Your Automatic Compass Leads to Your Mindful Compass

After publishing my book in Spanish I am rewriting it for an English audience.
Please let me know how you like the first chapter.


Chapter One
Your Automatic Compass Leads to Your Mindful Compass

Basic relationship patterns, developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood, are used in all other relationships throughout life.

Murray Bowen


Can you remember a time when you had no choice but to lead, when problems were cropping up left and right and no one was volunteering to take them on? If you took on those problems because no one else would do it, then you are a leader by default. You may not have thought of yourself as a leader, but you know when you have to act and you do it. On the other hand, if you love to make things happen and often find yourself competing with others who share a passion to lead, you are a leader by desire, born to the job.

Any leader can make decisions based on some awareness of the forces around them, but the question is how we as leaders can be aware of the many forces around us.

Many people do not think of themselves as leaders but all of us have to lead at some time or another. We can spend ninety percent of our time following others but when we have to make a decision impacting others, we are leading. The basic fact is that it is in our self-interest to lead well, to be more aware of the forces operating against us, in order to bring our hopes, dreams and plans to life.

All leaders, from the mature to the immature, can be on automatic pilot. We can all get too focused on finding a short-term fix. Looking at any decision from many perspectives takes time and energy and being mindful is a choice that requires energy. Motivated leaders know this and they have a passion to know more about the challenges they face as leaders at home, at work and in every place in which they encounter other people.

If you are a person thrust into leadership roles and are interested in enhancing your functioning at home or at work, then becoming mindful is the central skill you will be developing by deeply understanding social systems, or as I refer to them in this book, the “social jungle”. Even the most mature leaders can be unaware of all the twists and turns that await them in this jungle. We see this operating in the lives of Moses, Christ, Buddha and Mohammed, all of whom understood they were here to learn as well as teach.

Life brings frustrations and grave challenges to all of us. The fortunate ones are those who take up the challenges and become more mindful. All of us have to overcome some degree of psychological blindness and some ability to rip off the blinders to see more deeply. Being on automatic pilot, being blind to our own mind, mind-blindness, is part of the human condition.

Being able to see the ways we are influenced by relationships could require us to grow an imaginary periscope out of our spine. If we choose to develop our own tool, a spine-periscope, to see how we influence others and how others influence us, we can start to build our ability to be “emotionally neutral” about all that is happening around us.

Emotional neutrality is a key to seeing more objectively and, if you will, to seeing without judgment. We can make judgments later but first let us just see what is, how people interact now and in the past. Part of being able to observe well is to accept with humility, the ordinariness of our precious lives.

Most of us are more aware of our life history than we are of the forces influencing us at the broader societal level. This is as it should be. There are many more things we can do about our own life and even about our family history than about the government or social entities. Hopefully we can accept without too much angst, that we are not totally in charge of every decision we make and that often we are on automatic pilot just doing what needs to be done.

As mundane as life can seem at times, right below the ordinary surface there are the bubbling and gurgling of internal mechanisms that influence our decisions. Just as we are unaware of the mechanisms that regulate digestion (when they’re operating well), we are unaware of the automatic bias mechanisms that operate within us.

Sigmund Freud, M.D., the father of individual therapy, postulated that repression was the major mechanism that kept us mind-blind to all our conflicting desires and needs. Freud pointed the way to understanding the internal mental forces that are influenced by social situations.

Murrays Bowen, M.D., the father of family psychotherapy, postulated that the first thing to do is to learn to see relationships by becoming emotionally neutral. Bowen had a different way of encouraging people to see the system and then define a self to important others thereby becoming a more integrated person.

Both Freud and Bowen knew that instinctual and societal forces influence humans and other species in hidden ways. Freud focused on the mental mechanisms and Bowen on the relationships between people over the generations.

I will continue to follow Bowen ideas of the importance of understanding emotional systems. I will make the argument that in order to become a better leader or follower we need to build both a strong mind and a strong emotional backbone to be a more defined self in relationships. Building our emotional strength allows us to change ourselves as we gain more neutrality about our life and the human condition.

Building Mind-sightedness or a Mindful Compass

There are four spheres of influence that assist us in learning to see the world as it is:

1) understanding one’s own relationship history;
2) observing interactions within the group (or social psychology);
3) observing interactions between groups as well as the influence of culture (or sociology) on individuals and groups;
4) and applying evolutionary theory to social behavior (or sociobiology).

There are many forces and mechanisms that work either for or against us becoming leaders. Our individual efforts can be enhanced or compromised by our genetics, our instincts, our society and our family. The focus here is to identify the most important variables in allowing people to move beyond a reliance on their automatic guidance system and to be able to develop a more finely tuned Mindful Compass.

The Individual
If we can see that the individual is surrounded by the spheres of influence described above, it becomes easier to be more neutral about the challenges of being mindful. Neutrality about the constraints on the human is basic to enabling greater awareness of the human condition.

For most of us it is easier to start by being curious about how our own families influence us to be the type of leader we are. We can see our leadership emerge at any time we have had to define ourselves to important others.

When interviewing people I ask them the following questions:

1. What did you learn in your family that helped you to be the leader you are today?”
2. What is the relationship configuration in your nuclear family?
3. How much contact do people have in your family?
4. Are there grudges and cut offs and/or positive affiliations in your nuclear and extended family?

I ask a few questions about the history of the family over the generations to get a general idea about people’s levels of awareness.

Interviewees say, after these questions, that they can see more about how their lives are shaped by their relationship to past generations. People speak of various family influences, from the urge to give back to the community for all that had been given to them and to help family members after the death of a parent, to learning how to think differently in order to develop a talent, or to expanding a family business. Some leaders were inspired or touched by the past while others were compensating for past failures in the family.

A family system is not a one-way street where the child looks at the family and decides what to do. It is two-way street where many people are influencing and changing each other.

This influence of the older generation on the younger one is described in some current studies in sociology. These studies show how the nuclear family functions to decide which child is the most likely to be successful and then, by tacit agreement, how the investment in the “chosen” child supports that child’s success.

People in the family often are not aware they have chosen one child as the one most likely to succeed. The research suggests this is an automatic process that is instinctive and which we share with other mammals and even birds.

This process of selecting the most promising child, without awareness, can lead to stark divisions in families. This happens as part of mind-blind interactions. It is a silent agreement among family members, independent of the talent of the siblings, to favor one over others. If the family is higher on the socio-economic scale, there are more resources to divide and there is less squabbling among the siblings.

Families with more resources to give can have the flexibility to be more even-handed. People who are interviewed about this can tell you how aware they are of the impact of investing in one child over the others and all the rational reasons for doing so. But this is a mechanism that operates in less talkative critters too. It is called the pecking order and it is everywhere in nature, not just in the barnyard.

In humans the pecking order includes the siblings and the parents interacting, often without awareness of how recourses are distributed.
This automatic mechanism results in an uneven distribution of recourses. The way we see this is by predicting how a sibling will function based on another siblings success. That is if you know if one sibling is successful the chances are the others will be less successful. The same is true of you find one sibling not doing well, as the peeking order increases the probability the other will be successful. Research has shown us that sibling position is the best single predictor of success or failure.

We see that behavior is often automatic and mind-blind. People who are aware and who have recourses of course do even out the distribution of recourses, making the pecking order less obvious in higher socio economic circles. We can see that although the family members are often blind to how pecking orders are created, it happens. We can also see that family roles are not cast in stone. We have choices.

The successful one is usually the family leader but not always. There are exceptions. Leadership positions in families are often rotated during times of high stress as people get burned out or have to travel for work and others can step up into the functional poison by default. This often occurs during long illness, deaths and or intense stress.

At these times some people are more able to see the possible shifts in the automatic ways that relationships are organized. A window opens and people can alter their functioning often around the time of a death or a birth. These kinds of nodal events create opportunity for change.

Are you aware of opportunity to alter significant relationships around nodal events? Have you seen and can you plan for a shift in functional roles as your family changes. Children grow and people age. These kinds of changes also happen at works, will you be ready?

It takes time and effort first to just learn to observe in order to understand how our social environment influences us. But if one is interested in functioning at a more aware level, then the most important assignment is to investigate just how our automatic guidance system, our personal compass, functions.

Awareness of Our Automatic Guidance System
A simple way to think about our automatic guidance system is that our brain contains a number of pathways that give us a quick read on the outside world and what actions we SHOULD or MUST take immediately.

The brain has very primitive sensing and regulating mechanisms, all coordinated by the fear center, the hippocampus, to keep us safe from danger. If we are mind-blind then we are controlled by our fear response. If we are working on being mindful we can pause and wonder what is our reaction all about?

Overcoming our first reaction to something that seems to be threatening requires us to dampen down the fear reaction. If we can make some headway and separate our feeling from the facts of the situation then often we will see with less fearful eyes. If we are willing to question our perceptions and reactions, then we will perceive the world in a more thoughtful way.

Our brain has two pathways, one to alarm and one to inhibit and reexamine. By inhibiting our impulses we can ask questions to test how well our automatic compass is working. But if we believe that every stick we see is a snake then our automatic compass needs calibrating. This is the job of the more Mindful Compass.

Since the brain is efficient, we are not always aware of the many automatic mechanisms regulating our brain/body. For the most part this is fine because questioning every complex decision our brain/bodies make would overwhelm our frontal lobes.

Fortunately, we do not have to pay attention to our heart rate or our digestion under normal circumstances. However our social life requires greater awareness because our social interactions have taken on far more complexity in the last couple of thousand years.

Our ancestors lived in small tribes for thousands of generations. Our automatic compass was built to reflect the problems in these earlier times. Our brain was wired to protect us from all kinds of danger, from people we do not know and other dangers in the environment. We are alerted whenever we encounter unfamiliar situations that might require caution.

Consider the differences a few thousand years makes. Our ancestor’s interactions were limited to perhaps twelve adults and eighteen children as the tribe wandered through their more primitive jungle. Now we have shopping malls full of hundreds of strangers. We have Facebook and texting, traffic jams and schools with thousands of children. Our primitive brains are on overload as we sort out many possibly threatening events. We are warned to watch out for strangers approaching us and to always have control of our bags at the airport. We are trained to be more wary while being asked to continually interact with strangers. This rise in complexity requires a great deal more mindfulness to manage the exponential stress associated with relating to others in our modern world.

Steps in Becoming Relationship Mindful
There are at least three relatively easy ways to learn more about managing yourself in the social jungle.
1) Make an effort to observe the impact of relationships by seeing and then managing your stress reaction.
2) Acquire more fact-based scientific knowledge.
3) Listen to leader’s stories and retell or rewrite your own story.

This kind of an effort leads to what is called process thinking. We see how one thing influences but does not cause another event.

Those who can write and/or retell their life story often report having more neutrality about their past and about their current relationships. Perhaps this happens because when people just look at their life in the context of a longer period of time, this process gives them more prospective and frees them to learn from reflecting rather than just doing.

When you tell your own story you can see how you became more mindful. Research has demonstrated that how we make sense of our lives has an impact on both own lives and those of our children. Those who tell more coherent stories about difficult family experiences had children showed unusual strength and resilience. You can start to make sense of your history and write your story by looking at serious challenges in any generation or simple decision points or nodal events such as how you chose to go to college, get a job, get married or have children.

Then you can ask, was I shooting from the hip? Did I follow my family’s suggestions, was I driven by impulses or was I able to weigh the cost and benefits of the various options? Do I still blame others or can I make sense of the decisions they made?

How would one know the difference between thinking well and just being on automatic pilot? Writing is just one way we enable ourselves to reflect and see more clearly how we have lived. This is what happens as we move from mind-blind to mind-sighted.

Again, any first step can be taken as long as one’s goal is to be neutral about observation about oneself in the family emotional system. The second step is to see the workings of the preset automatic guidance system neutrally. The third step then is to understand the way the mindful compass functions and how it came to be.

Neutrality allows us to look at our life with less judgment and blaming. If we are lucky and disciplined we can look at the bubbling up of raw feelings, calm them down and integrate them with a deeper understanding of the primitive nature of the human condition.

I sometimes joke that if you get stuck on blame and/or shame then you have to carry blame back to its roots. Once you travel back over the generations trying to figure out who was really at fault, you will come to Adam and Eve and how they automatically reacted to the devil, who was reacting to God, who was only trying to give us an opportunity to see that when we make choices there are unforeseen consequences.

What a gift to be able to learn from our past. After all, who has not experienced some pain growing up? The question is what can we do with our experiences of mistakes and/or pain? Can it be put into a broader, more positive perspective to give us energy to create a better future for ourselves?

Our way of understanding what happens to us can either take away life energy or give us energy to move forward. Some people do this naturally while others learn the skill of reinterpreting events by being coached.

Clearly it is possible that even in the most negative life circumstances, people can find useful ways to focus on “what can I do” rather than seeing problems as overwhelming.

Those who are the more aware leaders in the social jungle seem to know more about managing self and do not give up their unique values or goals, despite pressure from others to fit in. They see the social jungle for what it is. They rebound from adversity. They find ways to manifest personal values and dreams while dealing with the family or those in other social groups who oppose them.

Being a leader takes courage. And so the more aware leaders find ways to relate to those who challenge them, while not making a big deal of differences or frustrations. They stay true to their voice while making the effort to understand others and to see more clearly just how social systems function.

The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Families and Society Determine Who We Become by Dalton Conley

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph Ledoux

The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
Antonio Damasio

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel Siegel, M.D. Bantam Books, 2010


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