I couldn’t be still until I could—literally—no longer keep still.

Michael J. Fox, discussing his experience with Parkinson’s disease

Neuroscientists, mapping the brain activity of people who were instructed to relax, have found that the mind at rest is profoundly active. In her audio book, The Neuroscience of Change, Kelly McGonigal references a study which found that the seemingly relaxed mind tends to engage in four typical patterns:

  • It comments on the existing. “Oh, it’s so darn damp in here.”
  • It time-travels. “Holy mackerel, next month I need to call 41 people!”
  • It engages in self-referential processing, relating what is happening now to the concept of an individual self. “I sure do know a lot about pixels.”
  • It engages in social cognition. “That Jake is a dandy. I wonder what he thought about me when I said his shoes are unfashionably dull.”

Realizing that just as my heart is made to pump, my mind is made to think, comment, compare, complain, obsess or strategize, incessantly, is no comfort for me. I suffer from an extraordinarily busy mind. Even in my best attempts to be still I hardly get through three breaths before my monkey mind slings onto another branch and and starts fuddling with a cumquat. And for the most part, my outer life reflects this inner restlessness. I go through the days plucking away at my endless to-do list. I don’t get still, because I don’t know how.

A few years ago, this way of living became highly dissatisfying for me. I was exhausted from being so darn driven and started to look for pathways to stillness. I’ve been learning about getting still, for myself and for groups of people who share the desire to do work that comes from a place of deep persuasion rather than the next thing on the to-do list.

Here are a few things that I’ve been learning.

There are multiple ways of knowing the world
Carl Jung says that we know the world through not only through our mind (our thinker) but also through our emotions, our body and our intuition. When we rely only on our rational interpretation of life, we miss several information inputs that can help us navigate through life’s complexity. But to make use of those other inputs — to feel what we feel, truly sense the world, and intuit what might happen next, we need to be present.

Our mind has two distinct modes
Depending on who you listen to, the modes of our mind have different names: left brain / right brain; closed mode / open mode ; verbal mind / non-verbal mind; rational mind / creative mind. Norman Farb and his colleagues talk about our “narrative circuitry” and our “direct experience” circuitry. (Here is a nice readable article on his research with a link to the full study.) When we experience the world through our narrative circuitry, we are in monkey-mind territory where we are thinking about the moment, as opposed to being in the moment.

The narrative circuitry at work

When you attend to your direct experience circuitry, you are really here. Your story-teller has gone quiet, you are available to the present moment, you are in touch with the reality of now, and able to access all your faculties of knowing. You are less tied up in your habits of thought, fear, expectation and assumption, and you are able to stand in creative response to whatever arises.

The direct experience circuitry

In theory, this is a simple act. But how? What can we do to make this shift?

The principle of becoming still: shift your focus
Shifting your focus from narrative to direct experience means intentionally placing your full focus inside the experience. When our brains are engaged with our narrative circuitry, we are trying to make sense of the world around us. We are working with an abstraction of the experience. When we deliberately shift our attention to the experience itself, our thinker is given a break.

That’s the key. We can learn to move our attention from the default chatter of abstractions and stories to the actual experiences themselves. And by doing so, we get the benefit of being quiet enough to access those other “ways of knowing” described by Jung: body, emotion, and intuition (or just enjoy feeling relaxed for a few moments!)

Here are ways to try
Choose one of the following, and give it your full attention: your external environment, a task you are engaged with, a sensation inside your body, or an image in your imagination.

  • Your external environment. Focus your senses on something specific. Give all your attention to the birdsong outside your window; trace the volume of the room with your eyes; taste the textural difference between the raisin’s skin and its soft inside. When your commentators starts up, just bring your focus back to the experience.
  • Your task. Give your full attention to a task. If you are washing the dishes, attend to the relationship between your hands, the water, the silky soap, and the course bristles beneath your fingers. Marvel in the richness of it.
  • Your body. Choose a focus point, like the sensation of your blood stream coursing through your body, and stay with it for as long as you can. See if you can imagine how the blood moves pulse by pulse through your entire body.
  • Your imagination. Use your imagination to revisit a place or experience as vividly as you can. If not an event or place, you might want to focus on a person or animal you love dearly. Remember what it feels like to be with them. Recall as many details of them as you can. If it is a person, imagine their hands, the touch of their hands, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the way you feel when you are around them.

You can also try combining several of these. The richer the experience, the less space there is for commentary. When we work with groups, we often do an exercise like this to help them access a point of stillness inside them. You can see what we do at the end of the post.

This is not easy!
In her book, My stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor talks about how terrifically difficult it can be to step out of the deeply engrained mental patterns of our monkey minds. She compares them to gnarly vines, and new thought patterns to tender shoots that need our attention to grow. Getting still might feel nearly impossible, especially if you feel stuck in a fearful story. But the more we practice shifting our focus, the more we build the neuro-circuitry necessary to help us access this still state when we need it most. So, persevere!

When you feel overwhelmed by the world, by your thoughts, by the complexity of the challenge you face, consider this strategy: rather than trying harder or going faster, slow down. Take a two minute vacation and visit what John O’Donohue calls “your inner sanctuary” — the place “where there is still a sureness in you, where there is a seamlessness in you and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you.”


Applying this to groups

When we facilitate client workshops, there often comes an time when the group moves toward an important collective insight. But there is a risk: they can follow their habitual narrative. To help them step into a place of openness, I often use and exercise called “Sense Drench.” I learned it from life-coach Martha Beck. It works well because of its simple nature and it takes no longer than five minutes. Once I make it clear what we’re about to do (shift our focus into the present) and why (so that we can be in a more receptive state), I invite people to participate to the degree they feel comfortable.

Sense Drench Instructions

Before I do this exercise with a group, they have usually been together for several hours. Their intention has been clarified, a pace of ease has been set, and there is some sense of trust between us. This helps people to engage in an exercise that is not “business as usual.”

This is the script which I read from as I take people through the exercise. As I say these words, I mentally do the exercise myself so that I can pace it well. I have found that when I simply read it without also engaging my imagination, I go too fast. Everyone’s imagination needs time for the details of the scene be painted in.

Choose a location that you love, then “go there” in your imagination. I find it easier to imagine when my eyes are closed. If that works for you, I invite you to do the same if you.

  • What sounds do you hear?
  • Feel the weight of your body onto the surface that you’re sitting on. Feel the ground under your feet. If you’d touch the surroundings, what does it feel like? What do you feel on your skin – is there sunlight, a light breeze?
  • Take a deep breath in – what does the place smell like?
  • Is there something you’d want to eat when you’re there? If so, take a bite, what does that taste like? What is the texture and temperature in your mouth?
  • Next, if you would look around you, what do you see? What are the color that speak to you, the textures and patterns that you see? What does the light look like?
  • Now recall all these sensations – experience them all at once – what you see, hear, feel smell, taste. Stay with these sensations. As you stay with them all, take several deep breaths in.

When you are ready, come back to this moment.

This post was originally written as a companion piece for a two-part article in The Cooper Journal. Part 1, “The pause that gives insight” is here on Cooper’s site.