Getting Your Feet on the Ground

October 28th, 2010

Gerda Alexander, a 20th century bodywork practitioner, said security is greatly connected to feeling your bone structure. What did she mean? By noticing your capacity to support yourself at a physical level, you feel your potential to support yourself at other levels: mentally, emotionally, socially, professionally. Confidence is not an abstract “something” we have no way of grasping. Confidence, as a feeling, already exists in your body.

This would explain why people feel stronger and, yes, more confident, just by feeling their feet on the ground. It’s a simple approach yielding disproportionate benefits. One client recounted, “I had a difficult conversation with my boss last week, so I made sure I was feeling both feet on the ground, and I was surprised how strong I felt in that interaction.” Being grounded connects you to your surroundings, keeps you present, and that increases confidence.

How can you develop this skill so it works for you, even under pressure? Take your shoes off. Close your eyes and notice the sensations you feel in your feet, sensations of temperature, texture, weight and so forth. Notice if you are standing on your whole foot, or focusing your weight into just part of your foot. What would it feel like to allow your whole foot to support your body, not just part of your foot? The overused part might feel grateful.

Next, ask yourself if you are standing on your bones. If your bones are acting like pillars to support your body, then the large external muscles might be able to relax over that framework, like clothes draped over a hanger. Scan through your body. If your bones are supporting you, you might be able to relax your legs, unclench your bottom, let go of your belly, soften your lower back, drop your shoulders or lengthen the back of your neck. What muscles are working too hard, just to keep you upright? When you perform simple tasks, like standing, with economy of effort, you free yourself to focus on other things. You feel more “able.”

If you’re standing on your bones and your feet are fully in contact with the ground, your whole body is able to relax downward onto the ground. This enables you to breathe deeply. Your voice is more likely to engage with your whole body. You begin to feel you are speaking with your whole being. The effect is often immediate and noticeable. Of course, making that an everyday experience, something that helps you, even under pressure, takes some practice.

You can practice grounding whenever it crosses your mind: brushing your teeth, waiting in line, standing in the office talking to colleagues. At any moment, you can ask yourself, “What is my connection to the ground, right now? Am I aware of the ground supporting me at this moment?” Then continue doing whatever you were doing, noticing what difference it makes. It quickly becomes a feeling you wouldn’t want to live without.

You may not control what life or work throws at you, but you can access your unique strengths, be fully available and connect with maximum impact, by developing a secure foundation for strong presence and peak performance.

SPEED TRAP: Go Slower and Improve Faster

October 18th, 2010

I once attended a martial arts seminar in a large university gymnasium. Participants were positioned across the space according to rank, beginners on one side, intermediate students in the middle, and advanced students on the far side. On signal from the sensei, the entire group would execute one of twelve kata, a proscribed pattern of movements. From my vantage point (among the beginners) I viewed the entire class and observed the beginners tended to finish first. It seemed counter-intuitive. I expected the advanced students to perform with more speed, but they usually were the last to finish. I realized they were focusing on fundamentals while the beginners were busy cranking out a result. I’ve noticed the same tendency in my clients. Beginners tend to do exercises too quickly, and this is a real barrier in the learning process. Speed is the beginner’s trap.

One important element of skill building is motivation. Working at an appropriate level of difficulty, getting immediate feedback and being rewarded for progress strengthens motivation and enhances the learning process. Practicing too quickly makes it difficult. Your failure rate increases, leading to more frustration. Rushing reduces the amount of pleasure and satisfaction you experience in the activity, so you become less engaged. It also limits the amount of useful feedback you receive, so the depth of reinforcement diminishes. Speed kills motivation.

Another important component of skill building is retention. If we hope to retain well, we must learn well, and that requires observation and attention to accuracy. When you move through an exercise too quickly, the details of your experience become blurry. It’s hard to observe anything, so it doesn’t really make an impression on your brain and body. Furthermore, you become less accurate when you go too fast. You perform below your potential because you’re not giving yourself time to be precise, and you end up reinforcing a lower level of performance. Speed undermines retention.

How can you avoid the speed trap? Be curious, not demanding. Treat the activity as an experiment, rather than a test. “Getting it right” is not as important as being observant. Be willing to linger over the process and see what you discover. Curiosity counteracts speeding.

Notice detail.  I once had to write a two-page paper on a piece of ancient Egyptian sculpture. I arrived at the museum, eager to finish, only to be confronted by a very dull, crudely fashioned image of a warrior. My heart sank. How was I ever going to write two pages about this boring piece of driftwood? At loss, I decided to make detailed notes on the statue’s appearance, then go home and figure out what to write. So I started at the top of his head… Two hours later, I found myself not just engrossed but inspired by this remarkable work of art. It seemed ready to come to life in front of me. The report was a breeze. My biggest challenge was writing only two pages. That was a profound lesson I’ve never forgotten. For the first time, I realized that if you really care to learn something you have to take time and look closely. Noticing detail naturally slows you down.

Pay attention to sensation. Through extensive research, Dr. Michael Merzenich demonstrated that only by paying close attention do you create lasting change to your brain maps. When you move through an action quickly, you don’t feel much, and so you don’t learn well. Conversely, by cultivating a high degree of physical awareness you tend to slow down, focus more, and learn better. What are you trying to feel? Anything. Sensations of warmth or coolness, heaviness or lightness, softness or hardness, contraction or relaxation, breathing, these are all possibilities. Beyond tactile sensations, you could also notice what you see, hear, taste and smell. The more senses you involve in the learning process, the more attentive you become, and the more effective the process becomes. Feeling discourages speeding.

It’s no secret that haste undermines your appreciation of life. The advice about smelling roses may be clichéd, but it’s still true. The troubling implication is that speeding prevents you from learning well; it keeps you from achieving important objectives. It’s an obstacle to excellence. Telling yourself to slow down rarely corrects the problem since speed tends to be rooted in habit. Giving yourself a simple task like noticing some small detail or feeling some new sensation, will engage you in a new experience. That will encourage new behaviors and ultimately generate real change. Lowering the speed limit raises your potential.