Being in a box

I was sitting alone in a coffee stop in Frankfurt reflecting on my participation in a workshop on business coaching. I was busy examining a work dilemma that I was having that was embedded in (a) the philosophy that underpins helping others and (b) the paradigm of thinking that directs and organises information flow in how one interprets human behaviour that unfolds in an interpersonal context.

I was deeply wrapped up in thought as I looked out of the window of the coffee shop.

A tiny, yet bright light shining in the distance immediately caught my attention. It was a light that could be easily missed, if you were not looking in that direction. There were many other competing visual and auditory distractions around me; traffic lights, people and cars passing by, laughter and chatter as people enjoyed their coffee, and the familiar sound of the machine grinding the coffee beans to produce the addictive auroma of the coffee to be served. Any one of these processes, at that specific moment, could have diverted my eyes away from the reality of the existence of this tiny source of light.

It was a light that only lasted a couple of minutes, just before the sun moved below the horizon.

The light was coming from a cross on a church, reflecting the rays of a sun that was about to set. While I do not belong to any one specific religious denomination; for me, the cross symbolises peace, tolerance, compassion and wisdom.

A bright, tiny light in the distance

Once I had noticed the light, I couldn’t stop looking at it. Its strength, power, significance and magnetism far surpassed its size.

As I looked at it, I was catapulted out of my internal debate. A clear meaningful insight about my dilemma was being transmitted by this tiny light. The insight bypassed my intellectual reasoning. Its magnetism ‘pulled’ me out of my previous train of thought. Instantaneously, I felt that I had been transported into an emotional and intellectual space where I could move freely between the opposing poles of the dilemma.

I immediately felt out of the box.

I felt free from the constriction that the dilemma had imposed on me. There was relief, coupled with a feeling of emotional strength.

As I continued looking at the tiny light in the distance, I was struck by its authenticity and beauty. In exploring my feelings further about the workshop that I had participated in, I realised how much courage it takes to be transparent and authentic in an interpersonal context that may be quick to define and judge you according to who they think you are (or believe who you should be).

The river Main separates the beautiful urban skyline of Frankfurt (representing the mechological powers of man) from the ecological rhythm of a gorgeous golden sunset unfolding behind a church.

A dualistic tension can emerge between the mechological and ecological approaches to understanding and solving human problems. As I moved out of the box, I felt free to jump in and out of each paradigm. This liberation offered me a wider and deeper perspective of the dilemma that the clash of mechological and ecological thinking can cause.

As the sun set, the tiny light still shone brightly in my mind as I left the coffee shop and made my way to the airport.


The height of stupidity

After the recent mass shooting in a school in Florida, there has been an intense debate in the USA regarding gun control and school shootings.

The tragedy in Florida has not been an isolated event. It has been reported that in the seven weeks of 2018, there have been eight school shootings resulting in injury or death.

Mass shootings are proliferating in the USA in an uncontrollable way. On a broader societal scale, 2017 has been reported as the deadliest year for mass shootings in the history of the USA. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 345 mass shootings in 2017.

The frequency and/or ferocity of the mass shootings can be viewed as a measure of the emotional and psychological health of a society. Given these number of shootings, one can draw the harsh conclusion that American society is at war with itself.

Politicians are reluctant to (a) impose any restrictions on gun ownership and (b) get to the societal and psychological reasons of these horrific events.

Many politicians have been funded by The National Rifle Association. In fact, it has been reported that Trump was the beneficiary of $30 million in NRA spending in the 2016 election. Given that the NRA, politics and finance are so tightly interwoven, it is no surprise that many politicians will not support any form of gun control.

Two days after the Florida tragedy, insensitive and inappropriate photographs of the president of the USA (with thumbs up and narcissistic grin), with (a) law enforcement and (b) medical personnel in the hospital where victims were being treated, were officially released by the White House.

A week after the event, the president has now suggested/proposed that teachers need to be armed as a solution to stopping school shootings.

Pointing the way – To where?

In line with this stupidity, maybe the following should also be considered:

  • all 18 year olds need to undergo weapon training in order to protect themselves in times of crisis,
  • every 18 year old student should be legally required to carry a weapon at school for protection and as a deterrent against possible attack,
  • a parental roster needs to be drawn up for at least 10 armed parents to patrol the perimeter and corridors of the school at any given time to protect the children,
  • at least two snipers need to be strategically positioned on school roofs in order to eliminate any potential threat,
  • two police patrol cars and an ambulance permanently stationed at every school so that the 1st response time to crisis is almost instantaneous.

While this may all sound ridiculous it is not out of the realm of possibility, given the type of thinking from the president and the politicians in Washington. The simplistic logic of trying to solve mass shootings by adding more guns to the gun problem is the type of ‘more of the same’ thinking that escalates and intensifies the problem, yet also avoids the fundamental societal issues that are at the heart of the issue.

Mass shootings are an attack on the system. From a psychological perspective, a student or person who embarks on a shooting spree has been dealing with an unresolved interpersonal issue that gets projected onto the group.

On a fundamental level, the perpetrator is generally dealing with one or more of:

  • an intense build-up of anger that eventually cannot be contained,
  • a masked depression that gets expressed in a hostile way,
  • alienation, isolation and exclusion, with no sense of belonging,
  • severe emotional pain that dulls sensitivity, compassion and remorse,
  • rigid and excessive prejudice towards those who are perceived as being different, and therefore considered a threat.

These feelings cannot be taken out of a family, community or society context. Without considering an interpersonal context, behaviour has no meaning.

Perpetrators of mass shootings have a deep anger and resentment towards the group/society in which they exist. Turning onto the group in a violent way is a counter-balance to feelings of helplessness. On a historical level, many of those carrying out these acts of violence have had to deal with being bullied, acts of unfairness, exclusion and/or alienation at certain stages of their lives. On a family level, little or no emotional support may have been available to help encourage the individual to resolve conflict in a healthy, constructive manner.

The president of the USA is known to be a bully and bigot, who unleashes processes that divide instead of unite societies, and who supports legislation that excludes and alienates minorities. Maybe the statistic of 345 mass shootings in his 1st year in office is just a reflection of how his personal methodology of resolving conflicts is playing itself out on a societal level? But there again, deaths of innocent children at school may actually be nothing more than fake reporting by the fake news!

As I conclude, I want to acknowledge my sadness at the loss of innocent lives in all of the mass shootings that have occurred world wide and my anger at all of the inept, self-serving politicians who are reluctant and afraid to address the real issues that are tearing societies apart.

Enhancing quantum performance

I am constantly being asked questions about the psychology of performance and the ‘state of mind’ that is necessary to ensure success in competition.

Many athletes adopt a mechanical approach to their mental preparation. Specific goals are set which the athlete then strives to achieve. While this sort of approach offers structure and clarity for the athlete, I feel that it only taps into the logical part of the brain. Further, this approach is outcome based and does not embrace the fluidity and ever changing nature of competition.

Exceptional performance that catapults the athlete onto a new level requires an added dimension that incorporates an approach that taps into imagery and creativity. This approach is based in a philosophy of quantum thinking in which mental energy is seen as having properties similar to water, where multiple levels of thinking are integrated into a holistic focus.

The nature of this approach is nonverbal, intuitive and story-like in which ideas generate powerful meaning that the athlete can connect with. In line with this way of thinking, photographs, images and/or meaningful stories can help crystalise mental energy that will help the athlete reach higher levels of performance in a spontaneous and creative way.

On a recent walk I took three photographs that best illustrate ideas regarding the integration of three mental processes, that if one taps into, will assist the athlete during the unfolding process of competition.

Three inter-connected mental components form the holistic model that embraces quantum thinking. These three components should co-exist and be utilised at the appropriate time, depending on the nature of the challenge that is being encountered:

  1. The optimism and joy of a dog on a walk
  2. The alertness of a cat ready to pounce
  3. The freedom and flow of a bird in flight

In a conversation with an iron man triathlete, I was explaining that it was necessary to remain present in the unfolding moment of competition. The three dynamics mentioned above, are ever present during the race.

There needs to be an overall optimism in the way that one approaches and deals with challenges, particularly in the tough, down periods of a race. Remaining connected to the joy of a dog on a walk supports the athlete at times when doubts, despondency or fears creep in.

A cat that is ready to pounce is in a proactive state of readiness. The alertness of a cat helps the athlete deal with the unexpected. To be successful, it is important to trust your abilities and to respond immediately and spontaneously to a threatening or challenging moment. In order to respond in such a way, the athlete needs to be in a concentrated state of alertness, where nothing is taken for granted. Nothing should distract the athlete from the present moment of focus.

Many athletes go into competition with a definite, structured game-plan having specific outcomes. While this may offer the athlete security, the challenge during competition is to be able to adapt and be flexible to change. Trusting your instincts and being able to change strategy at critical moments of the unfolding process is a skill that champions possess. If the mindset is too rigid, the athlete is likely to hold onto a game-plan that was formulated before the start of the race, but may no longer be working due to changing conditions and/or opponents that have found a way to neutralise or defeat you.

In summary, the table below captures the holistic, and integrated mental state that will offer you the best chance of a quantum performance:

Aligns you to:


Dog on a walk

Optimism, Joy, Support

Despondency, Fear, Stress

Cat ready to pounce

Alertness, Concentration, Discipline, Stillness

Lethargy, Complacency, Distraction

Bird in flight

Flexibility, Flow, Freedom, Creativity

Rigidity, Tightness, Limitation

The column of counters highlight the mental challenges that negative energy activates. If you are feeling despondent during competition, then tapping into the theme of walking the dog will help you. If you become aware that you are getting too tight or rigid in how you are approaching the challenges, then linking to birds in flight will offer you the necessary flexibility of movement to navigate around the obstacle.


Each new day begins with a sunrise, that brings light and warmth.

A new beginning or a new way depends on new insights that help direct your energy into a new direction. The model above does not only apply to elite athletes that are constantly working on expanding their expertise and skills to master taxing challenges in the heat of competitive battle.

A client of mine revealed that she was aligning herself to the themes of freedom, fearlessness and joy, as part of her change process, in how she wanted to live her life going forward. She stated that she wanted to better utilise and embrace opportunities that crossed her path. Such is the way to lead a more fulfilling life where your light can shine in its own uniqueness.

Soften the eyes and extend the gaze

Elite athletes will tell you how important it is to have ‘good body language’ during competition.

Under stress, the energetic system of the athlete tends to tighten and rigidify. In extreme cases of stress, the athlete can get immobilised and stuck at critical points during the competitive contest. This hinders the spontaneous movements that are required to execute complex physical actions. In such cases, there is greater possibility that the visual system misjudges the movement and distance of the ball and/or the movements of an opponent.

When dealing with stress during competition it is important that the athlete learns to (a) soften the eyes and (b) extend the gaze.

In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze
In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze

Many years ago, I did a night walking exercise with my friend, Dr Ken West (who specializes in sports vision). Before the walk, I learned that there were two types of photoreceptors in the retina, (a) cones, that were condensed in the centre of the retina, and (b) rods that covered the rest of the retina. The cones were responsible for color and daylight vision and provided us with our sharpest vision, or highest acuity of vision. The rods did not detect light as sharply as the cones did, but were more sensitive to low light levels than the cones were. Finally, there were many more rods than there were cones in the retina.

From a sporting perspective, the cones are used to focus eyesight in a concentrated way (watching the ball), while the rods are used for peripheral vision (broader awareness of the surroundings). Of interest, I established that the reaction time for spontaneous action of motocross racers at the start line was significantly quicker if peripheral vision was used (as opposed to focused vision on the start gate). The fundamental reason for this difference in reaction time is that the cones are linked to conscious thinking, while the rods are associated with the unconscious (which bypasses logical thinking).

During the night walk, we had to utilise our rods (peripheral vision) to navigate our way. The purpose of the night walk was to activate the unconscious and stimulate creative thinking (via the use of peripheral vision). While asleep that night, I had such vivid dreams, that to this day, I can still remember them. My friend, Ken, also reported having vivid, unusual and intense dreams.

Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish
Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish

During stress, intense focused vision tends to gets over-activated, which in turn, tightens the visual system. To soften the eyes, the athlete needs to go into peripheral vision at times when there is no activity or concentration required. In cricket, for example, the batsman can go into peripheral vision between the balls that are bowled. This helps the eyes to relax and also stops the mind from thinking too much or too logically.

The eyes can help improve the body language of an athlete. When dealing with failure, an athlete’s body tends to cave in, with the head and shoulders dropping (indicating heaviness). As this unfolds, the vision is directed down, almost in shame. This sinking sensation in the body can be countered if you look up or extend the gaze. By looking up, I don’t mean staring up into the heavens, but rather lifting the gaze. As you do so, the eyes lift the body as well as the spirit.

An elite athlete needs a visual system that is alert and relaxed in order to perform optimally. Softening the eyes by activating the peripheral vision and extending the gaze into the distance will help the athlete to achieve this.

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.

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).