Sunday, 4 September 2011

The most important lesson in life

After my cancer diagnosis, I explored many different avenues in search of a better way of living. I learned about Buddhism, NLP, Yoga, Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy... I found important insights and value in all these approaches. I also found a common thread in all of them. One that has had profoundly positive and transformative impact on my life. This insight has been expressed in many different ways, through many different philosophical approaches, but I believe that Stephen Covey in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” says it best:

explore the space between stimulus and response”.

While other animals merely respond to the stimulus they receive, without reflection or self awareness, we are uniquely endowed with the human faculty of consciousness. This enables us to pause for thought. To consider the stimulus we have received, explore the options and choose a positive response that is in line with our purpose, identity and values.

When someone is mean to us, the automatic response might be to be mean back to them. But the space we uniquely occupy between the stimulus (mean behavior) and the response, enables us to explore other options. Like trying to understand where that mean behavior is coming from, and what this person is trying to tell us. Then, when we are ready to respond, we may do so in a way that entirely reframes the situation into a more positive and constructive relationship.

When the stimulus is adversity, such as cancer, we can choose to respond as a victim, or we can choose anything else that we would like to be. We can choose to respond to adversity with strength.

With practice, we can get better at creating this space. It is a liberating and powerful place to be. In fact, it is the only place to be if we want to live a meaningful life. And like all the best ideas, it can be expressed in clear, simple, concise terms:

“explore the space between stimulus and response”.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Spotting excellence at the gym

How often do we miss excellence, when it is actually right in front of us, but we’re so absorbed in our own reality that we fail to look up and notice it?

Last week, I was talking to two acquaintances at the gym. I only know them well enough to say “hi” when I bump into them. One guy is Polish. He’s a remarkable athlete, with a muscly, gym-fit physique. The other guy is British, and he tends to spend more time in the sauna, rather than lifting weights.

The three of us got into a conversation, and the Polish guy asked what “sets” and “reps” were. The British guy replied that there are eight reps to a set, and you should wait about a minute between sets. I commented that the number of sets to a rep varied depending on your experience and goals. But the British guy corrected me. No, he was adamant that there were eight reps to a set.

The Polish guy nodded and said “ah, I see. Thank you.” The Brit seemed pleased that he had been able to share some wisdom, and he walked off smiling. But I was puzzled, and wanted to understand more. The Polish guy was so strong, with such bulging muscles, that I wondered how he had achieved this, if he didn’t use sets and reps.

He explained that in fact he did use sets, and proceeded to talk me through a sophisticated procedure that he used to work his way down to his one rep max. This is the mark of a serious power lifter. There we had been, me and my fellow Brit, explaining rudimentary gym basics to the Pole, when in fact he was the expert. His question had not been about how to do sets and reps - it was simply a question of vocabulary. He is currently learning English.

If we had been paying attention, this fact should have been obvious. You only needed to look at the guy to see that he knew more about the gym than us. And yet, my British friend had been so absorbed in his own experience, where a set is always comprised of eight reps, that he missed the opportunity for enlightenment from a true expert. And I had swooped in to correct him, when someone far more qualified was standing right next to me. It was as if we’d been debating music in front of Mozart, or explaining physics to Einstein.

We benefit so much when we learn from experts - so why are we so reluctant to recognize expertise and listen instead of lecture?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

We are all body builders

In my gym, there are many guys with big muscles. They have consciously chosen to sculpt their bodies in this way. An act of will on their part has resulted in their bodies taking a particular form. Maybe they wanted bigger arms, so they worked on their triceps, deltoids and biceps. Maybe they wanted a six-pack, so they worked on their abs. Whatever their goals, they tailored their workout programme like a precise recipe to achieve the body shape they desired.

We don't always get to choose the shape of our bodies, of course. Sometimes people are born with bodies that are not as they would wish. Sometimes events that are outside of our control change our bodies against our will - like an accident or even violence.

But for the most part, I believe that we all choose the shape of our bodies, even if we don't consciously realise we're doing it. Every curve, every crevice, every blemish, every bulge. The shape of our body is the cumulative result of all the choices that we make in life. Our thoughts result in actions. Our actions result in consequences. These can be profound consequences to our body. They may lead to greater well being, or to disease. It's our choice.

As such, our bodies are physical manifestations of our thoughts. So we are all body builders. For the guys in my gym, their bodies are articulations of their dreams and desires. For others, their bodies might be articulations of fears, insecurities and doubts.

I used to cripple my own body with anxiety and stress - the sickness in my mind inevitably led to sickness in my body. It's all one system, after all. Now, as I've learned to take responsibility for my thoughts, I've taken control of my body. I choose to have a runner's physique. I have adapted my body to support me in the sport that I love.

As we realise that we are all body builders, we become conscious of our thoughts and take responsibility for our bodies. As we realise that we are already building our own bodies, we can consciously choose the direction that we wish to take.

What body have you chosen?

Sunday, 24 April 2011

By recognizing excellence in others we can be more true to ourselves

Modeling is at the heart of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It is essentially the process of recognizing excellence in others, identifying the model of how they achieve this excellence, and then adopting that model so that this excellence becomes available to us.

A friend of mine recently said that he thought NLP would be dangerous for him, because at the moment he's trying to work out who he is, and the idea of modeling other people would undermine this process. As if by modeling other people, he would in some way be less himself.

I've reflected upon this concern for a long time, because it raises some interesting questions. Are we being true to ourselves when we're modeling the behavior of others? At first, this seemed to be a difficult problem to answer. But of course it's not. It's really very simple, provided you approach it from the right perspective:

Self realization is not about discovering who you really are. It is about deciding who you want to be.

NLP helps us to do this by giving us more choices. When we see excellence in someone else, this is in fact an internal realization. We recognize an aspiration within ourselves - what we value as being excellent. In fact, the very best way to discover what our values and desires truly are is to look at others who we aspire to be like. To ask ourselves - what is it about this person, and what they do that represents excellence to me?

Spotting excellence in others is like discovering a seed of potential excellence within ourselves. NLP is simply the fertilizer than can help us to nurture that seed. And that's what self realization is really all about.