The science behind “Centering for Wisdom” is discussed in very helpful article that appeared earlier this week in the Harvard Business Review, “Managing Yourself: Coping with Fatigue, Fear, and Panic During a Crisis”by Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines. Since we’re struggling with the fear and anxiety around the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, I thought it might be helpful to explore what we can learn about staying centered, and making wise decisions, during stressful situations.
First, Schwartz and Pines describe how the mind and body’s systems respond when the demands placed upon them are greater than their capacity – they call this “allostatic overload.” This is what I describe as being de-centered: that is, distracted, overwhelmed, and fragmented. They continue:
The fear and uncertainty fueled by the COVID-19 crisis is putting extreme pressure on our finite resources. The consequences include poor decision-making, breakdown, and burnout.
- Schwartz & Pines
They also write about three “selves” that we have within us, and how each one reacts to life differently. These are our “overwhelmed self” (un-centered), our “survival self” (full panic mode), and our “adult self” (centered, calm, and focused). Our overwhelmed and survival selves tend to have a built in “confirmation bias,” which seeks out “evidence that supports our worst fears and disregard the rest.” In other psychological writings I have heard this called an inbuilt “negativity bias.” Or as the Buddhist teacher and psychologist states it, our memories are like teflon for the good stuff and velcro for the negative.
The key to Centering for Wisdom is noticing when we’re in that state, when the “overwhelmed” or “survival” self is taking over our “adult” self’s brain.
We can’t change what we don’t notice, so the first step is becoming more aware of what we’re feeling at any given moment. That means cultivating the capacity to observe our emotions, rather than being run by them. Simply naming our feelings gives us more distance from them, especially when they’re intensely negative.
- Schwartz & Pines
Of course, most of us know this (on an intellectual level); but the challenge is finding a way so that it’s easier to remain attuned to your mind, body, and brain so that you recognize the physical and emotional signs of becoming un-centered. This is where a contemplative practice – such as mindfulness, meditation, or contemplative prayer – can be so helpful amid the practical demands of daily life; or perhaps during a global pandemic?
The results from the Centering for Wisdom™ Assessment are displayed in a graph represented below. Your individual results show your average levels of reactivity in each of four areas of awareness. This can help with “simply naming our feelings” in order to give us “more distance from them.” By naming our distractions they start to lose some of their power to hijack our attention.
The second step is to calm yourself, regardless of what’s going on around you.
- Schwartz & Pines
In Centering Prayer and Meditation, you gently return to your centering or sacred word (or your breath, or an interior image) every time you notice you’re engaged with your thoughts. Just like practicing any skill, you do this repeatedly in low-stress situations (like during a 20-minute meditation each morning). After a while you notice that it’s easier to notice and let go of more stressful or distracting thoughts when they arise in the middle of your day. Here’s how I describe this in my E-Book:
The real magic of Centering for Wisdom takes place in the way that your contemplative practice changes your relationship with your thoughts. By returning to your centering word, you are learning to recognize your thoughts without mindlessly reacting to them. You stop identifying with your thoughts; and you don’t always need to believe them. In time you can respond to your thoughts with more wisdom. As you learn to relate to your thoughts in a new way you will begin to experience more freedom to respond to life (and to other people) with more creativity, energy, serenity, and compassionate love.
- Thomas J. Bushlack
(If you would like a free E-Book about how to do this kind of Centering Meditation practice, and a guided audio meditation file to go with it, you can get yours at centeringforwisdom.com).
Only after coming back to center, and giving the thoughts and emotions a few moments to move through us, is the time right to begin the process of deciding what to do next.
Once you feel calmer and more able to reflect, it’s possible to step into your adult self. When we embody this strong, empathic part of ourselves, it can care for our overwhelmed self.
- Schwartz & Pines
I find Schwartz & Pines’s description of returning to our adult self a very helpful way of thinking about this process from a psychological perspective. The process of Centering for Wisdom works with these kinds of psychological insights, and it provides you with a road map for going even deeper into the spiritual dimensions of dealing with thoughts, stress, and accessing your inner core of wisdom. One way to speak about this deeper spiritual transformation is that with regular contemplative practice, you begin to find yourself shifting from all those smaller “selves” that you have within you, and experiencing a more open, expansive sense of presence.
We might call this moving from self to Self. Self – with a capital “S” – is just the pure awareness of your Inner Observer. That Self is always there, though we don’t always recognize it. That Self is always observing, never reacting, and always in touch with the infinite source of Wisdom that resides with you.
With regular practice, you begin to identify less with your smaller selves, and begin to you realize that you are the Self. (Also, the Self never judges the smaller selves, loves them unconditionally – along with everyone else, and helps you to feel whole and integrated as a member of the human community.)
We can’t change what happens around us, or how others are reacting to life. We can’t eliminate the coronavirus – although we may be able to mitigate its damage to our species by taking care of ourselves and practicing appropriate social distancing. Paradoxically, if you’re doing this wisely, the increased social isolation may also increase your stress. That’s why it’s more important than ever to find a way to stay centered and make wise choices that will
- enhance your health, resilience, and well-being, and the good of others
- contribute to the common good of your organization and your community
May you find peace during these challenging times, and share your beautiful heart with others.