Improving Life through Empty Steps

Improving Life through Empty Steps

Learn these 3 tools: Recognize, Reset and Reframe

Picture by Patrice Wooldridge

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 one habits makes positive change possible so one can improve their life experience.

In the practice of T’ai 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 placement before committing. With repeated training the idea of stepping empty becomes habitual and in fact, it can feel surprising when one finds oneself falling into a step. This is particularly important for those who believe that the act of walking is basically falling forward with each step.

The training of learning to step empty before committing is also important in everyday life. Let’s take the example of a meeting that you are running and it isn’t going well. Our brains may react in a fight or flight pattern:

  • With the amygdalae instantly recalling previous situations and interpreting 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 can quickly launch you into feeling angry, frustrated, fearful, sad or even hopeless.

And yet we tend to stay in the meeting, trying to convince ourselves that we can handle what is happening. Yet, in this state of raging hormones we are likely to either remain frozen like a deer in the headlight or, end up releasing the pressure by saying or doing something that is not to our advantage.

In both tai chi and life, learning some basic principles – and actively practicing them – will dramatically help to reduce the subconscious habitual pattern. Here are 3 steps to practice:

  1. RECOGNIZE: If you feel your body tensing up, your breath becoming shallower, your hands grasping, then it is time to immediately recognize and reset. The more you practice being aware in every moment, the more likely you will be to break old habits.
  2. 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 breathe coming in and out.

Once you are aware of your breathing (so putting consciousness into an autonomic action) then 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 meeting can still go on, and you can still be listening while resetting, coming back into balance so that your next step is empty and appropriate (rather than falling into a place driven by your hormones).

  1. 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 other 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 playful or like a game rather than perceiving it as a hard and fast, unchangeable situation.

So, taking the meeting example, there are infinite possibilities to reframing your reactions to a negative situation and making it work to your advantage. Perhaps set up meetings differently where there is likely to be tension (for instance, make sure you have an advocate in meetings where you are likely to feel emotionally attacked).

We’d love to hear example of what happens when you try this method!

One comment

  1. Group Quality Reply

    Excellent article. Good to know that reframing a problem helps you see it as an opportunity.

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