I participated in a workshop, the other day, where the audience was urging the person on the hot seat to “get out of her head and into her heart.” The hapless woman looked like she was frozen in an infinite loop of thought patterns, unable to let go and allow her true essence to shine through.
As for me, I was infuriated with the crowd’s exhortation. You may ask why would I take issue with something that looks like a reasonable piece of advice? I must admit first that something in me identified with that woman petrified on stage. I have visited that place enough times to know that opening my heart requires opening my mind first, and that having someone pressuring me into it feels scary.
But the key issue with this is that it is next to impossible. This reminds me of the thought experiment, the Shark Tank Polygraph, proposed by Steven Hayes in Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy:
Suppose you were sitting over a dunk tank full of sharks while you were wired up to the world’s best tuned polygraph. You have a very simple task: don’t get anxious at all. If you do, the seat will flip you over, and into the tank you’ll go. What do you think would happen? It seems extremely likely you would be anxious. This is exactly what happens during a panic attack: First you feel a twinge of anxiety, then you imagine the horrors that can arrive, you react to those, and, in a matter of seconds, boom. You’re in the shark tank.
When you are telling someone who is struggling to get out of her head, you are criticizing that person. You are saying, in essence “What you are doing is not good enough.” This will have the opposite effect of your admonition; the person will feel attacked and retrench. The trouble is, when we feel attacked, we don’t tend to become genuine and vulnerable. Instead, we start looking for the quickest escape out of this uncomfortable situation, and to do that, we retreat straight into our head.
It takes an enormous amount of willpower and self-control to exit from this autopilot mode that is flying your aircraft straight to the scene of the crash. In fact, only a highly trained practitioner such as Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard would be able to survive the shark tank experiment. In a famous test, psychologist Paul Ekman studied the startle reflex in meditators. He asked Ricard to get into a meditative state and suppress the automatic flinch while the researcher played a loud sound, equivalent to a gunshot being fired next to Ricard’s ear. Although Ricard’s physiology showed some slight changes, no muscles in his face moved and there was actually a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure during the meditation period!
I certainly see the value of stepping out of the thought patterns in order to listen to our feelings and bodily sensations, but it is clear that unless we have done a lot of work on our thinking, this is not an easy thing to do when put on the spot. It certainly helps if we have spent time getting clear and investigating what we believe.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken that woman aside at the break, and let her know that she was not alone in her struggle. I would have normalized the near impossibility of being open and vulnerable when faced with something that many people fear more than death, the fear of public speaking. I would have offered to facilitate her in inquiring into what thoughts were going through her head at that time. And I may have suggested that once she had found within herself that there was nothing to fear, she might want to get back on stage and try again. But I didn’t. I guess I had my own limiting beliefs running my life at that time too…
How about you? What are your limiting beliefs?
- Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, by Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. New Harbinger (2005).
- The Lama in the Lab, by Daniel Goleman. Shambala Sun (March 2003).