Columns , Leadership

The art of centering

Being able to see any situation from a calmer and more balanced vantage point is one rung on the ladder to achieving flow.

The art of centering
We can all benefit from taking a moment to see our situations a little less seriously and treat ourselves and each other with a little more care and compassion.

This column has focused on exploring flow, that state of complete clarity and awareness in which you feel most enlivened and operate from a state of relaxed ease and, even, bliss. This time, let’s look at the role of centering as a step in achieving flow.

Centering is a way to calm the mind and redirect nervous or unhelpful energy into positive presence. As the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society explains:

“Centering is one of the simplest and most common forms of contemplative practice. The ‘center’ refers to a relaxed yet focused state of mind. Centering practice is especially helpful in the midst of strong emotional states such as excitement or anxiety, and is often used by athletes, public speakers, actors and anyone who wants to feel stable and prepared before a potentially stressful event.”

Centering has roots in many ancient traditions, including aikido, the Japanese martial art of spiritual harmony. Rather than experiencing life as a series of emotional reactions to predictable trigger events, centering holds the promise of being able to see any situation from a calmer and more balanced vantage point. No matter what our personal circumstances might be at any moment, we still maintain the capability to choose how we respond to whatever we are experiencing in that moment. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it: “What’s happening is not what matters most. What matters is how we are with what is happening.”

Getting Out of Your Mind

Whether within a veterinary practice setting or elsewhere, many of us may have suffered a significant loss or hardship and later realized we were living with the daily fear that a similar event would occur. We can easily get caught up in our stories and interpretations of events that may not be based in fact or reality. As Mark Twain is reported as saying, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

In order to center, we have to step out of the regularly scheduled programming that our minds are more than happy to see continue. Specifically, we have to let go of thoughts — positive or negative — of the past and concerns of the future to not only be fully aware of what is real for us in the moment but also to be aware of our emotional state in the context of that moment.

With centering, we keep one eye on what’s happening in the moment and one eye on our internal state, leaving no eyes to be distracted by events of the past or projections of the future. Although there are numerous ways to center, many of them involve using the body to give us something else to fully focus on.

Centering in Action

One compelling example of centering is provided by Operation Surf, a non-profit organization that helps wounded veterans learn to surf. Founded by Van Curaza, who discovered the healing aspects of surfing as part of his recovery from addiction, Operation Surf provides life-changing experiences for war veterans coping with mental or physical disability.

As Curaza explained to The Tribune of San Luis Obispo in 2017: “What I focus on is what you can do, not what you can’t do. Not what you have or don’t have, but what it takes to ride a wave, catch a wave and ride a surfboard. They go off and catch a wave on Day 1. Right away, they just did something they thought they couldn’t do. It’s physical and spiritual. There is a certain healing aspect being in and around water.”

Operation Surf’s story has been chronicled in the short documentary “Resurface,” available on Netflix. Josh Izenberg, one of the producers, explained to The Tribune the thinking behind the film: “We just really believe in the power of other kinds of therapy and other kinds of healing, and surfing is a great example of that. We just want people to start thinking along those lines and sort of start looking out into the world for other ways to think about healing and recovery.”

“Resurface” focuses largely on Marine Corps veteran Bobby Lane, who suffered two traumatic brain injuries and crippling post-traumatic stress disorder after his platoon was hit with five roadside bombs in 11 days. Before Operation Surf, Lane’s plan was to surf for the first time and then return home and take his life.

Instead of killing himself, Lane found a new sense of purpose and a passion for life because of his experience with Operation Surf. As he explained: “Now I see it, if life gets too hard, there’s always the ocean. The ocean is both incredibly gentle and incredibly fierce” — much like everyone’s experiences when viewed over the course of a lifetime.

In an interview with Psychology Today, Izenberg explained his perspective on why surfing has been so beneficial for Lane and other veterans suffering from PTSD:

  • The ocean seems to have the cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions by putting them in a context of something much bigger and more powerful than someone’s individual life existence.
  • Learning to surf puts you in the flow channel where you get into the zone. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)
  • Surfing requires a singularity of focus that literally takes your mind off everything else going on in your life.
  • The adrenaline rush of surfing can re-create the novelty that many veterans might have grown accustomed to in combat but that gets squelched by routine civilian life.
  • The physical exertion from a day of surfing is exhausting and literally wipes you out, so you sleep better at night. Insomnia is one of the most insidious aspects of PTSD, and surfing serves as an excellent drug-free sleep aid.

A Centering Exercise

The ocean might not be readily available to most of us, but there are many other ways to center. In his book “Presence-Based Leadership,” Doug Silsbee provides an exercise focusing on the three physical dimensions of the body that we’ve summarized here:

Relax in a seated position with your feet on the floor and then focus on your three dimensions as follows:

  • Length: Feel the weight of your body pressing down into your seat, into your feet. Feel the downward press finding a sense of grounding and support while also drawing yourself upward with an aligned spine. “Through the dimension of length,” notes Silsbee, “we access the felt experience of dignity.”
  • Width: Breathe into your chest, feeling yourself take up more space, more width. “Through the dimension of width, we access the felt experience of belonging,” Silsbee observes.
  • Depth: Sense the space behind you. Feel the history, knowledge, skills and experience that live in you and make you the unique individual that you are. “Through the dimension of depth, we access the felt experience of fundamental sufficiency,” according to Silsbee.

We hope you find Silsbee’s exercise helpful. Of course, if this talk of centering feels too esoteric, you can always call on the words of “Caddyshack” legend Judge Smails:

“It’s easy to grin

“When your ship has come in

“And you’ve got the stock market beat.

“But the man worthwhile

“Is the man who can smile

“When his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

Whether from captivating physical activities, guided meditations or even a humorous reminder, we can all benefit from taking a moment to see our situations a little less seriously and treat ourselves and each other with a little more care and compassion. And the more frequently we are able to greet the world from a centered place, the better our odds of coming from a more balanced, relaxed state and finding our flow.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services.  

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