The most terrifying experiences happen on the most ordinary days. Seconds before the car crash, the woman at the wheel was listening to her favorite U2 song, energised to start a new day and thinking that she should stop for bread later. Seconds before falling off the chair with a heart attack, a man was enjoying an ordinary dinner with his family, telling stories from the day that passed. Seconds before the girl got hit by the car, she was biking happily to school, making jokes with her mom who was biking just one meter behind her. My kitchen incident didn’t involve any fatality. But it also happened on the most ordinary day.
It was a winter day of February, back in 2016 and I got up as usual, at 6 am. It was going to be a long day as we were throwing a party later that evening, for a few colleagues who were going on retirement. I went downstairs on automatic pilot, made myself a coffee and started to prepare the sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. The to-do list for the day was already open in my head. Life was hectic with a demanding job and with a small baby who needed our constant attention. While the coffee machine was running, I could already smell its fresh aroma and felt my senses waking up. I was looking down, my eyes facing the plate, as I was spreading the butter on the sandwich. The next thing I remember was that my vision suddenly blurred, and I saw bright dots like tiny yellow stars dancing around. It was strange but I thought it was from the strong white neon light. Then I felt a tingling in my fingers and before realising what was happening, a sudden wave of heat built up from my toes to the top of my head. The most intense heat was on my upper back. I froze.
I tried to call David, but my throat was dry, and I could not swallow. I don’t know how many minutes passed before I went laying on the couch. When David came downstairs, puzzled, I could barely explain what just happened. My only thought was, we need to go to the hospital, now, but what do we do with Sam? He helped me calm down, called Sam’s grandmother and off we went to the emergency. By the time we got in the car, I could not feel the difference between cold or warm on my entire right side of the body, could not swallow, nor speak.
My mind was flying in fifty different directions, making dark scenarios that ended up in a few more months to live. Like that scene in Inner Workings where every decision from the heart ended up with the priest singing the last prayer at his funeral. The only question was how much did I still have? Were we talking about months or years? At the hospital that day and during the following weeks, doctors did all the tests they could do: CTs, multiple MRIs, EEGs and other such tests with abbreviations that I couldn’t understand. The conclusion was clear and quite surprising: I was not going to die. In fact, I didn’t have anything. All tests showed normal brain function, normal neural activity, no demyelination, no tumours and no signs of MS.
And still, my sensitivity level on the right side of my body was far from normal. After a couple of days, I started to feel better and almost all functions came back to normal, except for feeling the difference between hot and cold. Even today, after five years, it’s not completely recovered. I don’t think it will ever be. When hot water flows over my left foot I feel the normal burning sensation that you probably also feel. When I do this with my right foot, I don’t feel a burning sensation, but pain, like when someone squeezes your foot very hard. It sounds weird, but I got used to it and I don’t notice the difference unless I make an intentional effort to focus on it. But what I couldn’t get used to, was the fact that I never knew what actually happened that morning in the kitchen. Even when all the tests came back clean, in the back of my mind, I kept on thinking there must be something else. And there was.
In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson developed a theory that proved a clear correlation between performance and pressure. In short, the Yerkes-Dodson law proved that performance increased proportionally with the level of physiological and mental arousal (stress), but only to one point. When the stress level got too high, performance suffered. There have been many other theories derived from the Yerkes-Dodson law but what they all say in essence is that stress is not always bad. When we do something that challenges our abilities in an optimal way, our body starts producing dopamine, which gives us pleasure and motivation. We are in the zone, engaged, alert, focused.
When we have the right balance between challenge and skill, we are naturally motivated to stay with the problem at hand and find solutions. The problem is when the challenge requires skills that take us too much outside of our comfort zone, or when we stay in a stressful environment for too long.
Then our body starts producing cortisol, the stress hormone. When it’s for a short period of time, for example before an important presentation, it’s actually helping us, because it keeps us alert and engaged. But stay too long in that stressful state and you will end up exhausted and in distress. This will actually reduce our cognitive performance and our immunity level. I sometimes have periods of 2-3 months with a super hectic schedule, tight deadlines and important projects and while I feel a bit tired, I also feel engaged and driven to get the results I want. But once I am done and take a few days to relax, I catch a cold and get sick. Sounds familiar?
If you look at my masterful drawing below, the happy face says, “We can do this, let’s get to work and spark some drive”. That’s eustress. It’s the optimal range in which you should stay, where your skills and challenge are just in the right mix, to boost your performance and make you proud of what you achieved. But if you’re not careful and keep yourself plugged-in for too long, you might end up exhausted or even distressed. If you are curious to know where you are on the curve, the Perceived Stress Scale is one of the most popular tests used in a wide range of applications.
If I rewind the movie back to my kitchen incident, I think I now have a better idea about what was going on. I was at the beginning of my career as manager, trying to do the right thing for my team, for my manager, for everyone, constantly wanting to prove myself, constantly overworked and giving 150% but without the results I wanted, always wanting to prove myself (yes, I said it twice) and trying to do everything perfectly. I keep using the metaphor of the browser with multiple windows open. Mine had a hundred windows open and I was just running from one thing to the other without stopping, breathing, reflecting, thinking what the goal was.
I thought that doing more was the solution I needed; that by doing more, I was doing better. I was wrong.
And then one day, a friend sent me a link to a TED Talk.
It’s a pity that most people turn to meditation after going through a negative experience. I have to still meet someone who started to meditate when she was in a happy joyful moment of her life. Many people discover meditation while searching for answers and trying different solutions to their problems. In fact, whether the practice is called meditation, prayer, therapy, writing, drawing or dancing, what we actually need is time with ourselves, away from any distractions and external triggers. We need to just sit with ourselves. What meditation taught me in the last five years, was to understand my thoughts and my emotions and learn how to manage them. I understood a little better how my mind worked and that my thoughts and my emotions do not equal who I am.
Make the Monkey Stop Jumping Around
If you ever practiced meditation or breathing exercises, you probably already felt some benefits after a few sessions. Everyone experiences this differently and takes something else from the experience, so I will tell you how it worked for me. The first aha moment was when I understood that I should not be bothered by my thoughts. Thoughts are like waves; they come and go and it’s OK to notice them and let them do what they have to do. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes that “when you try to stop thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer”.
The second concept that made a big difference in how I perceived meditation, was big mind versus small mind. It took me a long time before I grasped it and as much as I was reading about it, I could not fully understand until I experienced it. The big mind refers to the belief that everything we are and everything we think is already included within our mind. When we think that something is triggering us from outside ourselves, that is just a wave in the mind, a perception, a thought that we interpret in a subjective way. But that is also part of our mind. Headspace explains this concept very well with the metaphor of the blue sky. Our big mind is the blue sky and there will always be clouds and storms and all sorts of catastrophes, but in the end, the blue sky is still there. It’s always there, but we can’t always see it.
When I started with meditation, just sitting still for 10 minutes required a big effort. My mind wanted to do something else, something easy and familiar like drinking a coffee or checking my phone.
My mind was like a monkey. It was used to jump around, go from one thought to the other, which in turn ignited a rainbow of unnecessary emotions, impulsive decisions and un-focused actions.
What meditation did to my mind was taming the little monkey and teaching it how to stay still for a few minutes. If you can discipline the monkey to sit for 10 minutes a day, it will be free to run around and play all day long without slipping on banana peels every half an hour.
There are thousands of books on the benefits of meditation for our body and mind, but I want to mention one important connection that stuck with me (and also made me remember that I once studied biology in school): the vagus nerve. In a nutshell (like I would explain it to Sam with my limited scientific vocabulary), the nervous system has two parts: the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system. One seems more like the good guy and the other one like the bad guy, but we actually need both for survival and controlling our vital functions. They are like the moon and the sun, the night and the day, working together, but in opposition. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response and for quick response. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, is responsible for the rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed responses. It also helps us relax.
Going back to the “vagabond”, or how Sukey and Elizabeth Novogratz call the vagus nerve in Just Sit, this is the most important nerve of the parasympathetic system. It’s the longest nerve in our body, running from the brain to the abdomen, connecting also to the face, throat and thorax. It’s a sensory and motor nerve and it’s also called the connector or the wanderer (vagus in Latin means wandering). It controls breathing, digestion, and heart rate, and also our reactions and responses. So, the better our vagal tone is, the least we are to jump in the fight-or-flight mode every time someone makes a comment we disagree with.
Meditation and deep breathing activate the vagus nerve and make it more resilient. On the other hand, stress, over working and lack of sleep affect our vagal tone and that makes us more irritated, impulsive and…even more stressed. I really found this biology lesson fascinating, because I could never really grasp how meditation worked for me. I could feel calmer and more focused but couldn’t connect the dots and understand why. If you are not yet into meditation and deep breathing exercises, there are a few other things that improve your vagal tone: hugging, singing, humming, dancing, immersing your face in icy water and my favorite of all, being kind.
Spending 10 minutes a day just sitting, changed the way I see, and I react to everything.
But maybe the number one benefit after all these years of practice was that it slowed me down. I like the “10% happier” formula that Dan Harris uses in his famous book. I like to think that meditation slowed me down by 10%, and that makes all the difference. It sounds counter intuitive because I do more today than I did five years ago but slowing down doesn’t mean less productive. On the contrary. When you slow down, you stop doing more things at the same time and you stay focused on the task or activity at hand. When you start something, you set an intention. Why am I doing this?
After you practice for a while, it becomes a reflex, and you don’t even realise you’re doing it. In the past, I was trying to do as many things as possible, as fast as possible, at the same time. While I’m still guilty of doing multitasking sometimes, I try to be more aware and notice when I do it. (And when I don’t notice, David does…) By taking everything one step at a time, you slow down, think more clearly, feel more anchored in the present, and ultimately achieve more in one day. By slowing down, you notice more from what is happening around you, what the important priorities are and how to balance the things that matter most to you. It took me a long time to understand this, but once did, it was a nice surprise to realise that I had been offered the leading role in the movie of my life, but I had been acting like a supporting actor who just applauded at the end.
A few years ago, I participated in a workshop in nonverbal communication in Budapest. We were with 15-20 participants from different countries and backgrounds. Before starting with the introductions, the trainer asked us to do a simple exercise: Please take one minute to think about the five most important people in your life and count them on the fingers of your hand. I rolled my eyes and hoped that the rest of the workshop would be less of a cliché. But it was not that easy. My son, my partner, my mother, my grandmother were obvious choices. But I was struggling with the fifth place. I was thinking about friends, parents in law, broader family...Not easy, but I made my choice by the time the minute was over. Then the trainer waited for our answers. To my surprise, everyone else had the same person on number one. Themselves. I was the only one missing completely from the entire picture.
What meditation ultimately taught me, was something I wish I knew a lot earlier in life. That if I want to give something to others, I first need to make sure I have enough for myself. If my batteries are drained, I cannot help someone else start their engine. We are all responsible to keep our own batteries recharged and functional, so we can give back and support others. I’ve never been a techie person, or an early adopter. I once had an Apple watch and I sold it after two months because I always forgot to charge it and I hated the constant alerts on my wrist. But last year I got myself an Oura ring, with the goal of monitoring the quality of my sleep. It turned out to be one of the best investments because not only did it help with my sleep, but it improved my habits. I often have days when I stretch myself and try to do too much in a short time. I can immediately see how it affects my heart rate, the quality of my sleep and my overall well-being. And then I get a reminder message on my phone screen: “Feeling OK there?”
Recommended and Mentioned Resources:
Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki (the Audible version is also great)
Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't, by Sukey and Elizabeth Novogratz
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story, by Dan Harris
The Perceived Stress Scale by Sheldon Cohen
Inner Workings, 2016, directed by Leo Matsuda
All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes, TED Talk by Andy Puddicombe from Headspace
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, 2003, directed by Kim Ki-duk
Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris
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