The Elephant is always trying to protect you from threats to your conscious sense of self. When you’re dealing with an aggressive or contemptuous boss, it responds automatically and puts your body into flight-fight mode, by flooding your body with adrenal-cortisol stress hormones, even though the Rider knows it’s not going to punch the boss out or run away. So the Elephant’s provides a third option. It “freezes” you emotionally. Your Rider disengages from the situation and waits. However, this safe option doesn’t change what’s going on in your body…once the processing of fear starts it can’t be stopped.
The same thing happens around multi-tasking. The difference is only that in our wired world the Rider has learned the myth of multi-tasking. We think we can actually do it. This is a diabolical illusion. We are not wired to multi-task. As neuroscientist Earl Miller says. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly.” And every time we do this there’s a cost to both the Rider and the Elephant minds. Multitasking increases the production of the adrenal-cortisol stress hormones just the way personal attack does. This scrambles the Rider’s thinking and again, it threatens our body.
The stimulation of these hormones every day damages the body’s organs and undermines our immune system. Even worse, they metabolize slowly in our systems so that what stresses us during the day prevents us from having body-restorative sleep at night. It’s a vicious cycle and to support our minds and bodies we need to interrupt it. We must calm the Elephant’s emotional responses and clear the circuits in the pre-frontal cortex. We do this by focusing on the present moment and changing the way we breathe.
The Conscious Calming Breath
We need to take a deep, conscious breath. To slow our elephant mind for a moment we need to engage our Rider in doing one of the things the Elephant controls – our breathing. We need to choose to breathe in a way that is exactly the opposite of our automatic or natural breath.
The natural breath that we take every few seconds is from the upper half of the chest. Worse, when we are frightened or angry, we breathe more rapidly, higher in the chest cavity, while drawing in our gut and raising our shoulders. Essentially, we pant. To calm the mind, we need to reverse this bodily cycle through the conscious calming breath.
In essence, the conscious calming breath comes from our belly not our chest. When we breathe in, we push our stomach outward against our belt or skirt line. I call this the Buddha Belly.
Let me demonstrate.
In my workshops, after several repetitions, most people begin to breathe more deeply and move their upper chest and shoulders only slightly. More importantly, a genuine stillness comes over the room and each person feels the calming power of the conscious breath. I suggest that with this breath, they can create a moment of inner calm before they enter any difficult situation and, with regular practice, can manage it even in the midst of a situation that’s rapidly going downhill. Take a moment, close the office door – no office? – go into a bathroom stall – just do it – at least once a day. It only takes a few moments, but it’s extremely powerful.
To do this breath you must engage your Rider mind – you have to think about how to do it. This does two things – it untangles your thoughts and communicates through your body to your Elephant that you’re not as frightened or angry as it is telling you, you ought to be.