indeed with all of life. I am home exactly where I am.
This was a thought I had yesterday while out rock climbing on the river near where I live. This was not some kind of mind-blowing spiritual revelation. Just a simple moment of uncomplicated awareness. What did strike me on reflection though was how much this is related to why I am doing the Slow Project and Way of Nature retreat guiding. While I consider such moments at once profound yet also ordinary, I remember that this was not always the case and truly appreciate the effect this quality of awareness has had on my life.
Let’s take a step back and have a look at our senses in today’s world. Most of human history has been spent in times where there were immediate physical dangers. Our nervous systems have adapted accordingly. We are hardwired to react to novel stimuli because, as far as our nervous system knows, it might indicate a threat. These days most people do not live in situations where danger might lurk around every corner, however the quantity and intensity of sensory input has escalated off the charts. Consider the changes to the human habitat since the industrial revolution; increasing density of urban living, cars, advertisements, marketing materials, loud speakers, artificial light, etc. It is a ‘hyperstimulated’ world that we live in.
You might be wondering what is the problem with this stimulation. We do have positive association with the word ‘stimulated’ and I agree that intense sensory input cannot be glorious in itself, but everything is about balance.
“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom” – Francis Bacon
Some people are particularly prone to adverse reactions to excessive stimulation. I became interested in sensory processing during my time as as an Occupational Therapist. I learnt about how our nervous systems must filter through and modulate incoming stimuli in order for us to be able to function. Efficient sensory modulation is the ability to effectively regulate the degree to which one is influenced by various sensory inputs.
For many people, and especially children as their nervous system is still maturing, sensory processing poses a challenge and disorders result. We all have different ‘sensory profiles’, sensing and letting in different quantities of stimuli from our various sense organs and then filtering it differently through our systems of perception. Even if it is not at a ‘disorder’ level, we have our own sensory challenges. I also wonder if the changing sensory environment of the modern world is leading to an increase in sensory processing disorders because it is not what our nervous systems evolved to live in. Too much sensory stimulation results in a stress response and sometimes a ‘shut down.’ Sensory overload has actually been used as a method of torture.
Bit of a side note – but it was too interesting not to mention – in my research I discovered that creative people tend to have reduced ‘sensory gating’; letting in more stimuli than others. However when our prefrontal cortex is activated, creativity is suppressed. The prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, cranking itself up for new stimuli and moving your attention to the source of the stimuli.1)http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload Creatives often advocate for the need for silence.
This bombardment and relentless activation of the prefrontal cortex also fractures our attention, switching our focus over to the source of the new stimuli. This is a disaster for efficiency and also delivers a double stress-whammy. Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol right when your nervous system is in arousal due to all the sensory input.
You might be thinking, ‘well I don’t have one of these sensory disorders, so what is the problem?’ Actually, it is you who I am writing this article for. People with ‘healthy’ sensory processing have adapted to be able to function in modern environments. They can function well but it has a hidden cost; our senses become grossified. This is akin to touching with a glove on.
In short, when there is simply too much stimuli we adapt with grossification or do not adapt enough and enter a stress response. Either way, it is bad news for full appreciation and connection with the world around you.
Sensing deeper into a moment facilitates deeper levels of presence. In fact I wonder if sensing deeper and being more present are actually synonymous. Our meeting with the world occurs through the interface of our senses. Life is experienced through the senses, so by missing out on deep connection to the moment, we miss out on life. I believe that Fast culture leaves us feeling like something is missing and deprivation of subtle sensing is one primary mechanism.
In relation to the pervasiveness of human-produced noise, “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”2)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?_r=0
Back to my opening example. Regardless of whether my experience resonates with you or not, the fact remains that I did not have this relationship with the world around me until I gave myself time away from the bombardment of modern life to really refine my senses. Naturally a fiery, do everything type, I tend towards intensity and keeping myself charged-up. Appreciation for subtleties was definitely something I had to learn.
In my next post I will describe what I’ve learnt about strategies to counter hyperstimulation and refine the senses.
If you are in Perth, you can also come along to a breakfast seminar on July 22 on this topic.
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References [ + ]
I love nature metaphors and analogies. Much insight can be gained from observing nature’s rhythms, patterns and cycles. The seasons are an expression of the great cycle of life and can be a source of great wisdom.
Winter may test us with cold and rain, however it is a fantastic teacher of accepting what is. When we give ourselves expectations of how things should be, hang onto stories of what we like and don’t like, we miss out on the beauty of releasing expectations and the fear and tensions that go along with holding those expectations.
Contemplating the lessons of winter can help us appreciate negative capability – that is, knowing when it is time NOT to do something. This emptying allows for purification and sinking into depths that we can’t normally access when we constantly do, allowing us to connect to a more fundamental wisdom.
In the native american tradition, the long winter evenings are considered the proper time to teach those things that have their roots in the past and lead back to the source of all things.1)From book “The Wisdom of the Native Americans”
The space we open to allows new things to emerge, just as winter gives way to the new life of spring.
Join us in magnificent Kings Park in an experiential day of surrendering to the moment and finding the magic and beauty that is always present. We will be doing presencing, relaxation, qi gong and contemplation meditation with nature as our partner in the process. The weather may challenge us but embracing winter’s qualities is the practice.
Cost: $75 including lunch.
Contact me to book.
Bookings are confirmed once payment has been received.
You can download the flier here
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|1.||↑||From book “The Wisdom of the Native Americans”|
True crisis situations are fabulous at cutting away the cloud of things that just don’t matter. Like a crucible, things are boiled down to essentials.
A couple of months ago I followed my intuition to Nepal. Our group was in the remote and sacred Tsum valley near the border of Tibet when the earthquake hit on April 25. Although the area was close to the epicentre we were fortunate to be walking in a place where the valley widened out and all 20 of us were unharmed away from the danger of rock falls or landsides. Watching avalanches and boulders being flung off the dramatic Himalaya while feeling the ground wave under our feet was an experience that literally shakes you to your core. We were then stuck for 8 days until a helicopter came to take us back to Kathmandu; a time which provided it’s own challenges in terms of not knowing how our families were feeling and uncertainty over how or when we would be rescued.
I felt truly blessed for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the incredible lessons that the earthquake experience provided. A particular interest of mine in to do with leadership and profound systems change. We were provided with a shining example of leadership in the form of a Tsum local and mountain guide, Dhawa.
Dhawa owns the guesthouse in the tiny village we ended up in after the earthquake was over. He happened to be walking up the valley with a couple of clients towards this village when the quake happened, in a bad part of the trail. Dhawa literally saved their lives by pulling one of them out of the way of falling rocks and keeping them both moving to safer ground. He described to me later that in the moment he thought of his own family and felt a conflict between trying to maximise his own chances of survival by getting out of there as quickly as possible in order to be there for his family and taking more personal risk to help his clients. His sense of duty and attitude of service won out.
After that ordeal he arrives at his guesthouse and finds the 20 of us waiting there, having not yet worked out what we were going to do with ourselves. The village we were aiming to stay in that night had been completely destroyed. Without hesitation he began making preparations for temporary shelter under a large tarp in the horse paddock and mattresses and blankets were hauled out. No one knew if the buildings were stable and aftershocks kept coming. We were fed from the tiny kitchen despite the limited stocks in the pantry with no guarantee of replenishment in the near future.
His impact on the group was immediate and palpable. As he started speaking to us we circled around. He cut through the stress and confusion with a welcome groundedness, calm and presence.
As the initial drama of the earthquake event itself subsided, a different kind of stress emerged. Uncertainty and lack of control. It took two days to find a phone that we could use to make international phone calls, so no one knew where we were for a while. We also could not receive consistent communication from the outside world so it was difficult getting a clear picture of the situation: could we walk down, if not, how would we get helicopters here, what were the embassies doing, what was the situation in Kathmandu even if we could get back by helicopter, would embassies pick up people from other countries (there were 9 different countries represented in our group alone), etc. Eventually we were picked up by US Embassy helicopters 8 days after the earthquake although we didn’t know that was happening until the day.
What I observed in myself, in the group and through Dhawa’s example drew connections for me between leadership and Slow principles. Here were some of the insights related to a handful of Slow principles.
‘Be present’ principle
The importance of remaining in the present is really highlighted in a crisis situation. Getting swept up by worrying about future when there is nothing you can do is not only a waste of mental effort but also can have detrimental impact on the group. It seemed that those who were the most distressed were the ones trapped in thoughts about things out of their control (and in that situation there was not a whole lot in our control!).
Mindfulness is an extremely valuable skill too because every choice you make matters, including the words you choose to use and what you chose to put voice too. Sometimes I noticed the urge to join in expressing worries about the uncertainty over what was happening to get us out, but knew it would not be at all constructive and would impact people who were not coping so well. I knew we’d be ok so I had to choose to not add to any negativity. As I reflected on these little daily choices the term ‘micro-moments of leadership’ came to mind.
Slow encourages us to find pleasure in the small things. One of the most delightful moments was waking up and seeing Dhawa planting flower seeds. The situation had not taken away his appreciation of the small things.
‘Connect to self’ principle
Dhawa displayed a strong sense of purpose, which related to an attitude of service. I think this helped him remain focussed on what needed to be done and helped prevent overwhelm from all of us wanting things from him for 8 days straight! Everyone else also seemed to want a defined role. Whether that was taking care of the dishes, or in my case carrying water, having something meaningful to do was incredibly satisfying.
It was very clear to me that there was a distinct choice to either contract, find a dark corner to hide in, or show up and do my best. I feel this is probably applicable to all stressful and chaotic situations. I feels to me that this requires a high level of self-awareness, centredness and is aided by a connection to purpose.
‘Connect to other’ principle
The importance of humour was obvious. Dhawa told me that in his mountain guide training they encouraged guides to make jokes as a way of easing tension. He did this quite naturally and it really helped people not get too serious.
Certainly in this situation it took a great deal of awareness of group dynamics to be able to respond to the group’s needs. I noticed was how anxious people about lacking information. Every time someone came back from a phone call all eyes and ears were on them, awaiting any news. This could have been remedied by having regular group information meetings, however this structure did not exist and the anxiety continued.
This experience reminded me about the importance of personal cultivation for leaders and changemakers. Mindfulness and calm are habits that can be developed and focus and presence can be trained. A sense of purpose comes through stillness, reflection and inquiry. I went to Nepal with the intent of exploring how I needed to transform in order to bring forth whatever it is I am meant to bring forth in this lifetime. Lessons were gifted to me in a more deep and profound way than I could have imagined. It really did drive home that the daily choices we make shape us into our future selves.
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Of all the things I passionately believe in, the power of deep experience is right up there. In fact, a large part of my commitment to Slow comes from an appreciation of the relationship between Slow and depth.
One of the great tragedies of our Fast society is that we only skim the surface of life’s experiences and furthermore become unaware of this shallowness. With our senses so thoroughly bombarded and hence numbed simply as a coping mechanism, our perception of life becomes grossified. By slowing down and bringing more of our attention into the present we sink deeper into each moment. The things we discover can change our lives forever.
I never would have had an appreciation for Slow if it was not for doing my first Way of Nature Sacred Passage. I spent a week in solitude and after two days of mostly sleeping, settling in and relaxing a whole new way of being with the world opened up in ways I could never have imagined. The incredible sense of connectedness was like a caress for the soul and the reciprocity with the beings around me in acknowledgement of this changed, deeper relationship with nature changed the way I see the world forever.
I have found this and other deep experiences I have embarked on since then much like finding a great radio station and adding it to your favourites: you might not always be tuned in but you can find it again, the path has been illuminated, and simply just knowing it is there waiting for you is the source of much ease. Deep experience help you to see what is possible, inspiring and guiding everyday practice. So if you have started or thought about any kind of practice, such as meditation, to assist you to slow down, I encourage you to find the space and courage to let yourself go deeper.
In a way, it is a matter of courage. Deep experience by its very nature requires you to go beyond comfort zone and learn about surrender, trust and letting go. These in themselves are incredible valuable lessons.
Sometimes I’d claim my strategy with The Slow Project is to gently introduce people to Slow principles, thereby allowing them to come to the conclusion that deep experience is something they are ready for. But then other times, such as now, I just get too excited and decide that I’m going to try to convince you straight out.
I practice what I preach, and I am heading off in a few week to spend 5 weeks in Nepal learning Thai massage and doing more meditation and qi gong on a pilgrimage. Before I go I am hoping to get enough people for two nature programs I am running in May and June. The May 23 event is a taster 1-day retreat and the June Nature Quest gives you a proper deep dive exploring and strengthening your connection with nature over 5 days including 2 days in solitude.
So have I convinced you? Are you keen? Please get in touch, even if it is to ask some questions over a coffee.
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