The story that is revealed in the eyes

On a physiological level, the eyes absorb visual sensory data, which then gets interpreted by the brain. This interpretation is a complex process and is influenced by many factors such as experience, beliefs, assumptions and social conditioning.

I have come to understand that there is so much more to the eyes than just their physiological aspect. The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’ and reveal the most inner thoughts and feelings. They are constantly communicating, without the necessity for a word to be spoken.

A young, talented hockey player was telling me how well she was dealing with the stressful demands of competition. As she spoke, however, her eyes were telling me otherwise. They were filled with sadness and insecurity.

As she spoke, it was clear that she had learnt to put on a brave face and not reveal her true feelings. When I mentioned to her that her eyes were telling me a story of sadness, she burst into tears. After composing herself, she said that she felt relieved that her true feelings had been noticed. Since she was the youngest in the team, she was always concerned about what the older girls would think of her if she made a mistake during a match. This was starting to affect her emotionally and impact on her performance, resulting in her constantly feeling stressed and insecure.

Your eyes are also the director of your energy flow. They are connected to your intention. While this is linked to goal setting or creating a vision, it is also connected with what you notice in your experiences.

There are an infinite amount of possibilities and perspectives that can be seen in any situation. There may be times when you get stuck in some detail, which in turn, negates you seeing another perspective. While this is a natural phenomenon, you should consciously guard against becoming rigid in your focus. The eyes need to be flexible as they explore the range of perspectives that present themselves. When feeling stuck, you may need to consciously remind yourself to look elsewhere in order to take in more of the complexity that exists in the situation.

In the mechanical world of things (where there are specific objects to focus on), the eyes can find a resting point fairly easily. In such situations, there generally is consensus about what is seen. In contrast, in interpersonal contexts, there is so much fluid visual information available for the eyes to absorb. The challenge is having to piece together snippets of behaviours that are unfolding rapidly in time. In such situations, the eyes scan for patterns of interaction in order to give meaning to what is unfolding. For example, a frown on a face, a sigh in a breath, a nod or turn of a head, a clench in the jaw, etc., need to be integrated visually, interpreted and given meaning. How this gets done is a subjective process, and highlights that in an interpersonal context, there is no such thing as a single fixed reality that the eyes will see. Depending on where you look, a certain reality will emerge for you.

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Neutralising emotional turbulence as water falls

There are many spectacular hikes in the Black Forest in Germany.

On some hikes, you come across a beautiful waterfall. You always hear it before seeing it. The distant sound of the movement and rush of water draws you closer and closer. And then finally, it fully reveals itself to you.

Each waterfall is unique and has a dynamic personality that is determined by the interaction of the amount of water falling and the nature of the terrain that it is having to navigate over. In its movement down, the water is only answerable to gravity as it gets pulled along and down to a place that eventually offers some peace and tranquility.

On a metaphorical level, water falling can represent many things:

  • turbulence
  • rapid change
  • pulsating excitement
  • risk
  • chaos
  • conflict and anger
  • dynamic of letting go and holding on
  • giving up or losing control
  • trusting in life’s force
  • releasing resistance
  • seeking tranquility

If you are feeling emotionally unsettled, it helps to sit quietly near a waterfall and ‘feel’ the energy of the water cascading down. The rapid movement of the water resonates with your emotions, which helps to neutralise the inner turbulence that you may be experiencing.

If you are not near a waterfall, looking at a photograph of a waterfall for a couple of minutes can have the same effect. I have attached some photographs below. Choose one that resonates with you, and as you look, soften your gaze, breathe evenly and relax. And then let your mind go wherever it wants to move to.

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Remove the mask of competency

As the All Blacks perform their ritual of the haka before the start of a rugby test match, a mysterious unity of spirit and strength of character is revealed. The ritual activates an alert, cohesive and focused group energy that is ready to tackle any challenge in the heat of battle.

Generating energy, Black Forest, Germany

Many years ago, when doing a research project about the pressures and harshness of the world of competitive elite sport, I found that elite athletes tended to live behind their ‘mask of competencies’. It seemed necessary that an athlete had to present an emotionally tough, ‘I am confident’, ‘I am in control’ exterior when dealing with the outside world. No weakness was allowed or accepted.

The longer the athlete spent in the arena of competition, the stronger the mask of competency needed to be. When dealing with excessive stress, I found that the athletes rigidified the mask of competency and denied any fears or doubts about their performance. This was usually done in order to emotionally protect themselves from criticism and judgement from public, media, coaches and even fellow players.

On a personal level, the rigid mask of competency tended to block the athlete from getting in touch with the internal dynamics of him/herself, especially around feelings of vulnerability. In turn, I found that this rigidity had a paradoxical impact on performance since it restricted the energetic system of the athlete and usually activated a downward spiral of performance.

It was interesting to read an interview about the All Blacks rugby culture given by their mental conditioning coach. There were two points that struck me in the article. Firstly, players need to feel that they belong in the team. Secondly, when the players are stressed, how can they collaborate and support others who are under pressure as well. This highlights the need to be selfless so that one can extend care and support to others in the most difficult times.

‘As a team, you (need) to sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s a powerful strategy; once I’m prepared to share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance’.

While it may seem rather strange that the mightiest force in world rugby places such high priority on players feeling that they belong in the sanctuary of a team that cares, it comes as no surprise to me. Playing sport in the love domain provides the interpersonal context for an athlete to fulfill all of his/her potential. However, creating such an environment is easier said than done.

Beauty of reflection, Black Forest, Germany

Dedicated to my father, Popsie. His gentle, loving and nonjudgemental energy always underpinned his actions and words.

Moving into an uncertain future

In my previous article on vision and framing, I took a predominantly past-orientated perspective of how we construct frames around our experiences, and in particular, around our problems.

In this article,  I would like to focus on the power of how you can use frames to create and mold a meaningful future for yourself.

Walking into an uncertain future

By nature, the future is both uncertain and unpredictable. From an evolutionary perspective, a range of possibilities (outcomes) may exist in the future, but nothing is definite. However, the potentiality of these outcomes are influenced and determined by what has unfolded in the past and what is presently occurring in the present.

As part of creating a frame or focus for your future, you need to consciously prime yourself to move into your future with optimism. You can do this by activating an internal process that playfully entertains possibilities that have not yet materialised, but which you can see or imagine.

During play, children transport themselves into a new domain of experience through the power of fantasy and imagination. When next you watch children play, see how easily they are transport themselves into a ‘new place’ during play. Imagination is the vehicle for the transportation.

In consulting with elite athletes, I create frames for future performance through the process of visualisation. This helps to transport the athlete into the future in a way that conditions the mind to be prepared for an upcoming competitive event. An expectancy of how the future will unfold is very much part of the visualisation.

Meditation and mindfulness help a person mentally connect to the present moment that is unfolding. While these processes do not provide actual frames with which to guide you into your future, they paradoxically open up the future for you by asking you to carefully notice the present moment unfolding before you (be it on a mental, emotional or physical level). This heightens an inner awareness that assists you in dealing with life’s demands more effectively. As a spin-off, you will begin to feel more emotionally relaxed about your future, thus neutralising the anxiety that tends to get activated when dealing with uncertainty.

There are times, when I will sit and write a reflection about a particular experience. As part of the reflection, I will tease out what I have learned, as well as, consider possibilities of what else could have unfolded, or what I may have done differently to facilitate a different outcome. In particular, I look at my patterns of behaviour that may have blocked me from achieving what I had set out to do. This helps heighten my awareness regarding my own functioning, offering me alternatives of how to interact in the future. This is how journalling or reflective writing offers a frame of how to move into the future more effectively.

Finally, I believe that your perceptions of what you think your future may hold are determined by your philosophy of life (see my article on viewing life through your personal lens). This philosophy is self-recursive; connecting your experiences with your beliefs and assumptions in an ongoing, unfolding way. On another level, your personal philosophy also influences your anticipations and expectations of your future. Do you have a general feeling of optimism as you journey in your life? Do you see yourself as having the necessary courage to walk into an uncertain future? (See my article on being optimistic in the struggle).

Framing your vision

Creating and defining the realities that you experience in life, can be likened to taking photographs.

Your mind is full of snap shots. Each of these snap shots are framed, which helps to provide clarity and order in how you see and interpret your experiences. Frames define and direct where you look, helping to give meaning to your experiences.

The frame that you place around a particular snap shot, is self-constructed, and is determined by your beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. Knowing this, will help to liberate you from a restrictive view point, since this realisation will offer you the chance to frame your old snap shots in different ways.

In helping my clients resolve some of their emotional or interpersonal difficulties, I have seen how problems have a way of narrowing their vision. The frame that is placed around ‘the problem’, tends to prevent them from seeing the array of possibilities that exist outside of the frame. The frame acts as a boundary that keeps their eyes rigidly locked into one particular perspective. This tends to tighten and intensify where they look and what they see.

There is an old castle not too far from where I live. A couple of months ago I took a photograph using a wide angle lens. It was a misty morning as I looked south towards the Alps. I decided to do a black and white conversion of the photograph.

Into the distance
Into the distance

Last week, I went back to the old castle and again looked south to see the Alps in the distance. It was a clear morning and as I framed my shot I decided to use a telescopic lens. The early morning sun rays were starting to shine over the tiny village in the foreground.

Into the distance

As a therapist, I have become sensitive not only to how my clients frame their problems but also to how I am framing what I am hearing and seeing in the stories that they are sharing with me. This awareness has helped open up my vistas as I encounter the vast array of complex snap shots being shared with me.

Time and movement in the competitive space

When considering the dynamics of sporting or business performance, one needs to consider time and movement in space. More specifically, a player needs to be mindful of how his/her emotional and energetic state moves while encountering challenges in a competitive environment.

Rowing in stormy weather

In general, the emotional state of a player will move in one of two directions during practice (or during a match) depending on whether or not he is successful in dealing with the stressful challenges. If he is effective in the process, his emotional state will move to a place of optimism, coupled with a sense of freedom on an energetic level. If he struggles and makes mistakes and fails in his efforts, his emotional state will move to a place of pessimism, and his energetic system will tighten. On another level, the energetic system gets stuck during poor performance, with the player feeling totally immobilized.

While consulting with an international athlete, I asked the player to get connected to his present emotional state before entering the competitive space of intense practice. He needed to do a mind/body connection, without judging his energetic state. This offered him internal information as a starting point. In addition, he was asked to share what he was going to work on, on a technical level, during his practice. This provided him with specific clarity as a starting point regarding technique.

During practice, the challenge for the player was to trigger an internal process to move his emotional and energetic state into a more optimistic place when he was performing poorly.

Introducing meaningful information at a critical point in the process is necessary in order to move a player’s energetic and emotional state into a more freer and relaxed place.

But what constitutes meaningful information, and how can the player access it?

On a fundamental level, there are two distinct levels of information that need to be accessed and integrated. Firstly, there is technical information that needs to be incorporated to ensure improved performance. This information exists on the mechanical level of performance. Secondly, there is emotional and energetic information that exists internally. This type of information can be accessed if the player is mindful.

On a coaching level, the skillful and wise coach is able to introduce a meaningful piece of information at a critical point in time, that frees up the tight emotional place that an athlete can find him/herself in, when performing poorly. This information becomes the key that unlocks the internal potential of the player. When this occurs, the coach will see an immediate shift in performance.

There may be times when the coach stops the process and asks the player to take some time out of the competitive space in order to reflect on what is unfolding. This may be enough to create breathing space, so as to allow the necessary movement to occur. However, while this can be done during intense practice, it will not be possible during matches.

In a recent conversation with another elite sportsman, I termed this general movement as one in which the player moves towards the sweet spot during performance.

Struggling to gain credibility

There may be many reasons why an elite sporting team performs poorly over time.

In my experience, the biggest contributing factor in determining whether the team wins or loses over time, is the nature of the leadership and the interpersonal dynamics that envelops the coach. A coach will struggle to motivate, unite and integrate the diversity of ideas within a team if the players experience the coach to be:

  • a bully
  • self-centred
  • non-trusting
  • arrogant
  • inconsiderate
  • disrespectful or demeaning
  • defensive or aggressive

If the players do not feel emotionally safe and are not able to be open and honest with the coach, for fear of reprisal, they will undermine and sabotage whatever the coach says, even if it means losing match after match. When such dynamics exist, the team invariably implodes and goes into a downward spiral. The team will want the coach to fail and will unconsciously or consciously sacrifice its performance to ensure that the coach gains no credit for any achievement or success. As this process intensifies over time, the coach will invariably ‘get fired’ due to the ongoing losses.

This does not only happen, in sporting contexts. It is the nature of human behaviour and can be seen in families, educational settings, work contexts and certainly in political contexts, where there may be many axes to grind with opponents – due to past issues.

The ascent
The ascent

In a previous post, I stated that in his personal quest to become president, Trump may have unleashed a complex divisive process in the country that may prove difficult to manage or change, when he is president… and that trying to lead a divided nation may prove to be more complex and challenging than dealing with immigration issues, threats of terrorism, or international trade relations with other countries.

Trump is dealing with legitimacy issues and is struggling to gain credibility.

In his desperate attempt to salvage credibility he is unleashing self-defeating processes that continually undermine his worthiness by:

  • fabricating stories (as if fact), to portray an image of success
  • attacking the press to negate their perspective of an event
  • impulsively signing executive orders to prove that he is a president that acts
  • ongoing social media tweets that reflect a defensive immaturity
  • publicly attacking other leaders (past and present)
  • denying the bubbling stories around his (or his team’s) relationship and involvement with Russia during and after his presidential campaign

Trump activates controversy and chaos in relationships. In short, he creates drama. He has a disruptive and divisive energy flow that may have succeeded in business as he gained the upper hand over a competitor. He appears to have many hidden agendas and given his modus operandi, others will not trust him. While he could dictate how he would do business with others, by hiring and firing who and when he wanted to, he is now finding that he cannot control the opinions of others around him.

Trump is not mindful of what he says and how he says it, especially with regard to indisputable facts. He does not fully comprehend the impact of what he says. Trump seems to believe that there is a fixed reality according to his perspective, which everyone needs to agree with. He does not seem to understand and accept that in this age of information flow, everyone has an opinion and interpretation of an event.

For now, Trump is teetering on the edge. In time, he will reveal more and more of himself. Over the past couple of weeks it has become clear that drama, distraction and fabrication will be drivers of his information flow. In the process, however, he may need to guard against digging himself in a hole from which it will be impossible to emerge.

Trump continually suggests that he is and will be, the most successful president of the United States of America. In a rather paradoxical way, he needs to understand that humility and ethics can start a process in which he slowly gains some credibility, however small. Without this, he is doomed to fail.

In the end, only the people will decide whether he is credible or not.