Friday, October 15, 2021

Know Thy Zone

In my last post I described three zones of our nervous system: the Freeze Zone, the Fight-Flight Zone, and the Flourishing Zone. In the Freeze Zone we go into shutdown and in the Fight-Flight Zone we go into defense, attack, or escape. Neither of these zones are happy places. They are about surviving, not thriving.


The third zone is what I'm calling the Flourishing Zone (psychologists call it the Social Engagement or Social Communication System). This is where happiness, resilience, and fulfillment are available to us. It's also where learning becomes possible, as well as creativity, presence, self awareness, groundedness, rationality and connection. So how do we know which Zone we're in?


Ask yourself this: 


When I'm feeling an emotion, how do I know that I'm feeling it?


Let's take anger as an example. How do you know that you're feeling angry? Try and answer this question yourself before reading on.


The answer is largely in our bodies. We know an emotion is present because of the sensations in our bodies. When you feel tense, how do you know? Your muscles might tighten, perhaps your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes shallow, there might be jitters in your stomach, your posture might stiffen.


If you rely heavily on your mind for your work (and you haven't developed a mindfulness practice), there's a good chance you could be out of touch with your body. Even if you are physically active, that doesn't mean you have good body awareness. Many people in our modern societies dwell exclusively in their heads - they are numb from the neck down. We see our minds as the primary tool of our success and forget that they are embodied.


Our minds are incredibly important to our flourishing, but they are only half the machinery of our experience. It's much more likely you are out of practice listening to the other half - your body. Yet the body is an incredibly reliable indicator and informant about your current experience.


Here are some questions you can ask yourself to start tuning in to which (neural) Zone you are in. This practice starts in the most familiar place - our minds - and works from there. You can ask these questions anywhere, any time during the day. Give yourself a good few minutes to start with but your mindfulness muscle will get faster the more it's used. (It's helpful to close your eyes while trying to answer these questions, as our visual field takes up a lot of our attentional capacity.)


The practice is simply to describe what's going on for you in three areas:


MIND: What mind activity is present? Is there problem solving? Are there mental movies playing about some imagined future scene or one from the past? Is there planning? Remembering? Storytelling?


EMOTIONS: What feelings are present? Are they generally pleasant, unpleasant or neither? There could be more than one. Ask yourself this question and then just wait to see what answers arise. Ask if there's anything else. Give it time. If the answer is close but not quite right, just ask the question again, and wait. (If you'd like some help identifying feelings, try our free Tool: What Am I Feeling? )


BODY: What body sensations are here? Is there tightness or holding anywhere? If so, where? Is there heat or cold? Is there movement? If so, what kind? Is it rhythmic, or jittery or something else? If you feel energy somewhere, what does that feel like? Describe it to yourself.


Memorise the three areas of focus: mind, emotions, body, and practice describing what's happening whenever you can. If you are doing this, you're unlikely to be in the Freeze Zone, so practice identifying whether you are in the Fight/Flight Zone, or in the Flourishing Zone, based on the descriptions in my last post here


The more quickly you can notice which zone you're in, the less likely you are to make a mess of things out of reactivity - to harm yourself, your relationships, and others. 


If you find you're in the Fight/Flight zone, your first job is to wheel in a bucket of compassion. It's painful to be in this zone! And it's very human.


The second job is to act on that compassion by self-soothing - go for a run, have a hug, talk with a friend - figure out what works for you and do it.


Once you've soothed yourself out of the Fight/Flight zone, then you're able to learn from the situation and we've got some Tools to help....



I invite you to practice this over the next week.  Notice when the body-mind is in the Fight/Flight Zone, apply compassion, self-soothe, then look for learning. 


Chat soon.


The Flourishing Zone



I talk a lot about the Nine Needs for full human flourishing. These are the nine ingredients we need for a fulfilling and not-too-stressed life. (Many of you assessed yourself on these a few weeks ago.)


But what about flourishing in the day-to-day? It's great to pay attention to the big picture to make sure each of the ingredients is there at a whole-of-life level, but what about the experience of any given day? What about your experience right now?


Let me introduce you to the idea of the Flourishing Zone. That is, paying attention to and managing the state we are in right now.


You know about fight and flight right? These are responses to feeling threatened - responses from the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. They are our survival modes. When we are in them, we are surviving, not thriving. If we haven't paid attention to our Nine Needs, we'll probably find ourselves in these modes more than necessary.


However a couple of decades ago, there was a profound development in the understanding of survival modes as the role of the vagus nerve came to light. This nerve plays a role in the shut-down that happens when we freeze in response to a perceived threat (usually to our life). This research showed that the autonomic nervous system in fact has three branches, not two:


1) freeze

2) fight/flight

3) social engagement



If we feel a serious imminent threat (e.g. to our life), we go into shutdown - into under-arousal - the freeze responses. Here we are unable to think, talk, maybe even to move, we can feel spaced out or even faint, withdrawn, depressed, numb, unable to respond. This response comes from the oldest and deepest part of our brain: the reptilian brain.



If we perceive danger, we go into the fight/flight responses - over-arousal. Here we feel tension, maybe anger, anxiety, frustration or defensiveness. We might have emotional outbursts or become rigid and inflexible, subversive, manipulative, aggressive, harsh or controlling. Or our patterns could be in the opposite direction - avoidance, or playing the victim. 


This is also the territory of self destructive behaviour, addictions, obsessions and phobias. Our body-minds are tense, on edge, reactive.


While those responses might sound extreme, we can have minor versions of them multiple times a day. The trigger could be getting stuck in traffic, a critical tone of voice from a work colleague or friend, or being excluded from a group somehow. Many of our modern day fight/flight responses are triggered by social danger rather than physical danger because for the most part, we are physically safe. But in our DNA, belonging is linked to survival.


Social Engagement

When we are feeling safe, we move into social engagement responses. This is the zone where flourishing occurs. It's where we connect with others and have access to our full range of capabilities and personal resources, including the ability to learn.


It's also where our bodies' visceral healing processes occur - the 'rest and digest' functions of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. (This is especially important for recovery if you're an athlete.) We are out of survival mode and into flourishing mode.


All of our 'new-brain' capabilities of language, rationality and creativity are at our disposal. Our new brain is the neo-cortex - the outer layer that is distinct in humans, and most of it is involved in processing social cues.


Here our bodies are calmer, we might feel energy, joy, delight, warmth towards others, patience, curiosity, and our bodies are more at ease. We're able to learn.


In the last 20 years or so, another survival response has been identified - the 'tend and befriend' response. Historically observed more frequently in women (although this may be changing), it involves building reciprocal helpful relationships with others, which become beneficial when under threat. The building of these relationships can only happen in the flourishing zone of social engagement.


The good news is that we can increase the amount of time we spend in the flourishing zone. To do that though, we first need to be aware of which zone we're in. And for that, we need to practice mindfulness. I posted recently on the role of mindfulness in personal growth and this is a case in point. 


In my next email, we'll look at how to identify which Zone you're in.


Chat soon.



P.S. If you'd like to assess yourself on the Nine Needs for full human flourishing as well as the Five Growth Superpowers, and grow your way to an awesome life, try our Flourish Life Assessment.)

What did lockdown show you?


This is us celebrating the last weekend of a COVID-19 lockdown here that lasted 107 days. Yep, our idea of lockdown fun - champagne in the back of the van overlooking the ocean.

You know the lockdown experience, whether you were part of this one or not. So what did you learn about yourself? Many of you downloaded the Nine Needs Self-assessment the other week - which Needs did you find were lacking?

One of the Five Growth Superpowers is Commitment to Growth and that involves looking for learning from every experience. I learnt a bunch of things, but let me share three big ones.

1. Adventures are an important way I meet the Need for Pleasure. For ages now, we haven't been able to plan anything. Our international borders have been closed, our state borders have been closed, hell for the last three months we haven't even been allowed to leave our local council area.

Some of my pleasure sources were always obvious - for example massage services also stopped during the lockdown. But I learnt just how much joy I get from dreaming up, planning and going on adventures. Without them, life felt small - a bit like it was asleep.

Knowing lockdown was a drain on my Need for pleasure, I focused on what I could. I put scented reeds in the bathroom. I put more focus on the simple things like boiling a billy in the van at the beach with Matt. I relished my time training at the track. And because I know learning and novelty are big sources of pleasure for me, I found something new to learn .....I took up pole vault! (As you can see, I still have lots to learn!)

2. It's important to have local friends and regular catch-ups. We know the Need for Connection is vital for us humans, and I did my best to keep that alive by arranging Friday video-drinks with friends each week. That was terrific and it's something we'll keep doing.

But video catch-ups alone aren't enough. A member of my meditation group had just moved to a new suburb (on her own!) before the lockdown. She didn't know anyone in her new area, so she wasn't able to catch up with friends in person. She really struggled with this.

I remember (decades ago) in my Social Psychology class, learning that physical proximity is a big predictor of who is in your social network. Because we've been living here for a long time, I've made some good friends in my local area. During lockdown we were allowed to exercise with one other person. I have two good friends with whom I catch up regularly and we kept this up during lockdown. This was super-helpful for me! I live with my best friend (my husband), so how much more important is it for those who don't?

There's something really beneficial about having regular meetings with friends - catch-ups that don't need to be planned. That way, your default setting for weekly life contains friendship - connection - rather than the default setting being isolation.

In our modern lives it's also common to move house - move suburbs, cities, states, or even countries. This can really disrupt our network of Connection. So if we do it, we need to treat building a new local web of Connection as an important priority - an important project.

3. Limbo is only mildly unpleasant - what we do with it can make it suck! Another of the Five Growth Superpowers is Curiosity. Part of my personal growth practice during the lockdown was to bring this attitude to the experience.

For a long time, we we didn't know when the lockdown was going to end. This put us in a kind of limbo, floating in uncertainty. Certainty is another one of our Nine Human Needs - uncertainty makes us feel unsafe, so it's ripe territory for making a mess of things. By 'making a mess' I mean reacting to an unpleasant experience making it worse, rather than mindfully bringing curiosity to it and responding in a skillful way.

What I noticed was that the unpleasant feelings of limbo were actually a mild form of anxiety or restlessness. If I allowed those feelings to be there and didn't react to them, they'd pass. Next thing I'd know, I was enjoying the smell of the fresh laundry I was folding, or in flow doing a hurdles training session, or sitting down to a yummy home-made dinner. I could enjoy all of these things even with a mild anxiety lurking in the background.

It was really only when I started thinking about the fact that I couldn't plan ahead, and I didn't know when things were going to open up again, that the anxiety came to the foreground. When I allowed the mind to go there it was like pouring fuel on a fire.

So increasingly, when I noticed the mind starting to moan on about being in limbo, I'd just notice that, acknowledge to myself that there was an unpleasantness in it, and allow the mind to move on...which it naturally did if I let it!

Personal growth is a commitment to bring curiosity, courage, compassion and clarity to our experience - the whole kit and caboodle!

What did you learn about your patterns of experience from lockdown?

P.S. To assess yourself on the Nine Needs for full human flourishing, as well as the Five Growth Superpowers and plan an awesome fulfilling future for yourself, check out the Flourish Life Assessment here.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Mindfulness & Personal Growth

Mindfulness is all the rage these days. That's mostly a good thing. I'd like to say a bit about the important role it plays in personal growth. But first, let's get clear on the terms mindfulness and meditation.

Meditation The word meditation tends to conjure up images of sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed. There are some common myths about what we’re supposed to be doing while sitting there, but the frequent assumption seems to be that we’re trying to calm our minds. Often this involves banishing thoughts, which turns out to be a pretty tough ask!

There are practices aimed at this, but that is just one aim among several. It’s only part of the story.

Meditation practices fall into two broad types. Let’s borrow from the Buddha and call them the two wings of personal growth.

Wing 1: Serenity The first wing includes practices aimed at serenity, that is, calming the body-mind. I use the term body-mind here because the body and mind are so interconnected that calming one, calms the other. A very common practice of this kind is paying attention to the breath,but it includes any practice that attempts to focus your mind on something.

Calming the mind is super helpful, partly because it dials down the stress in our lives, but also because it helps us with the other half of the story….

Wing 2: Insight The second wing includes practices aimed at gleaning insights about our experience, or our patterns of experience. They help us answer the question: what’s going on here. By here I mean in our inner world  our mind activity, emotions, and body. Many of these practices allow thoughts to go on, but bring curiosity to them to see and understand our own processes.

A lot of people start meditating because they want to reduce the stress in their lives. That’s great…. except if we adopt the idea that ‘good meditation’ is thought-free, calm meditation, we can judge ourselves badly when our mind is busy. Or worse  we can give up! Instead, try thinking of a 'good meditation' as one where you genuinely did your best to pay attention with curiosity and compassion.

By compassion I mean empathy, good will, and a desire to help. So if what you find is some kind of stress, or even distress, direct care towards yourself as you would a good friend, and just acceptthat what's coming up is coming up. We actually have no say in what arises a lot of the time. So allow it to be there and know that even if it's not pretty, it's probably your mind's attempt to protect you in some way.

And if you're seeing it clearly, then that's REALLY GOOD PRACTICE! So it’s important to know about, and be able to draw on practices from both wings (serenity and insight), so that if our mind’s not calming down, we have other options at our fingertips.

Also, if we only stick with serenity practices, we can miss out on building our insight  we need both wings to fly. More on that in a sec…

MINDFULNESS Strictly speaking, meditation is not just sitting on a cushion watching our breath. It’s the practice of bringing awareness and an attitude of curiosity and compassion to our experience, whatever that is.

This includes what we find on the cushion and off of it. Indeed, in the only teaching the Buddha gave about meditation (yep, out of the 5,434 recorded dialogues of the Buddha, only one of themwas about meditation practice!) he included all of our physical and mental activities as things we can focus our attention on in meditation. Focusing on the breath is just one possibility.

In today’s language though, the word mindfulness has come to mean awareness of our experiencesin daily life.  So, essentially, the two terms could be used interchangeably. We’ll use them this wayfor clarity:

Meditation = bringing awareness, curiosity and compassion to our experience in formal meditation (dedicated periods of sitting, walking or lying-down meditation)

Mindfulness = bringing awareness, curiosity and compassion to our experience in daily life (all experience outside of those dedicated meditations)

Their importance to personal growth Personal growth is about changing the way we receive and respond to the world  the way we experience it and act in it. To make changes, we need to see the process of our experience in detail. If we don’t know how it works, we’ll have a huge amount of trouble changing it.

The problem is, we live such busy lives these days, and have so many entertainments and distractions readily available, that we’re unlikely to see much of the detail unless we deliberately slow down and look. We need to slow down, because speed and mindfulness just don’t go together! This is why it’s important to join PAR (People Against Rushing).

For example, let’s say one of my personal patterns is that I get reactive if I’m ever seen to be wrong. If I’m not mindful of this experience, when someone questions my view on a topic, I can getdefensive, argumentative, maybe even unpleasant  perhaps belittling the other person.

However if I bring mindfulness to this I might see that this is a personal sensitivity that’s emerged in my body-mind from my family history. I’d see the association I have between being wrong and being seen as un-intelligent, or lacking credibility. I’d see the fear I have associated with these judgments because of my past experience that left me feeling disconnected and unimportant when Iwas ‘shown up’ as wrong. I’d see my fear around the human needs for Connection and Belonging  that’s where my pain is. This is insight!

As I grow, I’d recognise this as it happens, and with time and practice I’d be able to cultivate a different response  different thoughts, different behaviours, and methods of soothingthe outdated fears that have been stored as emotional memories.

There’s a lot of seeing and recognising going on here isn't there?! Mindfulness and meditation are essential tools for this. Without them, wejust continue our habitual reactive patterns.

So if you haven't already, I’d encourage you to start on the path of meditation and mindfulness yourself. With meditation you might want to start with a 15 minute meditation twice a week - someresearch shows thatas little as 12 ½ minutes can yield some stress-relief benefits!

You don't need candles or incense, and don't get hung up on which practice to use. Just find a quiet space where you won't be interrupted. Sit so that you're relaxed but alert. Try anything and notice how that is for you. There are loads of guided meditations available on the internet (one of my favorite apps is or you can try simply counting your outbreaths, and when you lose focus, just start again. You can try focusing your attention on sounds for one meditation, feelings in the body in another, or just let your mind roam and try to notice where it goes and what it does.

Whatever you do, if you're paying attention to your experience with an attitude of curiosity and compassion for yourself, then you're meditating. It'll be patchy at first, for sure. Expect that. It's no problem. Mindfulness is a habit, it'll take time for the mindfulness muscle to grow. Just accept it as it is, and keep going.

You might want to start a meditation journal and note down what each experience is like (what youremember of it). The goal is to build up your own toolkit of meditation practices so that over time you can develop skill in deciding which is most helpful for you in this moment.

With the more general mindfulness practice, simply try and bring the same thing to everyday experience. Whether that's your work, doing the dishes, interacting with people, your exercise or sport, your socialising - just pay attention with curiosity and compassion.

Soon we'll be releasing some short videos on common meditation myths, an overview of practices, and a simple 'how-to' - we'll let you know as soon as they're ready. Remember you can download a beautiful and FREE PAR card here. 

Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook Page to let us know how you go.