The body is always in the present moment. Always. Emma Seppälä.
This week I headed up West 31st Street to spend a day at the Eileen Fisher Learning Lab for a workshop on Embodied Wisdom. It’s no exaggeration to say I often completely forget I have a body, and apparently I’m not alone. I push on way past tiredness, I go long stretches without breaks, I disappear into my head, I multi-task and I set myself demanding goals: most of the time.
I’ll confess to you now: I’ve slept with my smartphone! I’ve checked emails secretly under the restaurant table while having a meal with people I really care about.
I once went out for coffee with my partner on a lazy Sunday morning. I had completely forgotten he was there while I frantically answered text messages. I was gently returned to the present moment when I received a text message; from him. Would you like to have a coffee with me?
One of the things I’m committed to focusing on while traveling as a Westpac Bicentennial Social Innovation Fellow is how to be more in the present moment. For so long I’ve thought this was a problem that my mind, once tamed, would need to solve. Turns out I was only half right. I’d fallen for Descartes logic and forgotten all about the body.
Embodied Wisdom at the Eileen Fisher Learning Lab gave me a day with Eileen Fisher, and her guests Dr Emma Seppälä, Science Director for Standford’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Wendy Palmer, Coach, Author and Akido Black Belt and Steven Hoskinson, Founder and Chief Compassion Officer of Organic Intelligence.
At last a day to experience how the biofeedback mechanisms between the brain and the body really work. I learned how to breathe (not as easy as it should be), how to use the Japanese non-violent Martial Art of Akido to increase my strength and sense of mastery over my personal space. I learned more about deep listening and how to bring my visual awareness back into the very present moment. Before I summarise the science that informs these practices I want to just stay with the body a bit longer.
It’s the breathing, moving, responding, fearful, joyful, hungry, tired or exuberant body that comes to work every day. We work with real human bodies. Our colleagues are people who have tossed and turned at night, physically caught trams and trains and buses to get to be with us, they’ve kissed the wet faces of small children goodbye and hunted for lost keys . They are not flesh covered thinking machines. We so easily forget our bodies. When we are tired or sick we often think of it as such an imposition that the body should make itself known so intrusively.
Neuro-science is helping us understand four important theories:
- Neuroplasticity – the brain changes in response to experience and training. Most of the time we are allowing ourselves to be pushed and pulled without exerting much control.
- Epigenetics – the science of how genes are expressed. Our genetic expression is not fixed. The way a mother interacts with her baby can alter the gene expression in that infant and that expression can be lasting. Meditation and stress both alter genetic expression.
- Bi-directional feedback loop between our brains and our body mean that our brains can regulate the systemic regulatory systems in our body and our body can feedback and alter our brains.
- Innate basic goodness – we come into the world with innate basic goodness. Scientists have now demonstrated that very early in life if we give a baby a choice between an altruistic and warm hearted encounter and a selfish or angry encounter, the baby will choose the warm hearted and altruistic encounter.
We are not creating something that didn’t already exist. We are just nurturing a quality that was always there. Dr Richard Davidson.
Let me wrap-up this week in New York with a story about a body.
Earlier today as I stood at the intersection of 5th Avenue and East 40th Street I watched on helplessly as a woman stepped in front of a bus. The bus sounded it’s horn repeatedly. The woman wearing a white raincoat that reminded me of a thin plastic bag blown in the wind, didn’t move. The bus came to a stop a metre from her and sounded it’s horn again, a long deep jarring blast. Slowly the old woman, as if woken from a trance, looked up, peeking out from the hood of her raincoat and carefully moved back to the kerb.
I waited until the lights changed so I could run through the intersection to see if she was okay. By the time I reached her she was drifting back onto the road. I gently took her arm and guided her to safety. Thank you M’am for looking out for me. I get so interested in these intersections I forget about the buses. Her eyes a pale slate and her front tooth a dull silver. We talked for a few moments and I walked on.
What struck me more than anything else was that this woman with a bus bearing down on her was not alone, she was surrounded by other pedestrians. No-one tried to grab her, or call her or reach her. People looked away at smart phones or shook their heads in dismay.
We all come into the world with innate basic goodness. We now need to create as many possibilities to reconnect with that goodness. We won’t be able to think our way into that space, we will need to take our bodies to work.