The Art of Mindfully Getting Out of Your Own Way

Lately I have been fascinated by the idea of getting out of one’s own way, especially when it comes to experiencing. By this I mean to suspend, even for the briefest moment intentionally one’s mental reflection on what is taking place right now.

This idea stemmed from teaching Jiu-Jitsu. I have noticed, that whenever I teach a new sequence of moves to a student, they often tend to overthink their way through what they see me demonstrating. Jiu-Jitsu which is an experience of the body in action, like many such experiences, may have specific guidelines and or steps in order to learn a specific technique — yet one requires the experience itself to fully grasp it. In other words, one cannot learn Jiu-Jitsu simply by watching, and then attempting to memorise what has being shown. You have to actually do it.

However I have noticed something that gets in the way of most people learning Jiu-Jitsu. On the face of it, it may look like all a student is doing is watching me demonstrate a sequence of moves, and then using their own body to copy what I have just done. But more often than not, if you go deeper, they are thinking it through. In this way they are trying to recall from their cognitive mind the images and thoughts of what they just saw, so they can now ask their body to present the same.

This is not to dissimilar to taking a test at school, having to recall a bunch of facts that were just learned off by heart. As such, just as in school, most people try to learn Jiu-Jitsu by trying to memorise what they are seeing in the moment, and then when asked to repeat what they just saw, they attempt to recall that memory and invoke the body to follow along.

This may seem to be an adequate approach to learning in the beginning, especially when presented with something new. However in my experience months down the line, a person still continues to think their way through applying the appropriate technique, even when they should by now tacitly know it. The interesting thing here for me has been that the more a person tries to engage their thinking mind in what is an embodied based experience like Jiu-Jitsu, the more difficult they find learning it. While it may be adequate recalling from the thinking mind for remembering facts written on a page, it seems to offer little in the way of improving performance of the body in which itself must be performed.

As an extension to this observation, the question I have then been asking myself: is this only in respect to learning or executing body based skills, or do we remove ourselves from the fullness of much of our experiences more often than we realise by over thinking those experiences?

In other words, if we could only get out of our own way and just be — would the experiences we engage in in life be far more rewarding?

Overthinking Is The Norm

Sadly, people tend to overthink almost everything. For example the constant narrative of right and wrong, is a looping script for most people throughout their life. There is this notion that if one is not thinking it through in one’s head first, then it isn’t real, and it doesn’t exist. In other words, my experience working with people is that we have become over cognitivised, neurocentric, in the Western world – and in doing so we trust little else if it doesn’t show up in our thinking mind first.

Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t think or abandon reflection on experience. On the contrary, it is important to reflect on past mistakes as not to repeat them in the present. It is equally important to plan ahead so as to achieve life’s goals. But, I have sneaky suspicion for example that one of the reasons that the practice of mindfulness has become so popular in the West of late (outside of the many benefits it is reported to have), is that we are all so tired of over thinking all of the time. In this respect, mindfulness seems to offer a reprieve from the incessant, endless, looping inner conversations and inner narratives we have with ourselves all day long.

Mindfulness However is More Than Your Brain

As good as this is, I also see a danger in seeing mindfulness in this way.. Most people unfortunately think that mindfulness has little else to do with other than enhancing brain function. Mainstream media isn’t much help here either. For example in the November 2014 addition of Scientific America, the ‘Neuroscience of Meditation’ was the key focus, along with accompanying images of the brain where the practice of meditation, and by extension mindfulness is meant to positively affect. Even the image of the front cover of the Scientific American addition seem to lock onto the brain as key. Needless to say this is a massive oversimplification, not withstanding that the experience of being mindful is more than just the brain.

By getting out of our own way to experience more joy, happiness and equanimity in our lives, or even simply to accelerate the learning of a new skill, is more than what is going on in the brain. There is no mind as we understand it to be as human beings without the body to experience it. While we use our body to move from point A to point B, and witness amazing athletes who can perform unimaginable athletic feats — what I want to explore here goes much deeper than that. In fact, in my experience, even those who are skilled in using the body in action, such as athletes, seem to often do so in treating the body as machine. As such it is merely a tool in the service of athletic prowess.

Getting out of our own way is a mindful embodied experience. It is about having a deep sense of trust in our embodiment as a natural, living intelligence. To see the body and by extension all of us in this light, is very difficult for most of us, and it’s not our fault. Historically, the body has been neglected somewhat in favour of cognition (see, for example, Kets de Vries, 1994; Ropo and Parviainen, 2001; Sinclair, 2005).

This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that neglect of the body, as both instrumental in lived experience and as a valid source of knowledge in the world, goes as far back in Western thinking as Plato’s Phaedo. Plato saw the body as negatively interfering with the search for true knowledge. The body, he claimed, interrupts our attention with all kinds of passions and fancies. In other words, the body distorts our apprehension of reality through our sense organs (Bostock, 1986). In this view, the body is merely a tool in the service of our intellect.

This way of thinking about the body has persisted in philosophies such as idealism (Shusterman, 2008). Idealism encapsulates a group of philosophies that argues that reality as we know it is a mental construct. Put differently, there is no reality independent of the mind (i.e., and the brain which gives rise to it) (Dunham et al., 2010).

Idealism also influenced the theories of 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes’ philosophy of separating the thoughts of the mind from the actions of the body (known as Cartesian dualism) greatly influenced Western philosophy, resulting in the dominant idea that our mind is distinct from our body. This view sees the mind as functioning independently (Damasio, 1994; Hansen et al., 2007).

The view of the mind and body as two different ontological entities not only penetrated the world of philosophy and science but has also had a profound effect on how we view the world, how we learn, how organisations have been built, etc. In other words how we are in the modern world.

It is important to note here, that the use of ‘mind’ above is done to imply that mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain. In other words, every conscious state is determined by a simultaneous brain state. As you will see to follow, I personally don’t ascribe to viewing ‘mind’ in this way.

“The properties of mind are not purely mental: They are shaped in crucial ways by the body and brain and how the body can function in everyday life. The embodied mind is thus very much of this world. Our flesh is inseparable from what Merleau-Ponty called the "flesh of the world" and what David Abram refers to as "the-more-than-human-world." Our body is intimately tied to what we walk on, sit on, touch, taste, smell, see, breathe, and move within. Our corporeality is part of the corporeality of the world.”

Putting Trust Back Into Our Embodiment

Back to mindfulness. To be fully mindful then, not only allows us to get out of our own way so at to experience the world unfiltered, this is only possible from an embodied perspective. It comes back to trust. Trusting our em[body]ment in a way that sees it as the seat of all our experiences. From this viewpoint mind is really all of us, not just embrained.

Just because the body itself doesn’t talk in everyday verbal conscious language, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have very important things to say to us. But here we have to listen differently. I believe this is what Michael Polanyi, Hungarian-British polymath, meant when he noted, “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell.”

I believe this is where somatic (i.e., relating to the body) experiences like Jiu-Jitsu are key (but a walk in the woods can inspire the same). As I highlight next, Jiu-Jitsu, or embodying the fullness of our experiences offers a person the opportunity to engage in a process of somatic mindful self-awareness. This in of itself can be the practice of learning to get out of ones own way in life more generally.

Somatic Mindful Self-Awareness

John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer advocated the practice and importance of reflective conscious control of the body, while still maintaining the primacy of unreflective, immediate experience (Dewey, 1976).

In practice, one can think of this as somatic mindful self-awareness. As Richard Shusterman, an American pragmatist philosopher (2008) has argued a heightened sense of somatic self-awareness, need not disrupt our engagement with the outside world, but rather allows for the improvement of the instrument of all our action and perception in the world itself (i.e., our embodiment). Giving our embodiment primacy in this way, and recognising how we show up in the world through it — would afford greater clarity of mind (i.e., all of us, not just the brain) and the world. As Lakoff and Johnson (1999) have noted, embodiment itself is the condition for meaningfulness.

Somatic self-awareness is then key in the practice of mindfulness. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch (1991) view mindfulness as a process of “embodied reflection”. As such, mindfulness allows for the access of what can be viewed as bodily based cognition that exists prior to “habitual thought patterns and preconceptions” but at the same time allows us to witness our mind, and what it is doing, while it does it (Varela et al. 1991).

Merleau-Ponty (2002) a French phenomenological philosopher, believed that the body had an “original and (perhaps) primary” nature, a practical knowledge (praktognosia), which could not be analytically deconstructed into concepts such as ‘body’ and ‘mind’. In his view, the body’s practical knowledge allows for a “way [for us too] access…the world and the object”. For example our perception of spatial relationships between us and an external object. We experience these relationships not as objective (out there), but rather always from the perspective of our own action oriented bodily organisation (e.g., down, up, near, far, on, under). These form dimensions of our lived ‘phenomenal’ spatiality, arising out of the practical knowledge (praktognosia) that we sense from our embodied intentionality.

In a sense then, mindfulness honours Merleau-Ponty’s primordial body, but the insight gained through the coupling of somatic self awareness — by witnessing the inner flow of mind (i.e., all of us in an experience) and its reaction to the outer world may allow for a very different kind of experiencing, free from internal judgement.

In other words what if we can simply have the experience we are having without having to label it and just be?

‘Don’t think just do’ comes to mind here.

One can of course reflect later on that experience, but in the moment of the experience one becomes open to all the possibilities because all judgement of the experience is suspended.

The Outcome of Getting Mindfully Out of One’s Own Way

Personally I believe there is great freedom in approaching experiences in this way. Mindfulness then takes on an embodied role, where personal liberation from our judgemental selves is possible. This includes non-judgement of thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations. In other words, all of us.

Mindfulness is not about avoiding experiences you are having now; rather it aims to aid you in becoming more aware of the experiences you are having moment by moment, as they occur. It allows you to mindfully get out of your own way.

But to do so, one has to first recognise, and put into practice that the act of getting out of ones own way needs to be all of you, not simply viewing it as the non-judgement, or no-attachment to thinking processes. We are after all more than our brains.

Do this today: go for a walk somewhere, preferably in nature. Be open to the fullness of that experience. Mindfully get out of your own way and just be. Each time you begin to think of the experience you are having, gently bring yourself back to your breath and let it all go. You may be surprised what you learn.

“Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even it if goes wrong, it lives.”

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