An excerpt from psychologist, psychotherapist and leadership coach Sailaja Manacha’s new book Step Up: Women’s Journey to Identity, Success and Power (Sage Publications India, Rs 595).
I grew up in a home that placed a premium on doing well, being effective and efficient, as well as aiming high. I also grew up in Mumbai – a city where life is fast-paced and stressful. From a young age my body learnt to be tensed. My stomach was in a permanent clench – a clench that held this message: “I need to do more, I need to move faster… I need to be better.”
When I began to learn presence practices, it was like learning a technique to relax this clench. I learnt to relax all of my body. I became sensitive to when and how the clench began forming in my body – almost always in response to threat, stress or fear.
Learning to be mindful helped me see my habitual clenching pattern. My body had learnt and practised this clenching for long. The clench always brought up my personal history. I realised that I can never do away with stressful situations altogether. Things will not work the way I wish and that is a reality of life.
With practice I learnt to recognise what the clench felt like in my body and the triggers in the environment. This awareness allowed me to anticipate when I may lose balance and feel tense again. With mindfulness I learnt to manage those moments and shift from the place of ‘clench’, by telling myself that a relaxed mind and body will perform better.
I had already been practicing ‘presence’-based meditations for a while. I heard the word ‘Centring’ first in the context of training with the Institute of Generative leadership, United States. “Centring is the process of collecting ourselves,” says Richard Strozzi.
I have developed my own version of Centring from the various teachers I have learnt it from and I now introduce it to leaders as a way to keep our balance in a pressured environment. It helps keep us dignified during conflict. When we know our centre and are balanced, we can move any way we want from a place of choice.
We move from a place of choice, not reaction. When in conflicted or stressful situations, some of us tighten or contract our body. That is the natural fear-based response of our body. I was recently at an Alexander Technique special lesson and the teacher told me that most of us will measure an inch lesser by evening when compared to the morning, as our spine would be compressed owing to the stresses of our day! It explained to me why many of us tend to complain of neck and back problems developed out of stress reactions.
Centre is not a permanent static place. It is a place we move out of and become off-centre, and then comes the moment where we notice that we are off-centre. From that moment comes choice to reorient and make a movement back to centre. It is a process that we mindfully attend to.
Centring helps us find balance by becoming aware of our internal states while continually also sensing external environment through our senses. Andy Bryner and Dawna Markova describe Centring as: “…a process by which you integrate the habitually fragmented aspects of yourself-body, mind, spirit, heart, power and common sense-back into their natural state of integrity. Practically, this results in an increased awareness of the moment and your presence in it. Rather than becoming a victim to whom things are happening, you become an active agent of your life.”
Centring also helps us regulate our emotions and become deeply aware of them. Many of us do not recognise our emotional states at all. We don’t always know the difference between fear, rage, anger, disappointment or the many minute emotional states we experience in the day.
Many of us have practised a specific reactive response to a situation and that reaction often does not help us solve problems effectively. At times these practised reactive patterns influence us to say and do things that are not dignified or mature. The loss is the impact it has on our public identity, our self-esteem and our relationships.
Being emotionally aware serves us well as emotions are an important component of good decision-making. Knowing our emotional state allows us to make a choice of what we wish to do and why. It prompts us to be more mindful in our actions.
Imagine a tall glass of water. If you pour water into it, put in some gravel and begin to swirl it around with a spoon, what do you think that glass will look like? A swirling brown mixture, perhaps with small and big pieces of gravel all turning around with the water.
When one is overwhelmed or confused, our mind resembles this swirling brown glass of water. We experience myriad thoughts all at the same time and our mind feels murky and disturbed like the swirling water.
Imagine now that you stop stirring and allow the glass to ‘just be’. What do you imagine we will notice? The gravel settles, there is more clearness to the water, a stillness in which you can see through the glass with clarity and begin to notice in detail the nature and quality of the gravel inside. Centring as a practice allows us to do just this with our mind.
By observing our thoughts, we are able to see clearly the nature of our thoughts and what occupies our mind at the moment. Seeing what we are occupied with is so useful as it allows us to attend to it or allows us to put it away for the time being, while being present to where we are right now. It is a practice to be in the now and learn to have an undisturbed mind.
A fully present mind and body together are able to connect with those around, and see the concerns in that moment. We are able to attend to that which needs attention. Settling the mind allows us to see priorities more clearly. It allows us to sort out data, see patterns and respond with energy or flexibility, firmness or even compassion, whatever the situation may call for.
Lead photo: SnapwireSnaps / Pixabay. First published in eShe’s January 2020 issue.