Three ways to become centred and more effective- mindfulness, chimp management and exercise
I recently witnessed an extreme case of road rage, where two guys got out of their cars and came close to physical violence. Their inner chimps had become raging baboons and it was not good to see. We all know how road rage can surface and what it feels like to be cheated out of a parking space or right of way. This incident led me to reflect on why some people are better than others at managing their inner chimps and how best to foster calm minds and harmony, in all aspects of our lives.
An unpalatable fact, particularly for men, is that the most extreme expression of violence, through war, is almost entirely a male pursuit. One plausible explanation is that millions of years of evolution and competition for scarce resources underpins our core nature as 'territorial carnivores'. We feel compelled to protect our spoils- in the form of land, ideas, religion or just about anything else we wish to own or control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, so the argument goes, civilisation is a thin and fragile line which is very often broken by the dark forces of our evolutionary natures. The evidence is not hard to find.
Having recently re-read Dr Steve Peters' excellent 'Chimp Paradox' I have become reacquainted with my inner chimp and how he behaves, particularly when faced by a perceived injustice or threat. Thankfully he is not a violent chimp but he does have other quirks, which need to be managed carefully. I believe this applies to each of us, men and woman alike. Although warfare lies primarily in the hearts of men, other forms of violence and antisocial behaviour are more evenly shared.
The two words which resonate most for me in this context are mindfulness and love. Mindfulness keeps us aware and on top of our own powerful emotions, and enables us to understand others motivations and behaviour as well. Love is a capacity we all share and is also a positive choice. If we chose love over fear we have a better chance of squaring the circle which often leads to violence in all of its forms. The battle of love against its nemesis fear, is perhaps the defining one of our civilisation, and it is also the one which we must win as individuals, if we are to be healthy and whole. Understanding and empathising with others is an important part of the mix.
The most direct and sadly underused route to understanding others feelings, is to ask them and then listen fully to their answers. A deeper level of understanding may come from using your intuition- the space between the words and the use of empathy. What does it really look and feel like to be this person in this situation faced with a similar set of circumstances? how does this inform what you can do to help them or to avoid conflict?
If the relationship is a close one- a lover, boss or friend for example, the best barometer for how they are likely to be feeling may come from looking inwards. 'Mirror imaging' will tell you that how you are feeling is very likely to be a reflection of their thoughts and feelings too. Always worth verifying of course but a pretty good indicator all the same. It will help you to manage the relationship in appropriate (read adult, not chimp) ways.
keeping your chimp 'boxed' as Steve Peters puts it, is a fundamental challenge which we must all win if we are to lead harmonious lives. Exercise is also important, both for you, the adult and your chimp who may like to rant and rave at times as a way of letting off steam. The benefits of physical exercise have been discussed at length on life Labs of late and I am a firm believer. From the release of endorphins through to the general sense of physical and mental wellbeing, the effects are hard to underestimate, and easy to appreciate once you try. Exercise will help to keep your inner chimp quiet and your mind calm and I know of no better therapy. Cold water swimming is my preferred route, but others of you will have other, more sane preferences.
Finally, we tend to think of ourselves in adult form as the finished article rather than as highly imperfect works in progress, which is not always helpful. As a coach I see people change for the better all the time and learn to manage themselves more effectively in all sorts of ways. This often leads to better performance at work and in other areas of their lives. What Steve Peters book and my own life experience tells me is that the chimp backed by millions of years of evolution is far too strong to tackle head on and we need to find smarter ways to deal with him, or her and to channel the energies constructively. This is a lifelong battle which we as individuals and as a society must win.