Open Focus Results #1: High Shoulders with Pain

As a certified Open Focus coach (COFC), I’m prevented from making claims for open focus sessions.  I’m not licensed to treat anything, and can’t claim to have done so.  Which is fine with me.  Instead, I will share what I see and hear from the people I work with.  Like today’s session.

An orchestral musician presented with tension and pain in the right upper arm, neck and shoulder.  As we were on Zoom, I could see the shoulder elevation, and infer the tension.  I could also see pinched features and lines around their eyes and mouth.

I aimed the session at maintaining a narrow focus while simultaneously connecting to space in a diffuse, broad way, which is what musician’s must do:  You can’t stop being narrowly focused on the instrument you’re playing, and at the same time you must also take in other musicians, the conductor, and the balance of sound in the room.  If you are using narrow, objective focus to switch between these views, you will tense up and that will affect the sound you are producing.  What’s needed is a simultaneous attention that shifts effortlessly as the need arises, but never loses touch with all these elements.

The only way to do this while staying relaxed is to open your focus.  It’s the easy and effortless way to pay attention to several things without being too narrowly focused on any one thing.  We went back and forth from the space in the body to the space in the room (narrow, diffuse, narrow, diffuse), and when we both opened our eyes 30 minutes later, the hunched shoulders were now sloping away from the neck and the eyes were sparkling in a relaxed face.  As we processed the session, their shoulders fell even more.  It was wild to see.

I love this work!  I love seeing the results and hearing “Wow,” after a session, which is the response I hear most often.  It’s feels like a miracle.  It isn’t, of course – it’s just me helping someone use their brain and nervous system the way it was designed:  Changing how you pay attention changes your brainwave pattern which changes your physiology.  That’s how we are designed.

Beyond Resilience – Staying Out of Emergency Mode

Possibly you’re one of the people who are happily sailing through the toxic sludge of Covid pandemic and ill political winds that continue to blow. If so, I commend you. I am not one of those people.  The last several years took me down to my studs.  Not that all that time I spent stretched out on the couch was wasted though:  Oh no!  I was diligently looking for a way to come at the challenges of life differently.  I was tired of picking myself up and getting back in a race I no longer believed in, tired of all the ways I knew to recover.  I didn’t want to be more resilient, or to bounce back more quickly.  I wanted to stop bouncing.  And I really, really wanted to end the chronic pain I’ve been in for decades.

So when my physical therapist suggested I read a textbook for PT’s on pain, I thought, why not?  “Of the six causes of pain, only one is the original injury,” she said in a quiet voice.  “The others are…well, you’ll see.”

Put simply, my sensitive nervous system hadn’t gotten out of emergency mode in decades.  I’d been so tense for so long, I’d forgotten what relaxed felt like.  So I started digging and experimenting with ways to calm an overly-sensitized nervous system and found two: a vagus nerve exercise (keep reading) and a way of paying attention called Open Focus**. I want to share them both with you.

Open Focus is a simple technique that immediately shifts and your body from emergency mode to relaxed alertness. 

When you change HOW you pay attention from a narrow focus to one that is broad and immersed, your brainwaves shift into a lower frequency called alpha.  Alpha brainwaves unwind the effects of emergency mode, relaxing your muscles and letting stress hormones drain away.  It really is this simple:

How we pay attention matters more than what we pay attention to   

And it’s easy to learn and to do at any point in your day.  These are the kind of comments I’ve been hearing from my clients: “Oh, that IS better!  I can feel myself relaxing.”  “I feel like I just got a massage, inside.” “I feel completely stoned.”  “This makes such a difference.”  My own pain level went from a constant drone to a rare event that fades quickly.

Click here for a 25-minute Open Focus session you can try.

And, here’s the three no-cost sessions I’m doing this month.   Bring a friend, family member, or co-worker.

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==> Please join me for three no-cost Open Focus sessions:

December 3, 10 and 17, 2021.  Fridays at noon Pacific Time for 50 minutes

==> Contact me to sign up and I’ll send you the Zoom link, and the audio recording afterwards.

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The Vagus Nerve Exercise

This is from bodyworker Stanley Rosenberg’s book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. I do this, first thing every morning.  I do it again if I’m having trouble going to sleep:  Lie flat on your back with a straight spine, head level.  You can bend your legs or not, whichever feels better on your back.  Without moving your head, look to one side for up to a minute (I count to 60 as slowly as I can)   Then look to the opposite side for up to a minute.  That’s it!  After two weeks of doing this, I started to feel relaxed.  That made recognizing what it felt like to be in an alpha brainwave pattern much easier.  More to the point, I could recognize when I was in Beta so I could do something about it.

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**More detail on Open Focus:  The late Les Fehmi, Ph.D., was a pioneer in neurofeedback.  He discovered this simple formula in the late 1960s:  Shift from narrow, objective focus to broad, immersed attention and your brainwaves shift from Beta, associated with tense alertness to Alpha and it’s relaxed attention.  The alpha frequency is the one we are built to live from, but we are taught to focus narrowly until it becomes a habit we don’t know how to break.  The more we do it, the more our brains think there is an emergency and the physical stress response kicks in – shallow breathing, stress hormones, muscle tension, tunnel vision, black and white thinking.  As we shift our narrow focus away from what is stressing us, we inadvertently add to our stress.  For me, this had become my unconscious response.

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This Uncertainty Won’t Last Forever – In drawings.

When I wrote about Transition, the predictable psycho-emotional response to change, I didn’t expect to see it come alive in so many people.  Although it was only two weeks ago, it seems a lifetime.   Friends and acquaintances are starting to wonder aloud if they will ever feel creative again, or relaxed, or like themselves.  “Are the changes permanent?” they wonder. I want to reach out and reassure them and everyone else that these effects are temporary, no matter how long they last or how scary they feel. I thought the pictures might help make that point.  It’s helping me to make them.

Reading Time: 2 minutes.  Unless you click on the pictures to enlarge them, then maybe 3 minutes.

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A magic 8-ball which pops up an answer to your question when you shake it.

“Situation cloudy, try again later.”

 

ENDING, NEUTRAL ZONE, BEGINNING AGAIN

We keep cycling through the three phases of transition.  After days of feeling pretty well-adjusted, yesterday we learned that California’s Shelter-in Place order has been extended another five weeks. Not only was it kind of a downer, it meant some adjustments had to be made.  Again.

As we walked, my partner Carolyn and I talked about how to safely obtain some of the things we needed to get through those five weeks.  This did not go well. The old, familiar assumptions just aren’t working, which makes it impossible to plan.  That’s when the laughter started to bubble up and I said “I want an actuary – someone who can weigh the probable outcomes of various actions so I can make a decision.  My actuary dot com – why doesn’t that exist?”  Of course this was even funnier, which helped shift the mood.

But it underscores what happens in the Ending phase of the Transition curve:  We want ANSWERS.  We want CERTAINTY.  Accepting that we’ll have to proceed without them is when our denial snaps.  When the situation keeps evolving, sometimes moment to moment, our denial will assert itself and snap again and again.  Living life without certainty becomes a dance of resilience and it can feel like we are dancing on the edge of madness.  What will make a difference?  What won’t?  How will I know?  How can I decide when I don’t know?  Life right now is not just a matter of revising our to do list, it’s a crisis of identity.  without the usual markers, we don’t recognize where, or who, we are.

“Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem.” (Eric Hoffer).

That’s why you feel so crazy.  So beside yourself.  So cranky.  There’s no need to panic about this.  It’s normal and temporary.  Meanwhile, you find yourself in the NEUTRAL ZONE, which feels a bit like this:

Life in the NEUTRAL ZONE.

 

And the NEUTRAL ZONE lasts about this long:

Author Dallas Clayton’s illustration

 

While in the NEUTRAL ZONE, you’ll need a few things to help you through.  Contact with people, humor, routine, exercise, chocolate…

Dark Chocolate, part of my Corona virus pantheon

 

…and someone who knows how to relax:

Ladybug releasing tension

The pause that refreshes.

BEGINNING AGAIN

Eventually, you come out on the other side and the pieces of your stretched-out psyche fall into place again.  Life has meaning and shape and there is a place for you.  You can begin again and you will.  It’s how you’re made.

Thirteen-fold Mandala (13 is the number of Transformation)

Leading in a Crisis with Resolve *and* Kindness

The corona virus crisis is showing us what leadership can look like and women the world over are rocking it.  Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand has been giving us a master class.  

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Reading Time: 2.5 minutes (although if you click on the links, you might get a coffee and
settle in for a “wee while.”)

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I am gobsmacked by Jacinda Ardern.  Friends are starting to roll their eyes when I mention her name and mouth “fan-girl.” to each other when they think I’m not looking. (At least I think that’s what their doing.  It can be hard to tell on Zoom.)   Ardern just keeps getting it right and – then, more right that she did before.  Here are the lessons in her masterclass:

FIRST, PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK SO WE CAN MAKE SENSE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING

On March 21, 2020, Ardern announced a four-level alert system and told New Zealanders that they were currently in Level Two of that system.  This may be the most brilliant thing she’s done.  The alert system gives government and citizens a framework within which to understand the new and baffling reality while making transparent the approach government is taking.

The genius of giving people a common way to make sense of something so changeable is the source of my gob-smackedness.  It is instantly grounding, provides a common language, and helps restore a sense of agency and control.  We may not know much else, but we have a common way to think about it,  talk about it, and understand our leader’s approach to it.  This is instantly calming.  Ardern and her government created the alert level system because it was needed.  She didn’t wait until she had it right according to science or popular opinion.  She  and her government made it up based on what they knew then.  I don’t know about New Zealanders, but it has definitely helped me.

SECOND, PUT IT ALL ON THE TABLE, NO HOLDING BACK

In her March 23, 2020 address – a mere two days after announcing the four-level alert system – Ardern changed the lives of New Zealanders in a 14-minute speech.  In under 14 minutes, she elegantly communicated on all three levels of the transition curve: She gave facts that blasted through denial, offered support and acknowledgement, and inspired collective action for a common cause.   In under 14 minutes, she also hit all three aspects of motivational speech:  She wore her intentions on her sleeve, gave clear, unsparing direction about the actions she wanted taken, and made meaning of and acknowledged the difficulty of the sacrifice she was asking.  She did all three of these over and over, repeatedly braiding these three strands together.

What she didn’t do is just as important:  She didn’t infantalize anyone:  She never once expressed doubt about their ability to do this difficult thing.  She did not talk down to anyone, in fact she included herself in everything she laid out.  She did not hide difficult information, rather she shared the exact information she’d used to make her decision.

THIRD, MATCH YOUR BEHAVIOR TO YOUR WORDS

When your actions don’t match your words, it’s your words that are ignored.  In order for what you say to be heard and absorbed, your behavior must be absolutely, effortlessly congruent with them, even when no one is watching.  I love Ardern’s open, transparent face.  She is always genuine, present.  For her, the words and the music go together. She displays the full range of normal human emotions. I find this so refreshing.

The first two pictures above are Ardern moments before announced the upcoming self-isolation of New Zealand.  The third picture is her Facebook Live two days later when the isolation had started, checking in with people after she’d put her toddler to bed.  And that’s not all:  She gave a press conference just for children because she knew they were anxious.  She and her cabnite took a 20% paycut.  She fiercely defended the elderly, letting her fury show, when others suggested they should left to die.  She is not staged, fake, pretending, nor is she needy, blustering or combative.

FOURTH, BE KIND

In her March 23rd speech, Ardern ended by asking people to be kind to one another even though they were frightened.  She gave suggestions like checking on neighbors, setting up phone trees to stay in touch and the like.  She’d clearly thought about how self-isolation would feel and come up with practical suggestions.

It is possible to lead with resolve and kindness.  In a capable leader’s hands, they strengthen one other.  There are many, many world leaders in addition to Ardern who are demonstrating this, all of them women.

HOW DID IT WORK OUT?

On Monday, April 20, 2020, Ardern announced that New Zealand would move to Level 3 on at midnight on April 27th.  She said that Google data showed that compliance with the restrictions had been high.

“NZ has done what few countries had managed to do and crush Covid-19.  The results of the lockdown “had all been achieved as a result of New Zealanders,”  Ardern said.

“We have a transmission rate of 0.48 per cent – one of the lowest in the world.  We have broken the chain (of community transmission),” she said.  “New Zealanders have proven themselves and they’ve done so in an incredible way.”

Ardern gave others credit for the results rather than take it for herself or her government.

(Master) Class dismissed.

Hold on tight! Transition Curve Ahead

 

Every change sets off a transition process.  This is why you’re having all these feelings during this unprecedented time in history.  Although our understanding about this new corona virus is changing daily, the way we respond to change – the transition process – is well-understood,  predictable, and you’ve been through it before.  You know how.  You’ve got this. And you will not always feel this nutso.

 Reading Time:  4.5 minutes

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Change or Transition?

© 2020 Liz Williams

In his book Transitions, psychologist William Bridges separates change – an event in time – from transition, which is the psycho-emotional process of adjusting to a change.  Every change triggers the transition process with its predictable and sometimes tempestuous trajectory.

Take getting married, for example.  You look forward to your life as a spouse, a part of a unit, and that distracts from the fact that things you loved about your single life are coming to an end.  You no longer make decisions alone.  You are not as free to do what you want when you want to do it.  There are conversations, negotiations, creative solutions.

==> Every change initiates a trip through the Transition Curve

If changes we look forward to trigger the transition process, what about those we don’t choose?  Like not being able to shake hands, or showing your love by staying six feet away?  Even small changes like these can put as into transition:  I think of myself as warm, friendly person and I’m acting like a hermit.  It’s confusing and awkward.  Understanding what to expect is a big help in navigating your way through the transition curve.

The Transition Curve

ENDING or, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

The transition process starts the moment you realize something has ended.  Denial is our instant response to this realization.  “Sure, we’re not in Kansas, but everything else is the same, right?  I mean, people still look like me and speak my language and….who are all those tiny people and why are they singing and…there’s a wizard?  Oh, c’mon.” Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, your denial is peeled away, step-by-step, encounter by encounter.

As your denial ebbs, you become aware that you don’t know how to be anymore – you don’t know how to feel like yourself.  You don’t feel competent in the new reality, because you aren’t – it’s too new.  Although we don’t realize it, we get much of our sense of self from the way others respond to us.  When that response changes, it’s confusing and disorienting.  What used to work doesn’t anymore.   We can become confused about how we fit in to the new picture.  We can question our value.  Denial protects us from this questioning until we are ready to take it on.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Facts, information and clear boundaries are what you need to get past your denial and through the Ending phase of transition.  If you are going to go through the discomfort of shifting the way you are in the world, there better be a good reason.

Letting go of denial can be as simple as accepting you’re going to be late to work because you keep getting off at the wrong exit so you’d better set your alarm earlier. It can be as complicated as the identity reset you’ll need to become a husband, wife, or parent. It can be the moment you realize that your clients or employees will need something different from you, something you might not know how to provide.

When you’re ready to accept that your sense of certainty has come to an end, and your former way of being in the world may not be a fit, you’ve entered the next phase of this normal, predictable process of transition.

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The neutral zone is like putting the transmission of your car in neutral – no matter how much hard you pump that gas pedal, you’re going nowhere.  The neutral zone is all about not knowing, which is unpleasant for most of us.  Being confronted with what we don’t know can be nerve-wracking.  We’ll do anything to get back in gear, to feel like ourselves again.  We’ll jump back into denial, deciding to simply do what we’ve always done, consequences be damned.  Or we’ll will ourselves into the future, deciding that we know exactly what to do.  No matter which of these you try, you will end up back in the rich soup of the neutral zone, unable to mover forward and not yet ready to.  But you are very busy adjusting to a new reality.  It takes the time it takes.

 

Your job is to simply to stay here in the zone of the unknown, getting all the support you need.  Maybe there is a routine or practice you find nurturing and maybe you want the support of others.  It’s OK to slow down, to feel a little lost and to reach out. It’s OK to get cranky.  It’s OK to enjoy the downtime too.  It’s normal to swing between these two.  Eventually, you may start to feel anxious about not knowing when the neutral zone ends. You may start wondering why other people are not reacting like you are.  You may think, “what is wrong with me?”

Absolutely nothing.

Do what you can.  Swing over to denial.  Try something new.  Take risks. Fail.  Try again.  It’s OK.

You are OK.  This won’t last forever. How can I help?

These are the kinds of things you need to hear in the neutral zone – kind, supportive murmurings, a warm smile, a friendly gesture, all taking the pressure off.  The neutral zone is like someone dumping a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor, then hiding the picture of what it should look like after kicking a few of the pieces under the couch.  The time for facts is over – you need support.

BEGINNING

One day you’ll wake up and that nagging pain in your back will be gone.  Your optimism and focus are back, and you have more energy. You may feel calmer, more grounded, accepting.  You’ll find yourself humming as you get ready for the day, thinking how you’re looking forward to familiar routines or the adventure of trying something brand new.  You will once again feel like yourself.  And you’ll think, “This is great!    Can I keep it?”  Yes, you can.  It’s yours, or more accurately, it’s you.

Inspire me!

You are ready for inspiring talks fresh starts.  You’ve figured it out and gotten your mojo back.  Will you revisit the neutral zone?  Maybe.  While models like this one are linear, life isn’t.   It turns and swoops and curves back on itself before jumping ahead or pausing.  But you’ll be visiting those other phases, not living there.

What about my clients, employees, friends, family?

Everybody moves through a transition at their own pace.  Understanding where someone is helps you offer them what they need rather than offering them what you need.  For example, if you are struggling with the ending, you may share your denial or hammer others with facts.  If you are in the neutral zone needing support, you may offer support to others who are still in denial.  If you are all the way through the curve and offer inspiration when others need facts or support, you may sound like you’ve lost your mind.  This tendency, though natural,  is not helpful.

Listen, then meet others where they are

Just knowing about this transition curve will improve your communication and effectiveness 100-fold.  Listen to your clients, colleagues and employees.   Where might they be in the transition process?  Offer facts, support or inspiration, depending where they are, not where you need them to be.  It’s OK to be where you are too, and not heroically trying to inspire others when you are freaking out.   Consider telling your story, admitting what you don’t know and sharing your humanity with people.  Pause.  Wait for ideas about what to say or do to come.  They’ve never failed you before and they won’t now.  It just may take a minute longer.

So Many Ways to Say Shut Up, So Little Time.

Reading Time: 1.5 minutes

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“I understand.”

“I’ve got it.”

“I think what John is trying to say…”

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.’ (impatiently nodding head and waiting to speak)

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I’ve been noticing this in myself lately, the way I’ve adopted a conversational rhythm meant to hurry people along.  In my role as facilitator, I sometimes have a legitimate need to interrupt people, and I do, most often to ask them what the gist is.  “I’m having a hard time knowing what to pay attention to in all you’ve said.  Could you summarize it in a sentence?”

I find it hard to listen to an endless barrage of words and know what the speaker wants me to glean from it.  In the US, we give preference to people who talk a lot and often, believing it’s a sign of confidence and leadership.  It’s not, of course – it’s just extroversion.  Some leaders seem to have been taught that speaking is the same as leadership, so they start talking at the beginning of the meeting and don’t stop until it’s over.  These meetings rarely end on time.

Sometimes when everyone’s eyes are on me, I just start babbling, and I wish someone would interrupt me and ask that magic question:  What is it you are trying to say?  In those moments I need to be asked, because I’m running scared, talking because people are listening.

I want to interrupt these kinds of speech as an act of kindness and deeper listening.  I want to not say or be heard as saying “shut up,” but to be seen as asking to hear what the speaker really wants to say, even if they think it’s unacceptable.  Especially then.

In my quest I’ve noticed that “shut up” comes in so many forms, some of which are listed above.  I bet there are hundreds of them.  Do you struggle with this too?  Do you have strategies that work? Have you heard other ways we say “shut up” without appearing to?  Your comments are welcome.

One Situation, Three Kinds of Business

3 kinds of business: Mine, Yours and God’s

Mindset Mapping: Growth, Fixed or Mixed?

“Squirrel!” – Adventures in Mental Hygiene

Reading Time:  1.5 minutes

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Earlier this week I was feeling lower than a snake’s belly.  I was metabolizing some difficult family news that left me with a low-level sense of dread I couldn’t shake.   I wasn’t sure how to move past it, so I was exploring that with a friend over coffee.

We were sitting outside near the Oakland Inner Harbor where we typically see seagulls and pigeons.  So when I saw a squirrel running along the walkway, I was stunned into silence.  All I could manage to was to point and blurt “Squirrel.”  This put us both in mind of the dogs in the movie “Up,” who were forever being distracted by squirrels, which caused us to laugh uncontrollably.  During a pause in the hilarity, I choked out “Now, where was I?” and that set us off again.

Eventually I managed to get back to my topic, but it wasn’t the same:  I was too light for that.  My mind was still running back and forth trying to solve the unsolvable, but it was more from habit than conviction.

When I woke up the next morning, I was again assailed with the awfulness of it all and my mood began to sag.  And then I heard myself say “Squirrel,” and once again felt the wonder of seeing that little furry being run by and I started laughing.  And I saw it more clearly than I ever had before:  One moment I was feeling depressed and the next I was laughing uncontrollably.  All that had changed was where I’d put my attention.

I saw that the choice was mine:  I could continue to let my mind persist in this painful and deepening trench, or I could step in and help it do something else.  I couldn’t solve or even fathom the original conundrum – no amount of thought or dread could do that – but I could redirect my beleaguered mind into happier and more productive territory, the way you would redirect a distraught child. Our mind sometimes needs it’s own minder – someone who will do the kind thing and hep it settle down.  I’m so grateful for the lesson of “Squirrel!”