Does anyone recall the TV Show Seinfeld episode where sad-sack side-kick George notes that every decision he has ever made has been wrong, and that his life is the exact opposite of what it should be? Jerry convinces George that if every instinct he has is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right. George experiments with this idea: he orders the opposite of his normal lunch, and introduces himself to a beautiful woman who happens to order the same lunch, saying, My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents. To his surprise, she agrees to date him. The episode concludes with George snagging his dream job with the New York Yankees. Enraptured with his successes, he adopts “The Opposite” as his personal philosophy.
Sometimes, learning how to do something requires doing the opposite. Sometimes, we might try to be more like George Costanza.
Two cases in point.
The first has to do with...relaxation. I had a terrible relationship with the word “relax” for the longest time because it was such a loaded term for me. As a softball pitcher, the worst thing a coach could do, if I were struggling on the mound, would be to tell me to relax. To me, that was code for: get a grip, Peterson, or you’re coming out of the game. I had no idea, really, about how to relax at all, much less when I was under any sort of pressure.
It wasn’t until, as a sport psychologist, I was exposed to the notion of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) that everything clicked for me. The theory is elegantly simple. To relax, you first tense. It could be a specific body part or the whole body at once. Then, you stop tensing, and what was left? Relaxation: the absence of tension. First, you do the opposite of what you want to have happen…then, when you stop doing that, the result is what you wanted all along. Turns out that you can’t relax AND tense at the same time. Genius!
Something similar is happening with our relationship with our minds.
I have lost count of the number of people who, when I tell them that I am an (almost) meditation teacher, tell me that they tried to meditate but that their thoughts get in the way. Or that their minds are too busy.
This exposes a common misconception about meditation - that it’s about getting all “zen” and not thinking. That it’s about somehow getting control over what our minds are doing…and somehow stopping it. And since we fail at doing that, we think of ourselves as failures as meditators…and stop trying. Double ouch.
One of my favourite meditation teachers, Jeff Warren, says, we all suck at meditating. We just learn to suck marginally less. Rather than getting to some “non-thinking” state, what meditation does is help us—slowly—to get friendly with how our minds are actually operating, and begin to develop a different relationship with our thoughts - to see them for what they are without getting mindlessly enveloped or hijacked by them.
Meditating is the opposite of what so many of us think. It’s not about controlling the mind, it’s about the opposite. It’s about letting the mind do its thing (I say that tongue in cheek since we are not “letting” the mind do anything) while relating to what it’s doing…differently.
Yes, beginner meditators are often taught to use the breath as an attentional anchor. The breath, being an action our bodies are perpetually engaged in, can be a somewhat easier anchor to get interested in. Yet, even in the time it took to write that sentence, most of us would have had our attention on the breath yanked away by something else—a thought, sensation, or a sound, you name it. Yes, we do start here as beginners, attempting to focus on the breath just to give the mind a chance to stabilise a bit. But it’s here that many a beginner loses the plot as if this ability to focus on the breath is an end in itself. And in not being able to do this, often for any amount of time at all, we have failed.
If this is you, just do the opposite. Let go. Stop trying to focus. On anything. Let your mind do what it will do. Because, as mentioned, it is anyway, right? But follow along with a light-hearted attitude. With curiosity. What is your mind doing? What kinds of thoughts are coming up?
A helpful technique to use during this mind exploration is one of “mental noting.” As your mind goes its merry way, note what’s happening. “Thinking.” “Fantasising.” “Planning.” [Confession: Planning is my superpower and is the #1 way my mind takes me away from breath or any other present moment anchor. It even stops me from enjoying many pleasant experiences. I can’t enjoy "now" because I have to get ready for the next thing!]
By mental noting in this way, we start to "signpost" how our minds work. Hint: mental noting shouldn’t be code for judgment. It should be done in a light, kind-of factual way. Judging the way our minds work is spectacularly unhelpful and is, as mentioned one of the major roadblocks to staying with a meditation practice. We feel bad about ourselves AND we give up.
Whether or not you care to adopt meditation as a practice, letting go of the notion that thought control is even possible is both healthy and can save you from some unnecessary suffering. The ironic hack here is that the more you let go and do the opposite, the more you will learn about your mind. Now that I know about my planning superpower, the quicker I can catch myself doing it…and if I want, re-focus on the wonderful present moment I would have otherwise missed.
P.S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.