Greg Brodsky wrote this article with 9/11 in mind. It appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on 12/10/02
Daily language often gives us insights into ourselves that we might otherwise miss. The term “interrupt driven,” for example, now a part of the standard business lexicon, refers to activities that people engage in because someone stops them from doing something else: the phone calls that pull us away from our tasks, the suddenly-called meeting that burns precious hours, the lack of time for purposeful thinking because we have to attend to emergencies. Instead of organizing our actions around our professed goals and values, we let our behavior be driven by these interruptions.
In fairness to ourselves, we have no choice. With increasingly complex and variable lives, the demands to constantly respond to unexpected events make this just the way things are.
On a larger scale, it could be said that we live in a Time of Disruption. Along with the frenetic pace of our days, the 9/11 attacks disrupted our life patterns. For some, it was the ultimate disruption. For the rest of us, each new warning, event, or burst of information disrupts us again. To adapt, we have to get used to regaining our balance in an unpredictable, erratic, rapidly changing world.
Some personal tools can be especially useful right now. Good tools will help us absorb new information quickly, think clearly, respond with poise and maybe even grace, and act according to our deepest values and purposes amidst surrounding turmoil. In my experience, a few tools have shown themselves to be especially valuable.
As adults, our first responsibility is to manage ourselves. Before we can bring our resources to the stream of unprecedented situations that challenge us, we have to manage ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally. Along with our moral principles and spiritual guidance, we accomplish this management with our instincts. Fortunately, since we have made it to adulthood, chances are that those instincts are pretty good. If only we can gain access to them when we need them!
Access to our finest instincts means remembering who we are and being aware of what we are becoming. After all, our essential character is evolving, becoming something more developed all the time. If we are in charge of our lives, what we become is less a product of our environment, thank goodness, than our own, self-cultivated inner states. By inner states, I mean our mental, emotional, and spiritual sense of being.
Here’s a simple procedure that can help keep us in touch with our inner states and cultivate the best of them when we need it most:
1. Breathe When people become anxious or afraid, we tend to hold our breath. Most of us don’t realize that we restrict our natural breathing pattern much of the time. This is especially true now, when every news bulletin might cause us to gasp and cringe. This common habit produces a tense, anxious, and energetically drained state in us. We would avoid much of this if we breathed fully and deeply all of the time.
As soon as we are aware of a tense holding pattern, we can immediately soften our muscles and make ourselves more comfortable—and resourceful—by taking a deep, relaxing breath. Most of us do this instinctively, as long as we think of it, when we want to relax. In a very natural way this simple, deep breath brings us a little closer to our natural selves. When feeling pressure, we can take another deep breath, and another, as we take charge of our immediate well being. It’s easy and simple, but surprisingly effective.
Disciplines like yoga, martial arts, and meditation have taught for thousands of years that purposeful breathing can serve as a powerful state-changing tool. Anyone can use it and find it always available. Breathing is an entry way to our inner selves, the states of mind, body, and spirit that we need to cope with things. What can you do? When you want to get a moment of freedom from chronic tension, take a deep breath, relaxing your whole body as you exhale. Then, do it again.
2. Relax Of course, we’re tense. Opening the mailbox, watching TV, traffic going too slowly, traffic going too fast, money worries, the latest threats, and uncertainty are making us tense. But tension doesn’t help us deal with things; it just makes us brittle. We need to relax.
In the martial art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, we practice a basic technique in which you push your opponent a little, which causes him or her to tighten up in the effort to keep balance. Then, you let up for a second and suddenly push much more powerfully. Because your opponent tenses up with the first push, you can easily topple him or her with the second one. If the person would only relax and yield to both pushes, you wouldn’t have anything to push on. We call this trained response “neutralization by relaxation.”
Life has been pushing harder on us and with increasingly shocking bursts. The more we relax our bodies, the more we can neutralize the effects of these pushes. Letting the shock waves pass through us without resistance, we can find calmness and poise. We don’t have to be pushed over. We can practice neutralization by relaxation.
As hard as it seems for many people, relaxation calls for nothing profound. It doesn’t require that we first solve our problems, just that we de-tense our muscles when we need to. As we exhale that deep breath we just took, we can soften our muscles and release our hold on ourselves. Then, gravity will help us relax. This powerful natural force will draw us earthward and the tension we feel in our necks and shoulders and jaws can melt toward the ground.
Try it. When you want relief from your tension, just give up your fight against gravity for a moment. Breathe in and out and let your shoulders sink. Imagine all your tension dropping into the ground. Then, breathe again and relax some more. After a few of these breaths, you’ll feel a nice release.
3. Stay Present When we are disrupted, we are distracted. Instead of thinking about what our kids are doing or saying, we are thinking about our work or bills or problems. Instead of attending to our spouses, friends, and co-workers, we are worrying about various threats. When we need to be aware of our own behavior, our minds go elsewhere.
We aren’t good at being present: being in the moment, paying attention here and now. This long-standing problem for human beings has produced whole systems of self-development that require a lifetime of practice in becoming more present. Whether we practice or not, when we absolutely have to, we can be exquisitely present. Each one of us has proven that many times. Now is a good time to practice this skill.
Staying present means noticing what is going on around us and within us. We accomplish this by remembering to be mindful, and that our attention is important to everyone in our lives. Meanwhile, as the government issues warnings to be alert, people ask, “alert to what?” They feel that they don’t know what to do with a vague admonition to be on the look out. Well, why not be more alert in general, aware, attentive to ourselves and our surroundings?
Why not simply pay more attention? It’s just a form of presence. It will enable us to be more effective, creative, and, surprisingly, happy in the moment. When you want to be present, tell yourself to look, listen, and attend to your immediate surroundings. Pay attention to yourself as well. Give the people around you the gift or your presence, from the inside out. They will thank you.
Use this little algorithm: Breathe, relax, stay present. We can practice this a hundred times a day: in the car, at work, at home, in the community. We don’t need incense, music, or bells and whistles to help us; we just need to remember to breathe, relax, stay present.