Pathways

Path through summer woods with personI took a familiar walk through the Surrey woods near my dad’s house the other day, but the usual path had disappeared.  You’d think those ancient woods would remain unchanged through the years. But they don’t. Each season when the bracken pushes through the pathways shift and alter, and change the route from road to lake and lake to hill top.

It set me thinking to how we tend to assume that we too are unchanging – same old nose (not quite the right shape), same old legs, same old thoughts, same old me …

Same old blood pressure written in stone by the reading  in the surgery … though I know someone whose blood pressure hits the roof the moment they meet the doctor and is different as soon as they reach home!

Same old eyes, as the optician recommends set lenses … though I know that they improve with muscle exercises and are in any case more effective when I’m not tired.

Same old genes … as assumed by genetic research which tells me that this and that is to be expected because my genes say so. I almost bought that one till I heard about genes that switch on and off!

Same old brain; just so many cells – even if they gradually die off as you get older (abandon hope all who enter here).

Ah, but now we are learning that the brain is more plastic than previously thought. Cortical remapping occurs in response to injury. People with  strokes, cerebral palsy, and mental illness can train other areas of their brains through repetitive mental and physical activities. Life experience changes both the physical structure and functional organisation of the brain. Musicians develop stronger neural pathways that support musicality and dexterity. The brain waves of professional jazz players become more synchronised as they jam together. World-class athletes develop stronger alpha waves to cope with the ever-changing mix of intricate challenges they face. There is no doubt now –

thinking changes the brain.

If we keep thinking similar thoughts we are carving out neural pathways that make it increasingly easy to pursue those same thoughts next time… and next time … So constant negativity carves out a negative pathway. And self-believing thoughts carve a positive can-do pathway.

(Incidentally, what are you thinking NOW…?)

I’ve just finishing reading Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by the international table tennis champion, Matthew Syed. He tells how just one street, Silverdale Road in Reading where he lived, produced at least 10 international and national table tennis champions in the 1980s, more than the rest of the UK put together. How on earth did that come about?

Syed explains that the enthusiastic local primary school teacher was a top national table tennis coach and a senior figure in the English Table Tennis Association, and any local kids who showed potential were persuaded to take their skills forward at the local club, Omega – open 24 hours a day – where they were given plenty of time, excellent coaching and  self belief.  A combination of opportunity, enjoyment, purposeful teaching with productive feedback and many hours of practice produced champions from a relatively small pool of young people.

This all points to the conclusion that nothing is just made that way, nothing is fixed, nothing is ordained. On the contrary, everything is plastic, everything is changeable, anything is possible. As in Silverdale Road, even neural pathways can be changed and new ones developed – if we do the work of activity and repetition to make it happen.

So when that moment comes – perhaps after you have been to the gym a few times, or eaten healthily for a week or so, or meditated or done early morning yoga for a few sessions, or walked to the station instead of taking the car once or twice, or sent out a dozen CVs with no reply, or phoned a few potential clients with little response – when that moment comes – when something inside you says,

“There’s no point in this, I’m not the sort of person who succeeds at this stuff”,

then you can know that yes, you are that sort of person – you are currently and always in the making – and that every bit of purposeful practice is taking you in the direction you want to go and will take you to where you want to be if you continue.

And, after all, life is not fixed like a noun. It’s not “arrival”, “success” or “achievement”. It’s always a verb – doing, moving, achieving, succeeding, becoming, being…

… and the neural pathways growing, shifting, changing, and finding new ways to the top of the hill! (your particular hill …)

Happy walks in the woods!

Focusing on the extraordinary

Never underestimate…

bowerbirdHave you come across the bowerbird of Australia? It’s a dull-looking species, fawn-brown in colour. The male bowerbird builds a nest surrounded with a variety of brightly coloured objects he has collected which may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even coins, nails or pieces of glass. But the most remarkable part of the construction is a grand avenue of sticks leading to the nest. The sticks are arranged with precise care so that those closest to the nest are the smallest and those farthest away are the tallest, which gives a false sense of perspective so that when the bowerbird stands at the entrance to his nest he looks enormous and impressive to the female. Researchers have tried interfering to change the order of the stick heights, but when that happens the bowerbird painstakingly over several days restores its original configuration. Does the bird understand perspective?!

Never underestimate nature!

Eileen NearneAnd humans? I read about Eileen Nearne who died at 89 this month. You’d never heard of her? Neither had I.

Eileen Nearne was just an old lady who lived alone in Torquay. The most that neighbours had to say about her was that she used to enjoy talking about her cat.

Yet after her death officials found in her flat an amazing treasure trove of war-time papers and medals, including the MBE and the Croix de Guerre. It turns out that she had an extraordinary history no one knew about.

In 1944, aged 23, as a member of Winston Churchill’s secret Special Operations Executive she was parachuted into occupied France, where she passed on intelligence and arranged arms drops as the only British agent with an operating transmitter in the Paris area. She operated during that crucial period until she was arrested by the Nazis in July 1944. She was tortured, then sent to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp where thousands were executed or died. But she managed to escape and was able with help from a French priest to stay in hiding until rescued by the advancing allies. Her bravery contributed importantly to the war effort. Not ‘just an old lady’ after all!

Never underestimate people!

 Tim Gallwey, often called the ‘father of coaching’ by those in the profession, talks about his profound belief in the inner intelligence and wisdom in each one of us, in human life itself.  He says that a person is much bigger than what you see. As coaches we believe in the existence of potential beyond what presents itself.  We may see withdrawal or the sense of something shut down but we do not believe it. We manage to see through and beyond the acts that people put on either to seem less capable than they are or to make us believe they’re wonderful but which actually cover up their true ‘wonderfulness’. 

I have been surprised more often than I can say by how people can be unexpectedly extraordinary. And it tends to happen when you don’t criticise them internally or consider them small.

 The other side of this is:

Never underestimate yourself!

It is so easy to ignore and deny what is in us. We are capable of being exceptional. The skill lies in discovering how to allow that to happen …

“The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be.” says Oprah Winfrey

Curiosity and playful experimentation are effective approaches. Criticism, self-labelling and a rigid outlook block it. The best place to learn is in interacting with people – which is why workshops where you have the freedom to interact, investigate and explore with others are so productive and energising. They are often the place that gives birth to the extraordinary in people.

Sometimes it just takes someone else to see the exceptional in us before we can see it ourselves. They ‘know’ it is there and that becomes our realisation of a truth. As the pianist Claudio Arrau once explained about his performances, “I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know it’s going to be something wonderful.”

So, what are you underestimating about yourself?

Feeling the Fear

Feel the FearSummer ending. This morning I hear the rumble of passing cars as the school at the top of the road gets into action after the holiday. It’s a time of beginnings for all ages: starting school for the very first time, entering secondary school, getting ready for college or going back to work after the holiday break.

Rested, refreshed?

Rabbit in headlightsActually, for many of us what actually arises at this moment of new beginnings – even if we don’t tell a soul – is FEAR.

We don’t want it to be so but there it is, and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. Are we alone in this? And what is this fear feeling? Are we saying to ourselves that we’re not going to cope? We’re not good enough? We’re found wanting? Are we thinking the world’s a dangerous place? We are not sure, the feeling is so nebulous.

What we do recognise is the effect: a blocked sensation, a stiffness taking over the posture, a shrinking within, a weakness, a hesitation to speak. It says “I can’t” as surely as Sir Winston Churchill’s “black dog” of depression.

Many people at work have such symptoms every day – especially currently when they feel especially vulnerable to reorganisation and cuts. The fear saps vitality, stifles creativity and makes the person feel small – like a rabbit caught in the headlights, frozen in a moment of impending doom! – even as they increase their efforts and double their stress.

The instinct is to force control on the situation – to spend extra time, prepare more carefully, look both ways before proceeding, micro-manage, make extra efforts to get things right, check and double check, to watch other people’s reactions, calculate risks …

 – and surely that’s good. Yes, it surely is …

And yet, and yet …

What if life is less like a crossing the road and more like white water rafting?

When I’m hurtling down the river rapids of life what is going to help then? Very different skills: steering rather than trying to put a brake on, looking the way I’m going rather than at my fellow passengers’ reactions, opening to currents of opportunity rather trying to get the paddling correct, freedom rather than rigidity, breathing rather than stiffening, exhilaration rather than holding.

It’s going with what is happening as it happens.

In terms of moving beyond fear, it means as a first step movement with and breath.

So, at this moment of new starts, it’s the perfect time to take a deep breath, and the time to get moving. A brisk walk gives us more energy than internal dialogue as we enter the workplace. The voice comes out stronger when we fill our lungs first. Singing a song at full volume in the shower gives us more courage than giving ourselves a critical lecture. A short amble up the hill produces more good ideas than two hours facing a screen.

So I breathe out the old air and take a good in-breath. I shake myself loose, start to move, and something shifts.

White Water RaftingSuddenly I’m enjoying the late summer sunshine, feeling optimistic, thrilling to the next challenge and all set to surf the rapids as well as move in quiet waters –  ready for the world again.

Happy river running to all of you!

– and many quiet waters!

Confidence Connections on the Website

 1.  “10 Secrets to Overcoming Performance Anxiety” Download free e-course.

2.   The “Voice of Influence” workshop has some powerful resources for going beyond fear – the next course is on 30 Sep – 1 Oct. As a previous participant said:  “It’s fabulous how these two days transformed my fear into real FUN! Can’t wait to do some more speaking.” Alex S  

3.  NLP Diploma: NLP is the great confidence builder – the Diploma offers six days of rich practical learning over a couple of months. People find it difficult to put NLP in a nutshell, but what you will certainly get out of the Diploma is the ability to be a more effective communicator and get on better with everyone, surer direction in your life, greater self awareness – including liking yourself better! – more influence and increased success at work and outside.  This makes it a great leadership course.

 

Life Force, Wimbledon & World Cup

Laura Robson

Laura Robson

Well it’s that year and that time: we are in the middle of the World Cup and Wimbledon has started.

I had the pleasure of watching the British 16 year old, Laura Robson, play her tennis singles match earlier this week. She lost the match but her playing was an inspiration. In someone so young it is particularly easy to perceive the difference between her playing a shot excellently as she has been coached to do and giving it the full 100% – as she did three times with match point against her. At that very fearful point of death (well – losing) she threw her absolute all into the moment with searing cross-court shots that astounded the crowd.

You would call playing a shot excellently 100% if you hadn’t the real 100% to compare it with. When you do compare, the difference is huge. In the first you witness excellent play, well-executed preparation, signs of forethought and good physical execution – you see someone doing the right thing. All fine. But in the second way you are in the presence of intense relaxed concentration, deep breathing and extraordinary power, focus and follow-through. The second example declares silently that there is no way this point is going to be lost – and we all feel it. It’s not doing the right thing; it’s going all the way for its own sake, for the joy of bringing 100% to it. It’s like saying, “All or nothing at this point? I choose All!”

What we feel as spectators is the excitement of witnessing someone intensely in the now, their physical well-being and enjoyment, their creativity and powerful intention. It energises us in the most exhilarating way. I call that difference life force.

Down in South Africa we see the same force in action with the football World Cup. We watch some matches where the England team play is of a high calibre; the footwork is mostly fast and skilled and the running and passing are carried out with panache yet you feel that the players are making the effort to get it right – getting it right as in not getting it wrong; there is fear there – of just that – getting it wrong, of failure, of censure, of letting people down, of looking bad. Today the English team won their game against Slovenia and the first comments of the delighted England Manager Fabio Capello were about freedom:” There was freedom. There was not fear … there was enjoyment …”

Freedom allows a performer the opportunity to seize the moment and give 100% for the passion and joy of the thing. You see that 100% in some of the South American players – that heart-lifting passion that has us spectators rising from our seats in excitement. I hear in my imagination a player with the ball saying: “Never mind what’s happened so far; never mind what happens later – it’s about this! See this! – mind and body working together with finely tuned attention! Isn’t that wonderful to share this moment?! – to trust this life force?!”

We have the opportunity to bring our life force to anything we do. And if we do it transforms it and everyone notices the difference. It thrives on technique but is much more than technique. It looks like concentration but is more than that too. It emerges where we trust ourselves to the present moment, where we forget ourselves and give our all spontaneously to the activity – whatever the outcome.

You will have examples of times when you are absorbed in the moment during some enjoyable activity. At such moments you are unaware of the passing of time as you live in the pleasurable concentrated moment of whatever it is you are doing. There is no unhelpful tension or stress in you and if asked about it afterwards you would say that you felt immensely alive.

Deepak Chopra has this to say on the subject:

“When your internal reference point is the ego, when you seek power and control over other people or seek approval from others, you spend energy in a wasteful way. When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything that you want.  When your internal reference point is your spirit, when you are immune to criticism and unfearful of any challenge, you can harness the power of love, and use energy creatively for the experience of affluence and evolution.”

Can you learn such things? I think you can learn anything. Your life force flourishes when you learn to trust yourself, so it means working on your beliefs. It requires you to be in the moment, so you learn how to focus and stay present. It requires you to be in your body as well as in your head, so you learn balance. It sometimes needs courage, so you learn to step into the unknown.

This kind of learning has the great bonus of applying to everything you set your mind to, be it leadership, presenting, communicating, creating a connection with others, working at any sort of project or creating change. That is why it is so worth learning – you light many candles with the one flame.

What has the NLP Diploma got to do with this? Well, that is a place where you can learn such things – in a down-to-earth way!

I like this question from the poet Mary Oliver I read recently:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I didn’t know for twenty years of my own wild and precious life but it’s certainly worth finding out – the sooner the better – and life force comes into it!

Horse Riding

Horse ridingMy sister and I were very keen on horses when we were younger. We even started to save our pocket money towards buying a horse – the fact that it would have taken us till we were 70 to save enough somehow didn’t deter us. I loved the whole idea of riding and was fervently longing to try it properly.

One day while on holiday with our parents we passed a riding stables and I could see the heads of horses looking out from their stalls. I so much wanted to have a ride – I don’t think I’d ever longed for anything more. My parents said that if I went into the yard and found out how much it cost I could have a ride.

But I couldn’t. I was too shy.

I just couldn’t will myself to walk into that stable yard, find someone and ask the question. It was just asking! I stood there for ages struggling with myself. How on earth was it not possible? But I couldn’t. And I didn’t get my ride.

This is just a little anecdote about a child and a horse, but have you ever had that feeling or voice inside that says, “I just can’t?”

By the time we are adult most of us have quite a few areas that we have shut off as being not possible or ‘not me’. We have different gremlins but their power is always destructive and their hidden existence continues to sabotage our success in all sorts of subtle ways.

What I began to learn is that this state of affairs can change. And when it does all sorts of possibilities come into focus that just weren’t there before, and with them appear the ability and courage actually to go for what we want.

But that’s for another story! …