1: “There’s a little gap, no more than a millisecond, between the moment a thought arises and the moment our brain attaches an emotion to that thought,” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

If we are interested in manifesting the grit to control our thoughts, then we are wise to pay attention to that gap.

Because once a feeling is attached to a thought, “especially if it’s negative, there’s usually too much energy in the system to shut it down,” Steven writes. But if we are able “to get into that gap between thought and emotion,” we can replace a bad thought with a better one. Which neutralizes the stress response in the short term and reprograms the brain in the long term.

Cultivating this ability is one of the benefits of a mindfulness practice.

“Mindfulness is as advertised: the act of paying attention to one’s mind,” he notes.

Other thinkers extol the spiritual benefits of mindfulness. Not Steven. He believes it is a cognitive tool.

When we observe our thoughts as they arise, we begin to notice “this gap between thought and feeling, and soon discover the simple act of noticing gives us freedom,” he writes. “Once there’s space to move, there’s freedom to choose, and we can become active rather than reactive.”

2: Steven recommends selecting a point of focus and then setting aside time each day to focus on that point. One popular area to focus on is our breath.

“That’s the game,” he writes. “Start with five minutes a day.”

We start by selecting a time when we want to be calm. Before we start our day. Or to prepare for a big meeting. Perhaps before we arrive home to spend time with our families and loved ones.

“Long, slow breaths. The research shows that when our inhales and exhales are of equal length, we’re balancing sympathetic responses (fight or flight) with parasympathetic responses (rest and relax),” Steven explains. “This calms us down quickly. And the calm helps us focus even harder.”

We can increase the number of minutes slowly over time. Extending to “six, or seven, or however long we want to keep going,” he writes. “Studies show that we get stress reduction and lowered anxiety from as little as five minutes of mindfulness a day, while the larger cognitive benefits—heightened focus, optimism, resilience, and emotional control—really start to kick in at twelve to twenty minutes a day.”

3: In addition to single-point meditation, as described above, there is also open-senses meditation, where we “simply pay attention to everything flooding into our brains,” Steven notes. “Watch the show; don’t engage.”

Single-point meditation boosts convergent thinking, where the goal is to identify one well-defined solution to a problem.

Open-senses meditation heightens divergent thinking, where we aim to generate multiple ideas and potential solutions.

So if we’re “an architect working on a project that requires far-flung connections, go open-senses,” Steven suggests. “If we’re a lawyer trying to bomb-proof a contract, single-point focus is our tool.”

Each approach retrains our brain, “teaching it a simple lesson: we are most effective at dealing with life’s challenges when we’re aware, observant, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental,” he writes.

Steven suggests taking a “cross-training approach. I blend a couple of single-point mindfulness sessions a week with a couple of open-senses yoga practices. My mindfulness preference is ten to twenty minutes of box breathing, followed by ten minutes of open-senses meditation.

“My yoga preference is Ashtanga, mainly because it’s sort of break dancing in slow motion, and this holds my attention more than other forms. Also, because Ashtanga emphasizes breath and concentration, the instructors tend to talk less, which is important if you’re trying to use the practice to learn how to extend the gap between thought and feeling.

“That said, don’t assume that what works for me works for you,” he notes. “Conduct your own experiment.”

More tomorrow!


Action: Experiment with a single-point meditation and an open-senses meditation or yoga practice.

Reflection: Notice how I feel afterward. Can I separate my thoughts from the emotion around my thoughts?

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