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Your Body is Your Brain! Learn From it and Be a Mindful Leader

December 17, 2009

I just participated to an experiential workshop entitled “Cultivating the Brain of a Mindful Leader” facilitated by Amanda Blake, founder of Stonewater, a Leadership Development and Executive Coaching firm based in Portland, OR.

The workshop explored the “application of the latest brain research to the qualities of exemplary leadership.”  Blake, who participated in the recent International Neuroleadership Summit that was held this past October, reported that neuroscientists are now coming to accept the until now controversial ideas that “the body is the brain” and that the mind is embodied. (It is important to mention that these ideas have been familiar to consciousness practitioners for a long time and, perhaps, are self-evident to most of us.)

The mind-body dichotomy idea originated from the French mathematician and philosopher Descartes in the seventeenth century with his well-known assertion “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes argued for a disembodied mind having no influence on the body and vice versa.  This powerful idea allowed Descartes to reject the existence of any subjective reality.  From a Cartesian perspective, the essence of humanity is rationality, that is, our ability to think logically, to set goals for ourselves, to make decisions between different alternatives, and so on.

Following on Descartes steps, the conventional view in cognitive science holds that the mind is only the result of the activity of the brain.  In addition, the process of cognition is considered a process of manipulation of symbols and of representation of an external world.  However, recent experiments have shown that, by bringing our focus and attention to the mind, we can change the brain’s activities.  Also, findings in quantum physics have shown that separation between an observer and an observed phenomenon does not exist when dealing with atomic entities.

Consequently, there is an emergent and growing recognition among scientists that cognition is not “a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the process of living” (Capra, 2002).  From this new perspective, all cognitive activity is embodied and context-specific.  There isn’t a pure objective reality of the world.

What this means is that living systems – and human beings, in particular – select from the environment which information or disturbances to notice and consequently, create information and assign meaning to it.  This is done through a dynamic process called “structural coupling” – a term used to depict a living system that engages with another or with the environment.  Living systems learn through their ability to structurally-couple with their environment or with other systems in order to communicate (verbal and non-verbal communication), coordinate behavior, and adapt.  This learning is embodied learning because it uses the internal structure of the system and the body to learn in order to take action.  (Note that embodied learning is in contrast to the traditional definition of learning as gathering, processing and understanding information.)

When we remove the mind/body dichotomy, we realize there is a feedback loop between thinking and feeling: what we think influences our feelings and how we feel influences our thinking.  As Richard Strozzi-Heckler, President of Strozzi Institute, notes: “When our feeling-self and thinking-self are coherent we are at our most powerful.  When they’re at odds, we’re a train wreck.” [Read his article “A Return to Lovingness”].  Of course, how we feel and think influences our behavior and how we interact with others.   What the workshop’s experiential exercises demonstrated is that language is not necessary to communicate and to influence the feelings and behavior of people around us.  People perceive the energy fields that are generated by our bodies, gestures, facial expressions as well as our thoughts, and are influenced by them.   We all have had the experience of feeling sad or depressed, for no particular personal reasons, simply because we have been around a sad or depressed person.  Keep a frown on your face all day and you will start feeling sad.  Don’t we also say that happiness is contagious? Also, it is well know to call center representatives, that smiling while you speak to someone at a distance changes the tone of your voice.

So, how can leaders retrieve their generative power (by “power” here I mean their ability to act mindfully and in a way that empowers others) and become mindful leaders?

Since the mind is embodied, observing the body – our ultimate instrument of perception and action – is critical.  Mindful leaders are not only intellectually smart, they have developed the capacity to sense and be aware of their environment and of the state of their own being.  Mindful leadership can be regained by observing and monitoring the mind in order to modify its activities.

As Jeff Klein notes in his book Working for Good,

“Our bodies are incredibly intelligent.  While we believe we think with our minds, our bodies are great receptors, interpreters, and projectors of experience.  They continually read the terrain for us and inform our awareness.  They sense our physical orientation and relationship to other bodies.  They sense temperature and sustain our balance, and they can detect when our sense of balance is challenged.  They carry memories and experiences, and without our conscious intervention they respond to subtle signals to protect and guide us.  We can learn a lot if we pay attention to how our bodies feel and respond to our thoughts and actions, and to external circumstances and other people.  And we can apply this intelligence to how we move in our work.”

Learn how to tune in to your sensations and body and lead mindfully.

Resources:

Capra, Fritjof 2002, The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability, Doubleday, New York.

Klein, Jeff 2009, Working for Good: Making a Difference While Making a Living, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.  (See in particular Chapter 2: Awareness and the accompanying exercises.)

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