Neuropsychology has well established that we react to stimuli before our conscious mind can catch up. This means that it is easy to step – whether that be a physical, emotional or mental step – into places that aren’t in our best interest. Becoming more conscious of our habits makes positive change possible so we can improve our life experience.
In the practice of tai chi, one of the basic principles is to learn to set the foot down without putting weight into it and then shifting the weight – essentially testing out the “ground” before committing. With repeated training the idea of stepping “empty” becomes habitual and we find an improved sense of balance.
The training of learning to step empty before committing is also important in everyday life as we work on maintaining mental and emotional balance. Let’s take the example of a conversation that you are having that isn’t going well. Your brain may react in a fight or flight pattern:
- The amygdalae instantly recalls previous situations and interprets the current situation as a threat.
- This activates the hypothalamus, which sends coordinated response signals to both the nervous system and the pituitary gland.
- These signals tell your body that you have a real threat and that can quickly launch you into feeling angry, frustrated, fearful, sad or even hopeless.
And yet we may want to stay in the conversation and try to convince ourselves that we can handle what is happening. In this state of raging hormones we are likely to either remain frozen like a deer in the headlights or end up releasing the pressure by saying or doing something that is not to our advantage. We may lose our balance and not step empty.
In both tai chi and life, learning some basic principles – and actively practicing them – will dramatically help to reduce the subconscious habitual pattern and help us maintain equilibrium. Here are 3 steps to practice:
- RECOGNIZE: The first step is to recognize that you are in a reactive state: if you feel your body tensing up, your breath becoming shallower and your hands grasping, it is time to immediately recognize and reset. The more you practice being aware of your feelings in every moment, the more likely you will be to break old habits.
- RESET: To help reset and take conscious control, you will first need to calm your body and mind down. The easiest and most often suggested method is to take slow deep breaths and consciously be aware of the breath coming in and going out.
Once you are aware of your breathing (thus putting consciousness into an autonomic action), become aware of your whole body and see what tension you can let go of. If you are grasping something, set it down. If you are staring into a screen, look away.
The conversation can still go on, and you can still be listening while resetting and coming back into balance so that your next “step” is empty and appropriate (rather than falling into a place driven by your hormones).
REFRAME: The next step of learning and practicing taking empty steps is to consider Reframing. This concept starts once you are feeling more in balance and able to take a conscious step.
Start to retrain your interpretation of the threat. For instance, think about your reaction to a roller coaster ride. The same hormones that make one person feel it is thrilling are interpreted by another person as extreme anxiety or even as a fear of falling or death. The idea for the reframe is to find a way to make the situation more pleasant or playful rather than perceiving it as a hard and fast, unchangeable situation.
So, taking the conversation example, there are infinite possibilities for reframing your reactions to a negative situation and making it work to your advantage. Perhaps you could set up important conversations differently when there is likely to be tension (for instance, make sure you have an advocate if you feel you are likely to be emotionally attacked). And remember to relax and breathe.
We’d love to hear example of what happens when you try this method!