August 19, 2012

Overcoming Self-sabotage

We have talked about resistance and other forms of self-sabotage many times here. Resistance is the tendency to allow things to interfere with getting on with the work you are called to do. My favorite book on resistance is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. What I want to talk about today is personal. It is what I believe is at the root of all self-sabotage, and of a whole array of issues that we wrestle with as human beings.

I am my own worst enemy

This statement is so common, so widely applicable to our lives, that we take it for granted. All of us are different, but all of us have, at times, felt that we have sabotaged our own success and wellbeing in various ways. For many of us this is a chronic condition. Each of us is a unique blend of experiences and responses to those experiences. Virtually all of us have had encounters, usually beginning early in life, that have shaped our deep and unexamined beliefs about what we can accomplish in our lives. It is truly rare to encounter a person who has no such issues. And getting underneath those issues is crucial to forming realistic and healthy goals and achieving them.

There are countless books, retreats, support groups, workshops, coaches, and therapists ready to help us overcome our own private demons. All too often, regardless of the truth they offer, they don't accomplish real healing and change. Why might that be? I think the ineffectiveness of so much self help material is that we tend to process it as head knowledge, up there in the logical, analytical "new brain"—that part of us that we do not appear to share with any other species. It's the part of us that can send a rocket into space or make art. It's the part of us that makes us formidable hunters, even though we have slow reactions, poorly developed senses, weak muscles, and a very awkward anatomy for the task.


Monkey Brain

This new brain of ours makes up for all these shortcomings, and allows us to tackle tasks and challenges that no other species even conceives of. It allows us to take the experiences of our past and extrapolate them into future possibilities. It allows us to plan in great detail, and apply logic and analysis to those possibilities. It gives us innovation and science and art and so many things that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This big new brain tends to believe its own press. It's self aware, and thinks that it is who you are. It thinks it is the crowning jewel of humanity. At one level, this is true. But in fact, this part of our brain is really no more than a tool. A versatile tool, with almost limitless potential, but a tool none the less. It's purpose is analysis, logic, and problem solving. It's the Swiss Army Knife of the mind when it comes to taking experience (past memories) and synthesizing solutions and expectations for the future. All this might sound familiar, since I have written a little about it before. And those of you who have known me for a long time will know where I am taking this.

I like to call this fancy new brain that makes us so unique, the "monkey brain". It talks to us constantly when we are awake, and is very busy. It uses language, and you know it has over-reached its assignment when you feel as if you can't stop your thoughts from running on and on even when you would like to calm and still your mind. That time when you are in bed and wanting to sleep is one of those times when monkey brain is especially bothersome and obvious. Your monkey brain believes that it is who you are. If you have never successfully turned it off, you might believe that the voice that narrates and manages your thoughts from inside your head actually is you. It is not. It's just your Swiss Army Knife out of control. The most effective way to turn off the monkey brain is to simply watch it work. Turn your focus on it and it will shut up. It hates a discerning audience. There's a lot to say about this technique for quieting the monkey brain, but that is not our topic today.

The 8mm flicker

I have heard it said that the new brain, the monkey brain, is only capable of processing information at about the same rate of speed that we process visual input, which is around 16 images per second. The old 8mm home video cameras (I have one of these) ran at 16 frames per second, and the movies made with them seemed to flicker. But Super8 movies were recorded at 18 frames per second, which was just above the speed at which the brain could see individual images, so the flicker went away. 16 chunks of information per second is not exactly a blazing rate of speed. In fact, the earliest computers were significantly faster. But there is another part of our minds that is not limited to 16 chunks per second, and that part of us is more truly representative of who we actually are. It's the part of our mind that functions on intuition. It can assimilate vast amounts of input and synthesize all of it instantaneously. It's the part of our mind that knows the answers without doing the homework. It's quiet and for the most part hidden. You might call it shy. It's not pushy, and cares nothing for being right or wrong, and will yield every time the monkey brain barges in to assert itself. This is really too bad in a way, because this other part of your mind is far more resourceful, and capable, and more central to your real nature than the self-important renegade Swiss Army Knife could ever hope to be.

What I want to do now is to describe a technique that I discovered about 13 years ago that completely changed my life. I am thinking about this now because it came up in a private discussion group that I am part of on Facebook last week. This technique is similar to the ideas of Eckhart Tolle, that I have written about here before. What follows is my very personal story of how I came to understand and learned to practice this technique. I had no theory for how and why it worked at the time, but it did work, extraordinarily well. It has been a key part of my life ever since, and changed me profoundly.

The 10 Second Miracle

The Ten-Second Miracle is a book By Gay Hendricks. A dear friend of mine had told me about the book, so when I found it in a discount bin at a local book store, I bought it. The concept of the book is very simple, and I will describe it for you here. But first, a little background.

Around the time I got the book, I was engaged in a new romance with a woman I had met on It was an intense and satisfying romance, and seemed to be going very well until the day, seven weeks in, when she announced that it was over, and that she was moving to Colorado immediately. I was shell shocked. I didn't see it coming and found myself utterly incapacitated. I called in sick at work, and after a brief weekend visit to my sister in Visalia, I holed up in my house with the shades drawn and did not come out for a week. I slept little and ate less. Wave after wave of inconsolable grief and torment swept over me. My life was hopelessly tragic, and I could see no path forward. But I remembered the ideas from the Ten Second Miracle, and decided to give it a try. Here's what that means.

According to Hendricks, when we attempt to block or suppress what we think of as negative emotions, our bodies react in uncomfortable but highly predictable ways. There are four physical focal points where these emotions lodge as symptoms:

  • The throat is where the first reaction to loss of a loved one is registered. We get a lump in our throat when a relationship ends, whether by death, divorce, or abandonment.
  • As the reality of loss sets in, and we begin to process what it means for the long term, the next physical locus of tension and discomfort is the chest.
  • Worry and fear lodge in the pit of the stomach.
  • Anger sets up camp in the neck, shoulders, and head.

If you are one of those very rare individuals who always allow these emotions to flow through you unimpeded, you might not know what I am talking about. But for the rest of us, these four emotions, and the physical stress points where they express themselves, are all too familiar. The physical discomfort that we feel with these emotions is entirely caused by resisting and trying to suppress the emotions. The way that most of us deal with these emotions is to stuff them down and wait it out. Eventually, over months or years, we manage to bury them deeply enough that they don't bother us so much, and may even seem to go away entirely. Crying is a very common release for the energy in these emotions, but does nothing to address the underlying issues.

How It Works—My Case Study

The Ten Second Miracle is a remarkable process that gets right to the heart of the issue instantly—in less than ten seconds! And it's so simple that you will be shocked at the results the first few times you try it. When you feel a wave of emotion sweeping over you, focus all your attention on the physical feeling. In my case, this was at first a huge lump in my throat as the horror of losing love hit me so hard. As I turned my focus from the tragic story of my loss to the sensation in my throat, the whole thing simply evaporated. Instantly I felt a deep sense of peace and calm. It was amazing! For a few minutes this sense of peace persisted, and I got a tiny flash of insight. Then another wave of grief washed over me as I thought about some small incident from the past few weeks that reminded me of how wonderful love had been and how tragic its loss would be. I focused once again on the feeling surging up in my throat, and once again, it all evaporated instantly into peace and rest and another tiny flash of insight.

This went on constantly, day and night for several days. I quickly became reliant on the ten second miracle, and as the tiny fragments of insight accumulated, I began to see the ways in which this tragic loss was representative of a much bigger, lifelong pattern in my relationships with lovers, parents, bosses, teachers, and pretty much everyone who had a significant role to play. Eventually I saw how I had a deep and previously unexamined belief that my needs would not be met—that others with whom I thought there was mutual care and respect would eventually abandon me and my needs. I saw how this pattern had played out in almost every significant relationship of my life.

As that marathon week of emotional turmoil progressed, I processed first the feelings of loss and grief, and the muscles of my abdomen, chest, and throat were aching and sore. I am sure that I could not have handled all of this without the peaceful and restful interludes provided by the ten second miracle. Without that, I would certainly have been forced to stuff it all down to survive. But finally, the waves of grief gave way to fear. What if this was my destiny, to be abandoned over and over for a lifetime. Now the focus was on the physical upheaval in my gut, and again the ten second miracle came through as before. I began to gain insights into the roots of this fear. I began to see how I was projecting my past into an unknowable future. The realization of this had a reality that came from intuition rather than logic, and it grew through the week.


Finally, anger was all I had left. The other emotions, finding no resistance in me, and giving way little by little to a deep insight into their source, had expended themselves. Anger was especially problematic for me, because I had never allowed it. I grew up in a family in which there was no room for any kind of anger except an impersonal form of righteous indignation at wrongs done to others. Being angry on my own behalf was never an option. This pattern came out of an evangelical Christian upbringing and was deep. Anger, more than anything, threatened loss of control. I didn't know where its boundaries lay, or if I could survive it unshackled. If I could not control myself, would I prove to be a monster? But I was so deep into all of this emotional exploration at this point that I was ready for anything. For the first time I could ever remember in my adult life, I let anger rise up my spine, into my neck and shoulders, literally unsure that I could contain it as it burst into my head. I felt genuine uncertainty that I would survive it. And yet, it was time, and I was ready.

All through that week there had been a tiny voice, an observing part of me that was immune to the emotional firestorm, that had been whispering encouragement to press on. This voice had been the source of the stream of insight, and it was protective and reassuring. It was the real me, and it was utterly different from the monkey brain. In fact, the monkey brain was the source of all the chaos, grief, and fear. It knew nothing of insight, and could only look at the past to try to deduce a future. And since the past was overlaid with this belief about abandonment, the future did not look bright. Almost all of what I thought was my own grief was nothing other than the monkey brain over-processing my past to feed me a tragic future. All the waves of grief were triggered by sweet memories, and the script was always about how tragic it was that I would never experience such happiness again.

My father told me the story of my own birth shortly after this experience, and it sheds light on the earliest roots of my toxic belief structure about abandonment and not being a priority to those closest to me. My mother had a bad reaction to the anesthetics used during my birth. She was unconscious for a week. It was 1951, and Dr. Spock's theory of child rearing (let them cry, and just tend to basic physical needs to avoid "spoiling" them) was all the rage. It was also back when hospitals did not allow family members, even dads, to get past the waiting room except for brief supervised visits. That meant that the nursing staff left me to scream in the hospital nursery for a week, only tending to basics like diapers and feeding, a la Dr. Spock, and would not let my dad tend to me, since he was only a dad, and not on staff. Clearly this was a beginning reference point for the belief that my needs would go unmet.


Peeling the Onion

There is an onion-like character to old belief structures like the one I have described here. The experience I have described was a deep healing at the level of personal, and especially romantic relationships. Those layers are peeled. Gone. All better now. But there are other layers to this, some of which I have not entirely worked through. I still have traces of this belief structure around things like work, and the acceptance of my art in the community, and marketing what I do. These are more difficult layers, because they involve people who are less committed to me personally. Because these layers do not engage my closest relationships there is more opportunity for rejection, even when it really is not personal. But the old belief structures are not concerned with such technicalities. Rejection is rejection is rejection. It is not subtle. And what I say in my head means little until I peel that layer.

And these more subtle layers are more difficult in part because the physical symptoms are fewer and more intangible. I never feel a lump in my throat or the pressure of tragedy in my chest over rejection by a gallery. I am just beginning to probe the more subtle aspects of being present in the moment with emotions that don't have strong physical manifestations like those I have described above. The key to the ten second miracle is not those strong emotions. It is focusing on the present moment rather than the tragic story the monkey brain constructs around the situation. Present conscious focus is the most powerful and important thing that we can practice as consciously evolving human beings, and it is the only way to stay connected to who you really are. It is the only way to tame the monkey brain.

OK, So What?

So why am I spending so much time to tell you this very personal story here? It's very simple. We are all prisoners of our past in so far as we have left it unexamined. Your past, and its influences on you, are different from mine. But all of us have history. I tell this story to share the tools that I have found most useful to me in addressing my own past and the dysfunctional ways I have lived with it. I have found that my story drives my story. What happens is influenced by my deeply held beliefs about what can happen, and the same is true for you. This is one of the most important things that human beings can learn, and it's especially important for entrepreneurs who are working to write their one script. You must clear out the stories in your head that limit your script. You can do this work. You do not need a therapist or coach to do so. All you need is to learn to quiet the monkey brain and let your real self speak. That is the process that this story is about. You may have begun this journey already, or you may not be ready to tackle it right now. You cannot force it, and if you try, it is just your monkey brain trying to be in charge. It seems that it works best in times of crisis—times when monkey brain is in panic mode and not doing very well at controlling things. We are more open at such times. So if now is not the time, just tuck this away, and if you're lucky, the universe will bless you with a crisis in due time. I have come to cherish emotional catastrophe for this very reason, and curiously, I rarely have it any more.


Shortly after the episode I described above, I met Peggy. I am confident that we would not have been attracted to each other if I had not been through this cathartic healing process. And after the first three years of our relationship, I finally abandoned any expectation that she might abandon me. And now, after 12 years together, it just gets better.



I've written here about bees before. Last week I began working with some new friends, Lana, Tom, and Catherine Cochrun in Cambria to help them learn to work with the beehive they are keeping in their back yard. Tom is a blogger, and has posted several articles this week about the experience. Take a peek here to see what's up.

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