Boundaries – Physical, Part 2: Mind-Body Connection, Re-Imagining the Interpersonal, and “Interacting, Fast and Slow” – A riff on the work and words of Daniel Kahneman

Spiral dynamics – Ken Wilber

Greetings to you. How are you? I am well, and I very much hope you are also. Is this a good time to connect? Great, let’s get started then.

These social niceties probably seem more than a little out of place in a blog entry. Well, they are! At least, they were according to the schema I (we) previously held about how blog entries are “supposed” to work. Can we agree that things are different now? For me, they certainly have changed, even since my last post (Physical Boundaries: Part 1, in case you missed it) from nearly four weeks ago. Four weeks. My last post looks juvenile and naive to my eyes, in the light of these intervening days and weeks. But that is the way of these things. If the past month has taught us anything, it’s that exponential growth/change (scroll down to the section on it in Mat’s most recent post, if you’re in a rush) is damn near impossible to account for, in advance or otherwise.

And yet, the curve does seem to be flattening, at least in a number of places. How? Simply put, boundaries. And accountability. As well as some support… and, why not? Expectations. BASE. When things work, regardless of whether or not they work optimally, there is almost always a good measure of all four of those things at play.

So, without more preamble, let’s dive in to the exploration of Cognitive and Interpersonal Physical Boundaries.

Cognitive Physical Boundaries can sound like a self-contradictory turn of phrase, especially for those of us educated in a Western thought paradigm. “How can I have mental boundaries that are also physical?” you may ask. My response, if I were feeling a bit cheeky, would be along the lines of “how can you not?” Unless you are making a deliberate, sustained effort to separate your cognitive and corporeal awarenesses, the strongest likelihood is that a large part of your lived experience is found in the interplay between the two. 

To be clear, your brain and the thinking in which we engage it are not synonymous with the “mind.” A little word work can help us clarify the distinction: 

Cognitive -> Cognition -> Thought (intellect)

Mental -> Mindfulness -> Mentality (mindset)

To me it is very interesting how we can begin with two practically synonymous words —cognitive and mental— and end up with two words —intellect and mindset— that are at best parallel partners. Although serious study of the mind-body connection has not been prevalent in the West for much of the past few hundred years, more recently it has gotten more and more traction. From the likes of Deepak Chopra, to the rise in meditation and mindfulness apps, clinics, podcasts, and so on, collective humanity is almost crying out for a counterpoint to the overly essentialized, long-held view of the body as a mere implement for the mind; a fleshy automaton meant to enact the whims of one’s will, or to be the gateway for the spirit’s eventual decline and demise.

Want an example? My recent lived experience sheltering in place here in Southern California has taught me a lot about mind-body connection and a lack of healthy Cognitive Physical Boundary guarding. Maybe you’ve gone through something similar recently:

My sinuses were irritated. I noticed it, at first a little, and then more and more. I thought “it’s just allergies.” Then I thought, “Isn’t it?” Then I felt irritation and even mild discomfort settle in my pharynx (the part of your sinuses that sits above the palate, almost directly behind your nose). Then I looked up what that part of the sinuses is called, and I read some articles about how the pharynx is where respiratory infection and sickness often begin. Then I noticed that my pharynx was even more inflamed and irritated. Then I became something very close to obsessed with clearing it out. Saline, saline, and more saline. It did not clear out. I climbed into bed about eight hours later in a ragged state. It must have been an hour before sleep finally took.

And don’t even get me started on the evening where I felt warm and took my temperature, only to discover that it was between 99 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I took it about 8 more times over the next two to three hours… it came down within 45 minutes and stayed that way. But it took my mind, and my body, about 12 hours to accept that this was not the beginning of a downward spiral. The next day, when I woke up feeling about as fine as I ever do, I decided to be MUCH more purposeful about monitoring my mind-body connection.

Contact with too much news, at too many intervals, focused too much on the myriad, mysterious symptoms and transmission modalities had built a narrative of inevitable infection inside my mind and spirit. My body reacted in kind. Sensations turned into symptoms. Symptoms turned into self-diagnosis, despite a much more robust set of signals that I was doing just fine physically. Sound familiar?

I needed to really channel some effort and energy into being aware of my body and the influence my thoughts and feelings have on it. In order to establish that connection in a more positive light, I went back to a technique that a former aikido sensei showed me. I lie down on my bed, and I proceeded to breathe in and out five to ten times, first through my nose and mouth, and then (and here’s the important part), through each of my main body parts: neck and shoulders: in, then out; arms and hands, in, then out; hips and lower back, in, then out; and so on.

Even if the worst thing you’re dealing with is some tension or soreness, this is an amazingly effective way to connect mentally with a physical sensation in a way that also gives you some agency. Because, isn’t that the challenge we most often face? Our body hurts -> us, and our minds/thoughts absorb and create a story from that physical hurt? Using the technique I have just described, you can begin to shift the source and flow of that story. Instead of beginning with physical sensation and ending in a cognitively produced narrative, turn the whole thing on its head (so to speak). Start with a story of general wellness and genuinely curious exploration, and then send that out through the physical sensory receptors of your body through the elemental power of purposeful breath. It takes some practice and dedication, but it also offers the powerful reward of a cognitive physical boundary system that is more reflective of the actual relationship between our bodies and minds.

Interpersonal Physical Boundaries can be understood, on one level at least, to overlap with Kinetic Physical Boundaries. As I outlined in my previous post, most of us have an ingrained preference when it comes to the amount of physical contact we wish to make with others in different kinds of routine social encounters. But what about our the way our physicality reflects our psychosocial state? Put a simpler way, what about our “energy” or “aura” in interpersonal dynamics? I’ll start from the outside in. 

Have you ever been around someone whose mood or state of mind was almost physically perceptible to you? Whether it is joy, bitterness, anxiety, desire, rage, or indifference —to pick just a few possibilities— I cannot help but imagine that you have been able to sense what another person is feeling just by being in their physical, visual, or auditory proximity. But, how often have you wondered how this can be? Does the invocation of terms like “energy” put you off? I suppose I can understand if it does, since it opens more doors to ambiguity than it closes, but I also wonder if that isn’t just the nature of interpersonal dynamics. They’re just a complicated mixture of visible and invisible dynamics, right? 

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s agree that, at one point or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of the unspoken, projected energy/aura of another person; a joyful friend, an upset stranger, a disappointed significant other, an annoyed boss, an entitled child… we can all picture and even use our sense memories to call at least one of these people to mind. And I bet those memories do not (need to) include perfect auditory recall in order to be vivid. It wasn’t what they said or did. It was how they felt that let us know. 

Ask yourself if you’ve ever been the one sending these energy signals to others.

Spoiler: you have.

At some point in your life to now, you have walked into a room and been greeted by someone who immediately picks up on some unspoken aspect of your current mood. The best part? It may have been an emotion/thought that you weren’t even consciously aware of yet! And that is the part I want to briefly focus on today. Conscious engagement with our interpersonal physical energy and differentiating it from the energy we absorb from the world, and people, around us. 

Check in with yourself. As you perform an inventory like that, do you do with some degree of evaluative judgment, or just curious discovery? The default for most of us is the former, but the better, and more accurate version, is the latter. For the next few days, commit to checking in with yourself at least twice each day, taking your emotional temperature as it were. But do it like an interested observer. Be curious, not evaluative. The goal is just to notice your internal energy at two different times per day, and then to be curious about if and how it might be, or have been, reflected in your physical interpersonal presence as perceived by others. 

Take it a step farther. Instead of attaching your emotional/interpersonal energy to your self-perception, depersonalize it. I’ll do myself as an example: I have spent most of today feeling impatient. I have been in a few meetings and conversations —both work-related and personal— where I wanted them to be over almost before they had begun. I am confident that those I with whom I was interacting picked up on that, even though I never said anything concrete about it.

Rather than owning it, however, I will simply note it and set it aside with this phrase: “There is impatience.” It is not me, and I am not it. I experienced it, and others, through my interaction with them, experienced it as well. But now, free of the burden of it, I can look forward and try my best to choose something different from this moment on. I’ll try wonder. My goal will be to first feel wonder at the actions and words of the people I interact with tomorrow. I’ll then try to project it from within, but also to connect with it in the world around me. It is still not mine. I can’t own or contain it. But there IS wonder, and I can participate, partake, and share. And the most genuine, impactful way I’ll do that will not be through my words, nor even my overt actions. It will be by way of a mind-body engagement with the wonder that there is.

I’ll leave you today with the voice of one of my intellectual heroes, Daniel Kahneman:

In this interview, he talks about how he thinks we —yes, all of us— misunderstood the nature and scope of the COVID-19 threat, as well as the risks we may run in misconceiving of the world as it is now, and as it will be hereafter. My biggest takeaway comes at around the 3:20 mark and lasts until just shy of the 7:00 mark. Give it a listen, if you will, and think about individual instances of behavior versus extended patterns of behavior, in your own life, and in the world around you. I hope it will be a good segue to the upcoming entries on psychological boundaries.

Additional link related to today’s post:

Until next time. Be well. Stay safe.

Author: Chris Brown

I am passionate about leadership, group relations, human energy and ways of being, thinking, knowing, and communicating. I believe everyone can act like a leader, regardless of their position, and that leading can take a lot of different forms. My goal is to help build and sustain cultures that foment shared, distributed leadership.

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