Today I renamed the blog from “BlackAnt” to As Within. There is an intention beneath this change, as I’ve discovered that most of my results are driven from within over the past couple of years. While it’s true that taking action can lead to more motivation, as I focus on my heart and mind, the effort I choose to make is more aligned with my hopes and dreams.
As within: the secret to driving results
If you read through the past three or more years of blog posts, you might notice the focus on mindset, hopes, dreams and even feelings. Most of the books that I read are about personal development and growth but inner healing, letting go and finding greater authenticity.
As I dive deeper into mBraining, implementing it into my life, rather than being something I enjoy dabbling in as a mental exercise, I’ve had to change the way I think and respond. The beauty of this is I recognise that I can change any habit: they are merely neural paths that I am accustomed to —shortcuts through the grass – a path trampled over time.
If I choose to pass a different way, eventually, it will become well-trampled as well. This is how we build new habits – new neural pathways in mind.
I start with awareness through mindful observation of myself, noticing what I notice. I do this work within: in my mind and heart. It requires getting in touch with my feelings and emotions. I have to observe my thoughts, especially the patterns that regularly repeat.
How to focus
When I am busy and rushing around, there is no time for noticing. I am not mindfully occupied – but on the treadmill of “getting stuff done”. In this state, it easy to ignore what needs to change.
If there is one thing I have been grateful for, it has been the choice and possibility of slowing down. Doing less allows me to notice more.
It is in this silence that I sense my heart racing. What makes me feel this way? Is there something that I am responding to because I haven’t been for a run?
I start to pay attention to the catastrophising and awfulising that is going on in my mind. If my thoughts are racing, what effect is this having on my feelings? Are there physiological effects or just emotional responses?
So, while I might have hated accepting burnout all those years ago, I can see where it was for my good. It was an obligatory stop. Suddenly, I had to stop and listen.
You need a few moments of stillness to listen to your heart and notice the thoughts in your mind. This is at the very heart of mindfulness.
Focusing the heart
mBraining tells me to start with the heart.
But if I’m honest with you, that’s the most challenging place to connect within for me. I do great in my head – hell, when I’m honest, I was a head-on-a-stick. I’m pretty good with my gut as well: I could take a good idea and put it into action.
But if you talk about starting with the heart: that’s a challenge. I was the child that would burst into tears when I got angry and then flee in shame. Emotions felt turbulent and dangerous.
I also have to consider what I was taught in boarding school: “the heart is deceitful above all things”. No good comes from following the desires of your heart. Of course, our hearts are pretty much painted much like The Awkward Yeti paints the heart: always off chasing butterflies.
They conveniently ignored “and I will take your heart of stone and give you a new heart of flesh” – a heart that is vulnerable and soft, loving and compassionate.
Cold-hearted and numb:
Instead of being stuck in emotionally numb, unaffected, disengaged, indifferent, and hopeless, it is possible to be in a state of connection, peace, hope, joy and trust. While dorm parents and Sunday school teachers taught me “think on these things” – peace, hope, joy & trust – they looked down on feelings and emotions!
While we process and making meaning of what we are feeling in our heads, we don’t actually “feel” with our heads! We feel in our hearts and then make meaning of what those feelings and responses are.
Simply getting in touch with all the emotions that I stuff down has been a journey. Even if I did nothing else, that in itself would have been giant strides forward in getting to know myself. I find it fascinating that I was great at faking empathy (and I say pretending because my heart was cold and genuinely felt like I was faking it) while totally out of touch with my own emotions.
Mindfulness: acknowledging emotions and feelings
I cannot change what I refuse to acknowledge:
- If I want to change feelings of despair and hopelessness into hope, I must acknowledge that I feel helpless.
- Sadness and sorrow can only be released, making room for joy, when I admit and accept that I have been holding the sadness in my heart, swallowing my tears.
- One of the most challenging lessons for me is discovering trust. I oscillate between blind trust (I learned early on I was not to question authority) and total distrust (because people prove that they will let me down and do not deserve my reliance). While some gut instinct is involved here and thoughts and beliefs, I have also had to allow myself to thaw out my frozen heart!
When I am emotionally numb, avoiding pain, unfortunately, I am numb to all emotions. The numbing begins as a numbing of what we want to avoid. But before long, it swallows up the feelings we want to experience: love, peace, joy, hope, connection, appreciation and gratitude.
What is important? Values & priorities
An unfortunate side-effect of numbing my heart is that not only do I numb my emotions, but I also lose touch with my values and priorities. I’m not talking about those values that I think are good – the ones that I analyse and consider in my mind.
I’m talking about heartfelt values. What is truly important to me?
In a corporate setting, where it’s safe to stay in my head, I do well in espousing values and discussing why we should prioritise one action or decision over another. It’s simple, logical and analytical. I can fake interest in people’s feelings, as I know (head “know”) how to weigh what others want and need.
But my inner journey began when I suddenly found myself empty and devoid of meaning. While I was busy in my head, making plans and dreaming dreams, I disconnected from what I wanted in life. I didn’t even know how to ask myself what I wanted.
putting first things first
Stephen Covey talks about putting first things first. When I first read his book, probably back in 2008, I used this extensively in my professional life. And it was a great tool in getting things done, especially the more significant projects that were not urgent or putting out fires.
But until I sat down with deciding upon my values (which were different from my corporate values), it was impossible to identify what was important to me. So, I was constantly changing tack.
It wasn’t until 2017, when I began to work with Bonnie, that I recognised that I also needed to get in touch with my heart, passions and values. I stopped struggling to balance work and life – that elusive work-life balance – and suddenly decided I just wanted a life in which work was an integral ingredient.
Relationships and connection
I’m currently reading Deb Dana’s book “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy”. Not because I’m a therapist or intend to become one, rather to better understand me (and mBraining – because “the ANS runs the bus”). As I’ve looked at what she says about total shutdown (which I know a lot about as an “effective” survival technique), one section, in particular, stands out to me.
“Here we are disconnected from ourselves, from others, and from our internal and external resources. …we wait, feeling lost and unable to find our way back into connection.” (pg. 32)The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana
It is only in truly knowing and connecting with myself that I become open to connecting with others.
Connection to self
Over the years, I’ve learned to create safety: it is safe to connect with myself and my emotions. At the beginning of this journey, I remember a phase where I was drowning in sadness. I spent about six months in sadness and sorrow.
But I stopped judging myself or trying to ignore that I was feeling it. It felt like there was no rhyme or reason for my sadness. It wasn’t related to life “at this moment”. It just felt like “old sadness” that I had never allowed to rise to the surface. And then, it lifted.
Before that, I went through a few months of anger. Anger is a complicated emotion for me – I have many beliefs (not necessarily helpful) about anger. Anger is tied to irritability (gut issues), as well as to helplessness. But as I go within, I’m beginning to watch it rather than trying to stuff it back down again. I don’t have to “address it” or do anything with it. I certainly don’t have to act on it, but I can notice what causes or sparks it.
Connection to myself – this inner awareness of my emotions – gives me greater insight into what actions or decisions I might take. The choice doesn’t have to be emotionally driven. But in some cases, it might address an underlying situation or issue that requires my attention.
Connection to others
I’d be lying if I told you I find it easy to connect with others. Or perhaps it would be clearer to stay: I find it challenging to stay connected with others.
I am a socially adept introvert. I am perfectly comfortable talking with strangers and making new friends. I love diving deep into conversations – forget the chit-chat and small talk. But any time I get stressed, I withdraw and recoil.
Like a turtle, I pull back into the safety of my shell and stay there.
While I find people-pleasing to be easy, genuine connection and open-heartedness are difficult for me. It requires that I be open-hearted and vulnerable.
And guess what? That requires inner strength and self-confidence.
Connecting with others – not from a place of want or need – is a new adventure.
My relationships now are more profound than ever before – although, admittedly, they are fewer. But I am blessed to have an inner circle that I can count on, where it is safe to be vulnerable.
So, now, I am gently exploring what relationships look like when I am open to giving and receiving, rather than treating relationships as a transaction.
Focusing the mind
Did I already mention that the ANS (autonomic nervous system) drives the bus? While focusing my mind brings inner peace and calm, calming the ANS (through balanced breathing or other ways) also allows me to get my mind to focus.
When I’m stressed, I get fixated. That’s not focused! Fixation cannot explore solutions with curiosity: it is “singular reality”, where everything converges back to this one thing (typically a problem). Focus, on the other hand, is a light state of flow. I can entertain ideas, looking from different perspectives. It’s even possible to be playful, not just creative.
How do I see the world, myself and others in it? Perception is merely the lens that I look through, which might be rose-coloured glasses, a telescope, or microscopic vision.
The best measure that I have of my focus is “integrated vision” – can I take different perspectives that I have looked through and integrate them? Can I take a balanced perspective rather than getting stuck in a singular view?
If I’m struggling to see another person’s point of view, there’s an opportunity for me to go within.
Thinking & analysing
I’m great at thinking and analysing. That is one of my strengths. At my worst, I get stuck in logical, structured thinking. But at my best, I’m engaged, organised, and present with excellent reasoning ability.
Despite aphantasia and struggling with mental imagery, I flow easily with abstraction and language expression. Planning and organising are my forté until I fall into the trap of over-planning and getting fixated on time and schedules.
They say your most significant strength is also your weakness. And I would have to agree.
- I get caught up thinking and analysing my emotions and feelings rather than experiencing them. I think about what it would feel like to feel X emotion when I could be feeling it.
- I plan what I will do in my meditation or silence instead of meditating.
Making meaning: the stories we tell ourselves
Meaning-making is one area of my life that I have to tread carefully: another strength that quickly becomes a weakness. As someone who “lives in my head”, I am quick to observe and assign meaning to what I have seen, heard, or experienced. I jump to conclusions, catastrophise and awfulise.
While it is helpful to analyse my beliefs and thought patterns – noticing patterns allows me to break an archaic habit – I find it easy to get caught up in the stories. I go through stages where journal or writing prompts are helpful, and then months where I need to spend more time “embodied”. For me, writing in a journal keeps me wrapped in words, meanings, and thoughts rather than experiencing life. You might have noticed – that’s not where I need to be.
It has helped me make sense of parts of my experience, but I have grown much more with embodied wisdom that takes me into my heart and gut and asks my mind to advise rather than lead.
That might not be your experience, but what happens to you when you go within?
It takes guts to get results
When I think about people with guts, I think of fearless courage: daring to do. But having guts is more than just daring. There’s a certain tenacity, a smouldering fire that doesn’t burn itself out. If the heart is fickle, the gut is relentless and unstoppable.
Well, for as long as it’s hungry. Then it falls asleep after eating! Until it’s hungry again.
For years, I used my gut to propel me forward, driven by hunger. I do not doubt that this was partly responsible for my burnout. There was no compassion (for self or others) in this drive; values didn’t temper it.
I took a good idea, made a plan, and bulldozed my way through to get it.
But I failed to listen to so many of the warnings from within my heart and gut.
Motivation & movement
My gut needs to be on fire for me to achieve striking results. I do a much better job of seeing things through when I have gutsy motivation. It’s so much more than willpower and mindset, and unlike the heart, it doesn’t give up at the first obstacle.
But aside from hunger, the gut has specific conditions under which it best operates. Those are the conditions that I am learning to listen to within.
Self-preservation, safety & security: facing your fear
You know that gut instinct we have that says, “this isn’t safe?”. It’s not in your head! My mind is fantastic at making up stories about safety and security, creating ghosts, ghouls and goblins. But those are imagined, not real.
The natural feelings of safety, or lack thereof, are felt in my gut.
Sometimes, I can talk my gut into courage by focusing on long-term safety rather than the short-term risk. But what happens when I continually ignore the messages from my gut that it isn’t happy with my life choices: it needs more safety & security. As I repeatedly overlooked these messages, I created stress: chronic stress.
Eventually, it showed up as a chronic illness. “I can’t do this anymore”.
I’ve had to learn the hard way that facing my fear is not the same as ignoring it. I know how to face the fear and do it anyway (for example, jumping out of a perfect aeroplane with a parachute). But continually overlooking that I was not safe without addressing the underlying issues created too much stress.
Avoidance (or sticking your head in the sand) is not the same as bold courage.
Core identity: questions of self or not-self
Who am I – when I shed the ideas of ego, what’s left?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t “feel” myself in my head. When I want to get in touch with who I deeply & truly am, I sit deep in my gut. Perhaps it’s connected to 80% of the immune system – that differentiates “self / not-self” – being gut-based. Or simply that in an embryo, the core of the gut develops long before the heart, spinal cord or brain.
Whatever it is, the question of who am I lies embodied within. It’s not something I can find through thinking or analysis. It’s something I sit with – in silence.
The answer to this question is essential when planning for my hopes and dreams – taking what I hold significant and aligning that with the depth of my being. When I fail to take into account this core feeling of identity, my feet drag in execution.
Heart and willpower can only push so far when the gut sticks in its heels and says, “no, this is not who I am”.
How this comes together to drive stronger results
I have taken you on a long journey within. If you’ve come this far with me: thank you!
What I haven’t mentioned is the spiritual journey I’ve been on, in addition to the physical, mental, and emotional growth. But that’s a story for another day.
What I have shared are nine factors that I consider essential in getting results:
- three are heart-centred: emotions, values & priorities, and connection/relationships;
- another three are head-based: perception, thinking & analysis, and making meaning;
- and the final three lie deep within my gut: motivation & movement, self-preservation (safety & security), and identity.
I am only now learning to align all of these rather than focusing on one and excluding others. It’s a journey within.
Personal growth and mindfulness
So, this blog focuses in significant part on personal growth and mindfulness. There is a lot here about becoming more self-aware: thoughts, emotions, fears and motivations.
Book club: learning is only as good an integration
My book club focuses almost exclusively on transformational and generative learning: how do we integrate what we’ve read into our lives? I no longer am looking for more intellectual knowledge. Instead, I want to know: what does it look and feel like when I try to use this?
So, whether it’s Joe Dispenza’s “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself”, Deb Dana’s “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy”, or Maureen Murdock’s “The Heroine’s Journey”, it’s a meandering journey of exploration, rather than a speed read and “tell me what you know”.
Diet & exercise
Everything about diet and exercise here is about strength, fitness and being strong enough to have the quality of life I want to have with my daughter. I no longer identify as “I am Celiac”, but rather “I have a diagnosis of Celiac disease”. I choose not to eat gluten because I’m not too fond of how it makes me feel.
No, I wouldn’t necessarily say I like the way I feel when I exercise.
I choose to exercise because I like how my body feels (overall) when I exercise. I am motivated to keep building my fitness because I love the lifestyle that this affords me.
My healing journey, healing stories & immune system
As much as I started my healing journey believing it was merely physical, the more I dive in, I recognise how everything is everything. My mental and emotional states directly impact my physical wellbeing.
So, as I work through healing physically, I heal spiritually, mentally & emotionally. I can’t have one without the other.
To some extent, the more I learn, the less I know.
Occasionally, I’ll share “journals” of things I’m trying. I don’t promote any products on here, so you won’t find me linking to them. These are just my healing stories.
And the reason I do all of this: because there is a little girl following in my footsteps. I don’t want to pass down to her my trauma or my health challenges. So, it’s crucial for me that I become the healthiest possible version of myself – with compassion and kindness – so that I can give her the best opportunity to be herself.
She’ll make enough mistakes of her own along the way, without me adding to those burdens. And yes, no matter how good a job I do, in 20 years from now, she’ll probably be sitting in therapy somewhere talking about her childhood.
All I can do is be the best version of myself here and now.