There is an story told about Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the Japanese martial art of Aikido. At the end of each training session, this master teacher stood in the centre of the dojo while his students challenged him all at once from all directions. His students marvelled at Ueshiba’s peerless ability to meet and conquer every challenge seemingly with minimum internal stress. “Master,” they exclaimed, “how can we ever emulate you? No matter what happens, you always remain so calm!” “Ha,” said the Master, “I lose my calm all the time, but I get it back so quickly you don’t even notice.”
My coaching clients and workshop participants find this story so powerful because it demonstrates a model for “calm” that doesn’t rely on a fanciful notion that we can, will or should remain in a state of zen-like calm when facing challenges. Rather than judging ourselves against a model that’s fairly unattainable unless you meditate 16 hours a day, dose yourself with valium, or have a neurochemical imbalance that renders your normal human stress reactions inoperative, if we can accept that situations and thoughts will trigger us, then we can notice them and take action before we autopilot into a cascade of unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.
The first stage is to NOTICE we have been triggered. The phone rings, we receive an email, we’re about to have a difficult conversation, and our automatic stress response kicks in ready for flight, fight, freeze or fold. Whilst this came in useful when we faced mortal threat from predators tens of thousands of years ago, it’s less helpful in our modern lives when we are about to give a speech or presentation. Typically you’ll know you’ve been triggered when your heart starts to pound, your stomach clenches and whirrs, your breathing gets shorter and shallower, and your core muscles contract. In poker-speak, we also have our own personal “tells” or physical patterns that reveal the micro-tensions building up. If unchecked and released, these will accumulate into toxic levels of stress that stretch our emotional membrane so thin we’ll go into meltdown when our computer freezes. For example, with close attention, I have noticed that I hold a lot of these micro-tensions in my pelvis. So I practice checking in and releasing in that area mid-afternoon and at the end of each day.
The second stage is to ACCEPT that you have been triggered. Don’t double down on your stress by giving yourself a hard time about it. It’s a normal biological response.
The final stage is to CHOOSE a more helpful way to be. By practising techniques that dial down your stressed, reactive self, and bring your deeper, wiser, more conscious self online, you’ll experience more space to make better decisions. The best techniques I have found lie in paying attention to our embodiment: our body and mind are not separate. When you tackle the physical manifestations of stress, your mind will be in step. Stress causes contraction. Techniques such as centering release contraction so you will feel more expansive and calm, less overwhelmed.
Which brings us back to Sensei Ueshiba. The same centering techniques that enabled him to get his calm back so quickly no-one could notice he had lost it, have been distilled and taught by practitioners of Aikido such as my teacher Paul Linden, who could see how useful and applicable they would be to a wider constituency.
There are various techniques, but I have recorded the instructions for the one called Six Direction Breath here, free to listen and to practice. You can do it when you have noticed you have been triggered, and I would also recommend practising it several times a day to rewire your default stress reaction from red hot and 200 miles a nanosecond, to a more manageable orange with the length and weight of a breath.
If you are like me and my clients, this will change your life.