“Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher 12
The human mind is a sea of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In one’s quest for meaning and wisdom, uncertainty is bound to arise. While rational thinking shields the unknown and races for quick answers, a poetic mindset befriends the present in its vastness. When the world gets complex and unclear, the mind can get stressed and overwhelmed. Yet when approached with acceptance and curiosity, complexity becomes a resource as the body’s aliveness guides the way to mindfully channel our emotions. This poetic way of mindfulness enables insight to deepen the connection with ourselves and others.
Each moment offers an opportunity to experience a symphony of feelings and sensations that carouse throughout our bodies: sensations subtle and strong, in streams and glows, raking along the spine, extending to the finger tips. There’s the looseness of your neck and shoulders, the cushiony warmth around the joints, or the hot fire in the belly before a presentation.
The Greek term for this inner noticing is soma, the body as perceived from within. In 1906, neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington introduced terms like interoception to chart the somatic nervous system. Interoception is knowing through a physiological sense of the entire body.4 In his pioneering work in somatic experiencing, Peter Levine borrows the term felt-sense which nicely represents the phenomenon.7
The modern-day parlance for this inward practice is mindfulness, which highlights the quality of one’s attention. Not its content, but its quality. As drawn from Buddhist origins, mindfulness is an awareness practice that consists of two parts: 1. noticing mental activity and 2. tracking sensations within the body: weight of the breath, beating of the heart, posture and heat flow along the spine – moods can be noticed and visited rather than ignored.9 While mental chatter may linger with guards and primed alarms, the fragrance of awareness itself gently hums.
The practice is not to justify one state over another but to continually rendezvous with the living presence of the body which in turn calms emotional pathways in the brain and regulates attention. 9
It’s like the noise of a ceiling fan that has been on for so long that only when turning it off do we realize it is there. Mindfulness is an invitation to diligently step back and notice the noise and possibly rejoice in relief. But the goal is not relief. The goal is to rest expectations and simply stay alert. As we continually observe our internal and external worlds, we notice the mind-body complex wheeling away without needing to react.
A mindful response
“We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean, the ins and outs of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.” 4
– Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist
Emotion is the unseen current that shapes human behavior, and it can enrich or stifle mental health. Even in simple activities like when using your smartphone, the mind sets off an array of emotions, including anticipation, insecurity, aggression, and amusement. As we habituate such moods, they can become compulsive and feed a circuit of addiction due to the brain’s release of dopamine, a chemical assigned to short-term pleasures. When driving, one might feel rush, rage, or calm. Emotions are always there in one form or another, being aware of them is another matter entirely. Emotional intelligence is a function of how we pay attention.4
Meet Ken. He’s driving to work and puts on some good music to relax during the freeway ride. A red sedan roars passed and cuts him off closely. This interrupts his state of flow and naturally arouses anger and irritation. He notices a tightening of his fist over the steering wheel and the clenching of his jaw. He pauses, drawing his awareness into his arm and hand. He softly scans the tension, slowly makes a fist, rolls out his palm, and unfolds an image of an angry hog on ice skates, slipping-and-sliding without control.
Just as he chuckles at himself Ken realizes the exit is fast approaching. Swift and watchful, he weaves through the traffic. A car behind him notices and slows down to let him pass. This brings Ken tremendous relief and gratitude as he takes the opening to his exit.
Anger begins as a physiological reflex and it is not necessarily a negative encounter. By untangling the reflex from the emotion, we can contain our primal shimmers.7 Had Ken been mindless, he might have reacted with rage and fixated compulsively, allowing it to color his mind and then carried it forward.
Thankfully Ken was attuned to an inner compass and unconfined by a fleeting emotion.
With a lightness of mood, ability to pause, and a fluid imagination, he readily shifts his focus onward. Moving through anger may not always be so simplistic, but mindfulness is the harvesting of this non-reactive yet ready state of attention, a way of processing our internal worlds and responding consciously.
While the practice of being present can be honed with yoga and seated meditation, mindfulness can be paired with any activity. Take coffee. When brewing it in the morning, you experience the beans onto your palm, the ensuing hot slow pour, and with the cup in hand there is a warmth that consumes you. Then taking the first sip that slightly burns the tongue, like tiny alligators in the mouth. It is glorious and for a moment our senses are full. For some of us it’s a daily ritual and so rich with poetic imagery.
The same kind of attention can be applied to dish washing. Adam Hanley at Florida State University found that engaging in mindful dishwashing can inspire positive emotions. His team gathered participants into two groups: the control group was asked to read a descriptive passage about dish washing prior to the wash, and the experimental group read a passage about the sense-experience of washing, including the smell of the soap, warmth of the water, textures of the plate, and so forth. After the activity, the mindful group reported a more positive state of mind (for example, being less anxious and more mentally inspired).1
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”10
– William James, American Psychologist
UCLA’s Neurologist and mindfulness researcher Daniel Siegel teaches mindfulness as a state of being (as opposed to doing), a capacity to voluntarily notice emotional affairs as mental activity, not absolute reality. This level of discernment allows one to objectively monitor internal states rather than be defined by them, an attentive quality Siegel calls Mindsight.10
There is a Sufi saying, “the body is the shore on the ocean of being.”7 With an alert presence, we can become more attuned to the tides and ride the waves with a sheer aliveness.
The Irish poet David Whyte writes, “alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”13 The process of turning our attention inward unveils the body as a living organism that is continually shoring up new thoughts, sensations, and emotions. What we discover within is a field of voluntary and involuntary events throughout the nervous system. And as we quietly appreciate the primal reflexes that are out of conscious control, we grow to be less overwhelmed by their presence. Paradoxically, the result is a greater capacity for choice and self-control.
Self-awareness and emotional states
Emotional intelligence, the ability to read and regulate emotions, occurs through the body’s intuition which offers a window into our primal states. As this field of awareness widens within, we grow to accept whatever emotions arise and swiftly move through varied states. Self-mastery is this adaptive trait of flow and flexibility that shapes our emotional landscapes and mental health.5
When faced with pressure or uncertainty, mindlessness stays frozen or reacts prematurely, whereas mindfulness confronts the emotional needs of the present. In a stressful argument for example, self-control arises with a variation of the following steps:
1. Take a deep breath: Let the airflow touch the floor of your lungs, oxygenate the brain.
2. Label the emotion: Labeling adds in the brain’s language center to help contain the heat. Acknowledge, “I feel upset” versus “I am upset.” The first label provides a cushion between you, the perciever, and the emotion. Where we were once consumed by the feeling, now we can notice it from a manageable distance. It is like tending to a candle and watching the wick burn, rather than getting lost in the crackling of the flame. The default label does not need to be negative or overwhelming, it can be a choice. And just like training a muscle, our capacity to choose grows stronger with practice. During a heated argument to determine who is right, a window of pause opens up, and now you might ask yourself, “Is it worth it to argue?” Advice from leadership expert and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith.3
3. Check in: Take a break and come inward to a felt-sense of the body in its wholeness. Gently scan what it’s like to have a body that beats and breathes. What tells that you’re upset? Throat? Gut? Is it tight or hot? Stay patiently with the raw sensations with an “OK-ness” and a soothing begins to blanket the stress.7 Breathe in the environment and become present.
4. Give thanks: Self-awareness means appreciating what you have. It is the foundation. Life gives endlessly and with a strong base, your gift joyfully overflows to share with others. Complaining and being ungrateful is like a cup with no base, it takes and takes with nothing to offer. What am I grateful for? What do I hold true in my innermost being? Where do I begin and end? Does a drop in the ocean need a map to get home?
From an initial state of agitation, gradually a window opens to move into choice and gratitude. This quiet process might seem boring and even difficult at times, but it works. It teaches discernment so that we become experts of our emotions by reflectively stepping back instead of being swallowed by a momentary feeling.5
As the shapers of our mental landscapes, we befriend the mind-body complex and self-organization naturally follows. What was once a struggle against overwhelming chaos becomes a conscious surrender to a living relationship with our primal senses.
”Courage is a love affair with the unknown.”
– Osho, Indian philosopher
Among the emotions we encounter, confusion is perhaps most prone to weigh on a person’s ego, denting the idealized self-image. Say you have a strategy meeting with your team to layout a six-month plan in a rapidly changing market. If your goal is to be the smartest person in the room, which is not uncommon, then admitting confusion might disrupt your mood. The natural reflex might be to defend some arbitrary stance or disengage entirely. Neither is useful. The productive option is to mindfully engage the process in an intentional manner. Uncertainty is a fact of life and one’s true character is revealed in the way we contain chaos and respond attentively.
Tao is a Chinese philosophy that means the way. It operates on the principle of wu-wei, which translates to non-action. It’s not apathy or avoidance. It’s a broadening of perspective and trusting the process to let things occur naturally. The only burden is the mind’s armor. The founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu writes, “If you correct the mind, the rest of life falls into place.” 12
A rational-centered mindset deals in duality: good and bad, light and dark, fat and skinny, past and future. In Tao De Ching, truth and duality are written as follows, “The subtle truth emphasizes neither and includes both. All truth is in tai chi: to cultivate the mind, body, or spirit, simply balance the polarities.”12
While rational thought applies willful effort under pre-ordained beliefs, Tao is built upon unconditional action through a beginner’s mind. The wilderness stretches out forever, so rich, subtle, and complex. And to a quiet mind the world yields.
The real labor is in letting go of restful conclusions so to advance our innermost inquiries. The fruit of the work is “the bigger picture”, a quest-oriented mindset that gushes with an undying sense of purpose and reflective curiosity.
The idea of embracing complexity streams through the work of French Philosopher Jaques Derrida, who popularized the literary concepts of free play and think differently. Derrida points to the Greek term apolia, or impasse, a state of puzzlement. Whatever the inquiry, the answer may not be an absolute “yes” or “no.” It could be “yes and no” or maybe the answer is a different question altogether.
For Derrida, pleading “I don’t know” is not a blow to the ego but a sign of maturity. It invites us to step back, ask questions, defer judgment, and reframe our narratives. Otherwise we run the risk of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek evidence that supports what we already believe which leads to asking the wrong questions and ultimately blocking inspiration and insight.
Say one day you find a 6, and everyone tells you it’s “the number six.” Every day you tell yourself it’s a “six” and gradually you don’t even question it anymore. Everyone raves about six. It’s the talk of the town, until one day you accidentally drop your 6, and someone says, ”It’s a nine.”
“Oh, the cries of the rationalist,”2
– Gaston Bachelard, French Philosopher
Harvard’s Social Psychologist and mindfulness researcher, Ellen Langer marks two types of uncertainties. Personal uncertainty is tied to “I” and personal circumstances (ex. will I get the promotion?). The second is universal uncertainty, the inevitable mystery that binds us (ex. facing our impermanence on that final breath). We can plan the next year to the grain, but the reality is that tomorrow is never promised. There remains a margin of uncertainty that nobody can predict, and that can be scary.
But what if we did not have to insist on a selfhood to feel abundantly alive? In Sufism, there’s a term fana that means an absence of mind, an emptiness of selfhood.8 It is a deep state of acceptance, trust, and bewilderment with what is. The Sufi poet Rumi calls it an astounding lucid confusion.3 When self is boundless, poetry blooms.
Mindfulness is a psychological state that affords curiosity and activates the senses. It is a bottom-up process, meaning it begins with physical sensation, not mental abstractions. And the two states can co-exist. The problem is when we neglect our primal senses and commit to arbitrary self-delusions.
Freud’s great revelation in psychoanalysis was that the subconscious resides below the radar of rational thought. The undercurrents are misty and chaotic, and a psychologist serves to help navigate the uncharted and uncover emotions that are reflexively hidden beneath.
Free association is a commonly used top-down technique that begins with the level of thought to arouse dormant emotions lodged within. It is believed that by loosening rational narratives, unconscious memories can surface and be dealt with. It’s the classic image of an ice berg with conscious attention as the visible tip and the supermassive subconscious hidden from sight under the water. This submerging process in psychoanalysis is geared to retrace the childhood origins of one’s memories.6
As psychotherapy evolved in the 20th century, Expressive Arts (ExA) emerged as a creative, bottom-up approach to healing and mental health.3 Rather than treat emotions through a rational framework swayed by the past, ExA is a body-oriented method that confronts the present and nurtures the imagination.4 Whether through expressive writing, drawing, or role play, ExA provides an alternative model to decenter from the stuck narrative and mindfully channel emotions with a poetic range.
“Poetic form emerges out of a chaos which seeks its own shape.” 6
– Stephen Levine, American Philosopher
ExA is a therapy practice partnered with applications in social change. It is founded on a way of seeing called poiesis, Greek for knowing through making, where truth reveals itself through the shaping of something. Rather than reducing our worldviews to the tailcoat of past assumptions, poiesis is a discipline of the senses which celebrates an abundance of images and the formation of perspective.6 With a limitless imagination, we can engage our narratives mindfully rather than reactively.
Poiesis is not a motivational concept but points to the nonmotive of truth that comes forth seamlessly. For example, to understand our true strengths and talents we can examine the inner substance of our core identity. Instead of wrapping ourselves in a neat personality, we can throw our imagination forward and let it speak its own language. It’s not an act of ambition, but an inborn curiosity to discover what true potential lives through a fresh lens. The process can include the past, but it is not confined to it.
I grew up shy and timid, often struggled with social anxiety and speech impediment. Maybe mom leaving at the age of three had something to do with it. I had the fat fortune that she returned five years later and flew me from Iran to California.
I began to muse with writing as a teen because the written word was a way to freely reflect and connect with myself. It was not forced or contrived, and it did not matter what I was writing. I simply enjoyed the feeling that came forth, whatever it happened to be. I learned that the satisfaction comes in the way language is handled. Over the years, the inward quest led me to study various forms of meditation. These contemplative practices delivered me to the moment and inspired my relationships and career goals. And it is an ongoing process with a stubborn uncertainty.
Although mindfulness is grounded in an aware presence, it is not necessarily about making anything or applying the imagination. It is simply about being with the vast and confronting qualities of silence within ourselves. When we savor the pause between thoughts, we realize that self-sufficiency and healthy relationships exist in the here-and-now.
Expressive Arts promotes the added element of making to see things differently; and to mindfully engage the creative process with a range of play. Poetry is any form of self-expression that has emotional substance and invites the imagination. Whether writing, speaking, or brewing coffee, when the mind is present there’s potential for poetry. The form and range may vary depending on preference but it is the raw presence that makes a work poetic and emotionally moving. Consider a poem by Rumi:
No better love than love with no object,
No sweeter work than work with no purpose,
If you could give up tricks and cleverness,
That would be the cleverest trick. 3
Shaping a vision
In team settings, poiesis can inspire confidence to tango with uncertainty and to mindfully shape a shared vision. ExA lives at the interplay between participation and the work itself. Selfhood is unessential. Being authentic means leading a path that inspires you and others, so let us do what makes us come alive without hinging on fixed outcomes. And rather than dismissing our connection with emotion as touchy feely, we blend it as a broader intuition and curiosity. Voice, for example, contains a range of emotional signals and coincides with the art of listening and storytelling.
In team building workshops, I look to draw out the authentic voice that’s already there. In one exercise, I ask people to imagine that their company’s success has been featured in a column in Fortune Magazine. They are invited to write a page showing what that would look like and to sketch a drawing that illustrates the significance. I suggest, “The aim is not to be perfect or artistic, but to be playful and authentic. Do not make it about you, but what does the story want to reveal? How are customers and the community at large benefiting?”
In pairs, they are then asked to share the story in two rounds. First round, the listener pays attention normally to the words of the storyteller. In the second round, the storyteller shares the same story but this time the listener only hones in on the soundscape of the teller’s voice (pace, expression of emotion, pause, volume, high points, low points). Mindful listening is less concerned with the motives of speech. Instead, we offer the gift of acceptance and nonjudgmental curiosity, a foundation for trust-based communication.
Often it is said that the second round offers a more nuanced version of the story with more to build on. They then combine their stories and present it to the group, encouraged to be creative. Trust arises when the senses are full and a meaningful vision can strengthen it. The insight gathered from this exercise goes on to inform processes for implementation and feedback.
Art making can be defined as ways of expressing oneself through the senses, which brings us to the present moment. Mindful listening is a selfless activity that enables trust, empathy, and a maker’s mindset to flourish. To drive innovation, David Kelly, designer and founder of IDEO, calls on a bias toward action which is less interested in skill than a sensitivity with the process.11 In other words, an artist is simply one who devotes himself to the contemplative practice of making. Uncertainty is a beloved companion and a true professional may quietly deem himself an artist in his or her craft.
Poetics of being is a paradox in that it’s a creative process of non-activity, continually responding with a beginner’s mind. The poet Mary Oliver writes:
When I walk out into the world, I take no thoughts with me. That’s not easy, but you can learn to do it. An empty mind is hungry, so you can look at everything longer, and closer. Don’t hum! When you listen with empty ears, you hear more. And this is the core of the secret: Attention is the beginning of devotion.” 9
Alertness is a quality of mind that carouses through the body. It’s not so much about controlling the thought-emotion-sensation complex but containing it with a mindful presence and poetic range. Expressive Arts draws on this mind-body partnership to cultivate self-mastery and creative insight. It may not always be easy but like the Irish say, “you don’t just lick it off a rock.” With devoted practice an emotional maturity ripens and it begins with silence in mind.
Arya Salehi is a people developer and author of the book Threads: Turning Discomfort into Joy. He lives in San Diego, California.
1. Adam W. Hanley, Alia R. Warner, Vincent M. Dehili, Angela I. Canto, Eric L. Garland. Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice. Mindfulness, 2014; 6 (5): 1095 DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0360-9
2. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press. 1994.
3. Barks, Coleman. The essential Rumi.
4. Ceunen, Erik; Vlaeyen, Yohan W. S.; Van Diest, Lise. The origin of Interoception. Frontiers of Psychology. 2016; 7: 743.
5. Goldsmith, Marshall. Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It. 2010. Hatchette Books.
6. Knill, Paolo; Levine, Ellen; Levine, Stephen. Principles and practices
7. Levine, Peter. In an unspoken voice.
8. Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1991.
9. Oliver, Mary. Blue Iris
10. Siegel, Daniel. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam. 2010.
11. Sims, Peter. Little Bets. Simon Schuster. 2013
12. Tzu, Lao; Tao De Ching
13. Whyte, David. Everything is Waiting for You. Many Rivers Press. 2003