Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

Bravery and sincerity

Someone in the office started a weekly, drop-in, mindfulness session.

She booked a room for 20 minutes, and once a week, anyone who is interested can go over and listen to a simple, guided meditation.

It’s a great idea, was well framed and perfectly executed. Most of the people who turned up to the first session hadn’t done any meditation before, and the group seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience.

One of the things which I liked most about her idea, is that it was offered with compete sincerity – which means that she left herself vulnerable to social ridicule for backing an idea which might not work.

You might read that and think “social ridicule? What kind of work place is that?”

As it happens, it’s a great workplace, with lots of genuine, caring people. But there is still vulnerability in presenting an offer like this sincerely. When you first suggest it to a group of people, you do so not knowing if it will be accepted and you open the door especially to the very English dismissal/ridicule/discrediting arriving in the form of “banter”.

This kind of dismissal doesn’t have to be malicious in order to be effective or painful to receive. It’s often not even intended to actually discredit the idea, but is just a sniping observation, played for laughs.

This is especially true if the idea presented is more like “let’s meditate together” as opposed to something socially safer like “let’s get a burrito.”

The fact that I find this sincerity brave, probably says more about my own sensitivity to being undercut socially than being any great comment on how we interact with each other. I’ve been burned by comments like this in the past and I’ve certainly been responsible for dishing out my fair share. But I still think there is something powerful in this sincerity and worth calling out.

Brene Brown has spoken and written about the power and value of making ourselves vulnerable and Seth Godin stands firmly behind putting things out there which might not work.

Elsewhere, Godin had said that bravery is over-rated, because we tend to elevate it to a status which means that we tend to make it unattainable for most people on a daily basis. But I think that the opposite is true. I don’t think that it’s given enough emphasis, but we need to show where it exists in the small gestures, not just the large ones. We need to celebrate and promote the acts of everyday bravery in everyday situations, as they potentially open up a whole spectrum of choices which might not otherwise be available to us.

This might just be a case of calling out and supporting sincere offers when we see them. Probably more helpful is to ensure that we defend sincere offers when they are at risk of being undercut socially by someone who pokes the vulnerability for laughs.

It might not be the easiest position to take in the world, but if it were easy, then the stoics wouldn’t have bothered to make courage one of their core virtues.

Either way, I’m all for a little more sincerity and social vulnerability. They might be occasionally painful, but I suspect they contain a lot of value that we ignore on a daily basis.

In the meantime, if you need me between 11.40 & 12.00 on a Wednesday, I’ll in chilling out in Christine’s mindfulness session.

Shipping, fear & the resistance

I gorged on some Seth Godin videos over the weekend. Hey, you can judge me, but you gotta do something while you fold the washing for a family of five.

I was aware of Seth, but not particularly familiar with his work. His name would pop up, associated with an idea which sounded challenging, but intriguing, and I would dutifully note it down in under a category of things best described as “I probably should, but never will, look into this further.” It’s a big category full of vague, knotty items like “learn more about affiliate marketing, explore Dostoyevsky & find out why men your age like Taylor Swift”.

Anyhow, he has lots of interesting ideas which do sound worth exploring, one of which is this notion of “shipping”.

It’s a product term relating to the act of actually getting your product to customers, but in a broader context could be analogous to “completing”. When you ship something, you’re putting a version of it out into the world with your name on it. People will (may) see it, and when they do, they’ll know that you’re responsible for it.

OK, so while this is Mickey Mouse stuff (do stuff, then put it out there), the interesting thing is this gulf between having an idea, and shipping it. Lots of people have ideas, but very few people ship. Everyone has a great idea for a product, a movie, a book – but very few people become product designers, directors or authors.

Why is it that we all have these ideas, but that most of them die as scribbles in Moleskin notebooks and not out in the real world?

Godin contends that it’s because people assume that coming up with ideas is the work, but that the actual work is shipping. Ideas are a penny a pound, but commitment to ship is rare.

He suggests that partly what makes shipping so difficult is the social fear of failure generated by our brains in our Amygdala (or Lizard Brain).

Our Amygdala is one of the most primitive blocks of our brain and is hardwired to respond to some of our most primary needs and mechanisms. Memory modulation, aggression and the utility of fear as a motivator, all fall under it’s purview. While the Amygdala’s response to fear was originally primarily to physical threats which tended to be short-lived (either the leopard ate you or you got away), it is now capable of triggering the same response in the presence of more chronic, social pressures such as email, public speaking and anything else which can make you look stupid in front of other people.

Since “shipping” a product or idea into a public space has the capacity to make you look publicly silly, the Amygdala will create a fear response to the notion of shipping. This fear can become one of the primary barriers to bridging the gulf between having an idea and shipping it. Godin calls these barriers, The Resistance, a term which was coined by Stephen Pressfield.

The real challenge, according to Godin, is how to manage this fear so that you can move beyond it to just ship.

Shipping is where the exposure to criticism will come, but it’s also where all the value is found.

There’s a lot more in this, and I haven’t done enough work to have an opinion on most of it – but I thought it was worth capturing for a start.

Here are links to:
Seth Godin’s site
Seth’s talk on shipping and fear
Stephen Pressfield’s site