“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
“Be present now” was one of the maxims I included in my personal operating system a few years ago, and I’m starting to think it might encompass the whole of my aspiration. The present moment includes everything relevant from my past, and is also my only opportunity to affect the future.
When I trained as a coach at New Ventures West, the integral coaching methodology recommended an hour-plus intake session where we learned everything we could about the client’s past and present relationships, culture and environment. This made sense in light of the idea that our behavior is a function of our thoughts, our bodies and habits, our relationships and the culture we live in, and our physical environment. Understanding those contributing factors allows the coach to understand what might drive the current behavior, and design interventions in one or more of those areas to create support for new behaviors.
So I was surprised when I started the Aletheia coaching training, and Steve March suggested that we needed no intake session with a client. His theory was that anything relevant to their current behavior patterns would become apparent as they talked around why they didn’t do what they said they wanted to do. This idea also shows up in the Immunity to Change methodology and in Jerry Colonna’s classic question “How are you complicit in creating the circumstances you say you don’t want?”. The hard part isn’t knowing what to do; the hard part is finding and debugging the embodied patterns that are unconsciously steering us away from what we say we want to do.
How do we identify such patterns? We pay attention to what’s happening in the present. The Immunity to Change methodology suggests asking what we do to derail us from our desired actions, and what feelings come up when we imagine doing the opposite of those derailing actions. There are parts of us working hard to avoid those “icky” feelings, and these questions help to bring those parts into consciousness, so they can be appreciated and reassured.
To make this concrete, I’ve been struggling to write this post for days now, as I instead respond to emails, balance my checkbook, play games on my phone, etc. When I slow down and pay attention to what’s happening, I felt the resistance to writing as fear and anxiety over not knowing how to express the inchoate idea I want to convey. With that anxiety of not knowing where to start, this fear derailed me into doing something easier and more defined.
But today I am also paying attention to the dissatisfaction and unpleasant disappointment that comes from avoiding writing. Feeling that discomfort, and connecting to my aspirational identity as a writer, helped me overcome the resistance to starting from the scared part. Acknowledging the fear also lets me reassure that part that I won’t publish until I feel comfortable with what I’ve written.
Note that I didn’t actually need to know the genesis of this scared part to change my behavior today. By paying attention to the unpleasant feelings coming up for me around avoiding writing, I was able to shift the internal balance and get started. I could spend time reflecting on why this scared part might exist, as this procrastination was probably a rational response at some formative time in my life (pro tip: that reflection is part of what therapy can address). But paying close attention to the feelings and the tension in my body as I avoid something I say I want to do gives me an idea of how to start changing my behavior.
Of course, I can also design interventions to make it easier for me to write. I can design better prompts and make it easier for me to get started, as BJ Fogg would suggest. I could block off time to write, either alone, or with a writing partner to use peer pressure to increase my motivation. I can change my physical environment to have a writing nook so that my body settles into writing mode if I go there.
All of these can help, but I find that addressing the core emotional resistance, the part that doesn’t want to feel something “icky”, is still essential; otherwise, that resistant part will find a way to unconsciously undermine all the clever schemes and systems designed to change my behavior. I can only catch it in the act by paying very close attention to my present experience, and noticing how it is derailing me.
The present moment is also the only way I have to affect the future. I can’t change the future in one big fell swoop. I can only take one action in each moment. So if I want a different future, what will I do differently right now to enable that new future? If I do the same things, and follow the same patterns, I will get the same results I am currently getting. To build on the writing example, I want to someday write a book, but that won’t be possible if I don’t address my resistance to writing. It is only by developing the practice of writing, one moment at a time, that I can reach that goal. Changing my present actions is the only way to create new possibilities for the future.
But such changes require pausing in the space Frankl identifies between stimulus and response, and consciously choosing my response to represent who I want to be. My personal operating system maxims included being enough, generous, curious, thankful, appreciative, etc. But those are just words; my actions determine who I am, and none of those maxims can happen if I am not present and mindfully choosing my actions to represent those qualities. I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s quote:
Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.
I don’t always succeed in being present (or courageous), as is obvious by my procrastination in writing this post this week. But as I work to become more present, I feel confident I can continue to bring myself into greater alignment.
Being present is what will allow me to confront the shadow patterns of the past that derail me from creating the future I desire. Paying attention to those patterns is hard work, because they are designed to operate below the radar. To enable that close attention, I have to resource myself through self-care practices like sleep, exercise, good food, and meaningful human connection. And each of those practices yields more when I am mindfully present with them, rather than rushing through them to check them off a list. But when I am acting from a place of resourced presence, I can take the actions that represent the life I want to live, and thereby create the future I choose.
Perhaps I will change my mantra to “Be courageously present”. One. Moment. At. A. Time. That is the struggle to confront my past patterns, and that is the practice that will enable new possibilities for me in the future.