Jul 13, 2022

The Obnoxious Mental State of “Sports Bar Mind” and What to Do About It Book Review Jul 13

The Obnoxious Mental State of “Sports Bar Mind” and What to Do About It Book Review Jul 13

The Obnoxious Mental State of “Sports Bar Mind” and What to Do About It Book Review Jul 13

Nathan King

The mind's chatter can grow tediously noisy and distracting. "Sports Bar Mind" blares classic rock through tinny speakers. The clientele shouts to be heard. The food's not that great.

When Sports Bar Mind takes over during a work day, we skip from task to task, never getting deeper into the surface. We have a negative sense about our work and just can't figure it out.

What is Going on in the Brain

Stress (and trauma) come from the distress center of the brain. The outer cortex, the part of our brain that controls language, planning, and task management jumps into action to fix it. Unfortunately, it doesn't know what the source of the stress is. So it often misses the mark, resulting in an unhealthy cycle: distress goes to self-talk and trying to plan and control. We have a negative dialogue with ourselves and we ruminate.

The downside is that it is easy for us to get lost in this part of the brain when we are stressed or traumatized in a mental scramble to survive.

The insular cortex is where we create stories. This part of the brain is the beautful part of being human. It is where we can see the stress for what it is, something bad happens to us isn't our fault, we don't have to control it, but we do have to respond to it.

Why We Need to Get into Our Bodies

A common consequence of the mind working in survival mode is dis-integration with the body. The problem is that we are bodily creatures and a disrupted connection to our body reduces our understanding of the total picture of our minds.

We have to engage in practices to quiet the outer part of the brain so that the inner cortex can do its magic.

The mind-body connection is frequently championed by people who like to meditate and speak softly and burn incense. People who, at least it used to seem to me, didn't care about getting much done. The importance of the body outside of the mechanical potential to physically move me from place to place or achieve athletic performance struck me as "woo-woo" hogwash.

That changed when I encountered a period where I felt stuck.

Even though career and family life looked good on paper, I felt "off," distracted, even doomed.

This period precipitated a search for what was going on. One of the fruits was to encounter the work of psychologist Eugene Gendlin, who wrote a book called Focusing describing a process he encountered that people who successfully worked with a therapist used in their sessions with a psychologist. Noticing a common trait, he began to study what these people did. They all had in common what he described as "an inner act" to, while discussing a challenge or multiple challenges in their lives, become aware of something that seemed to be in their body, something he called a "felt sense."

The result of his research was describing this simple process. It is something of a manual that lays out how to do it and discusses subtle aspects of it to help the reader cultivate the skill.

The premise flows from his observation that

The unconscious is the body.

When you have a "gut feeling," probably the most common phrase that touches on the mind-body connection, you don't quite know the reasons but you know you are receiving a clear message to do or not do something specific.

We can rationalize taking any action, see multiple sides of any situation, but the body moves away from, or towards, certain feelings in a much more objective way.

Gendlin argues that the body pushes us towards life, and it senses what will give us life more reliably than what an emotion or thought can.

The challenge is that the louder the mental chatter when we are in "survival mode," the less connected we are to our body. Gendlin's process helps us to correct that, and it is a helpful tool in the toolkit for personal and spiritual growth.

The Focusing Steps, or "Movements"

The process of focusing only requires a quiet place where you can sit still. It's isn't exactly meditation in the popular sense of closing eyes and emptying the mind. It is mentally and physically quite active. You can close your eyes if you want but it isn't a requirement. The total duration of a focusing session doesn't conform to a specific time limit, but I find that it takes 10-20 minutes, and in the event that I don't have much time, I can usually abbreviate it or at least get much benefit out of cutting it short.

There are 6 steps, or movements, in the focusing process. Here is a description for each.

1. Clear a mental space.

At the beginning of the session, the mind is quite busy, normally with the various cares of the world that you've got – stresses, anxieties, worries, fears. The first step is let go of those for a minute. Gendlin likens it to carrying a heavy burden, bound inside a bag. "Only by first setting it down can you look at what's in the bag."

You are taking inventory of what's inside the bag. You assert to your self, in effect, that "everything is awesome" and then you pay attention to yourself, physically. How does your body respond to that?

Situations that are definitely not "awesome" will soon start to bubble up. The task here is to take an inventory. It's important not to distinguish trivial from substantial concerns. In fact, some of what comes up likely sparks judgment of yourself and others ("I can't believe she did that to me," or "I'm such an idiot!"). It's as though you are removing each item from the bag and setting it down in front of you.

Once you've let the various issues bubble up from within, ask yourself, "what would come, in my body, if this were all solved?" This might cause new challenges to pop up and that's totally fine. Just set each down.

Eventually, you will come to what Gendlin describes as "an opening out, a sense of vast space."

That sensation is enough that if you quit right here, you'd have had a helpful, valuable session.

But wait – as the carnival barker intones – there's more!

2. Establish a felt sense.

A felt sense sounds fairly amorphous, so I offer a simple definition. It comprises emotion, rational thoughts, and beliefs. It is something like an aura of an embodied psychological state. Importantly, it exists in relation to a situation.

After the first step of assessing the various burdens weighing you down, this step is about better understanding how they fit you. The way to establish a felt sense is to begin by asking, "What does this whole problem feel like?"

Here's the unusual part: you don't want to answer in words. The point here is to feel the response in your body. Gendlin draws a helpful picture here:

"The feeling contains many details, just as a piece of music contains many notes. A symphony, for instance, may last an hour or more and contain thousands of separate musical tones, sounded by many diverse instruments, in a multitude of combinations and progressions. But you don't need to know all these details of its structure in order to feel it. If it is a symphony you know well, you only need to hear its name mentioned and feel the aura of it instantly...it is murky, fuzzy, vague."

Spend a few moments allowing this to come. Once you experience it, you will feel something like a release, a relaxation. The end state of establishing a felt sense is this release.

3. Find a "Handle"

Now that you've got a felt sense which you intentionally avoided ascribing a word to, you will establish a word or phrase that describes it.

The felt sense is fleeting and hard to hold onto. It emerged from our general physical presence, but we need our brains to now connect it and make it concrete for our conscious. The way to do this is to put a label on the felt sense. It could be a generic word like "stuck," "pissed off," "lost," "stumbling," "uptight." It could also be a phrase like "backed in a corner," "fidgety and restless."

Don't begin analyzing whatever comes up. There will be plenty of time later for that. You are just looking for a word or phrase that describes the felt sense. You know you've got it when you feel something in you stir slightly. Gendlin helpfully compares landing on the right word to remembering something you had forgotten. It is very similar.

4. Resonating Handle and Felt Sense

You will notice by this point that this entire process is slippery. Your mind and body are like pulsing, shifting objects difficult to keep in focus. For that reason, you are now going to spend a few minutes on something like a verification process to make sure you've got the right handle for the felt sense you had before.

You are looking to make sure that the handle you came up with fits perfectly with the felt sense you previously identified.

Ask yourself the question about the handle, "is that right?"

Inside of yourself, some release should come again, which will confirm that this is correct.

Sometimes it doesn't come, which means that you haven't quite got the handle. This happens often, so don't worry. You haven't screwed up. Remember, your mind and body are complex systems difficult to manage. Spend a few more minutes seeking a new word or phrase.

You will know you've got it down when you feel a strong release, a relaxation.

Normally, you will need to repeatedly go between the handle and the felt sense to test and retest that it works. It is almost like doing reps with a barbell: I did it once; let me do it again.

5. Asking

If you've felt a signficant release or shift already, then you can skip this step. But most commonly, you've gotten closer to a shift but you haven't quite achieved it.

As you've done in previous steps, you will now ask yourself a few questions.

You will use the word or phrase you identified earlier for this. Just simply ask this felt sense that you have named what it is. Here are two great questions Gendlin suggests to get you started:

  • "What is the worst of this?" (Or, "What is the 'jumpiest thing about all this?" if your handle word was "jumpy.")

  • "What does the felt sense need?" (Or, "What would it take for this to feel OK?")

Be patient here, it could take an entire minute for something to come. Your mind will be eager to answer, but you are looking for the felt sense to stir again. And sitting quietly by yourself, a minute can feel like 10. Stay patient, and wait for that felt sense. It will come.

6. Receiving

As the felt sense comes and answers what it needs, accept it. Be glad that you have information from your body. Crucially, keep in mind that this is not marching orders. You are under no obligation to act here, AND what you took from it might not be correct. What you received is only the opening comment. More shifts will come.

As you receive it, let it sit with you. There will be a noticable lift in your mood, a lessening of your stress. You now have a deeper understanding of what is swirling around inside of you. You have greater clarity.

What to Do Next

I have found a great next step is to journal about the experience and elaborate on how I might respond to the situation. Also, I have found that taking the experience to prayer, laying it before the Divine in acknowledgement that I am imperfect and that I've achieved better clarity helps the process of decision making. And finally, talking with a trusted friend about your insights can also help to advance my thinking.

Importantly, perhaps most crucially, this process has helped me remain more present in whatever difficult situation I am in and refrain from reacting in a negative way.

We don't have to be trapped by our racing, chattering minds. We can walk out of the "sports bar mind" and into a mindscape of soft breezes and birdsong. Focusing is a good way to re-orient ourselves to managing energy to show up with our full potential.




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