Personal development. Happier living. Successful achievement. Learning. Some people like pump-you-up motivational seminars and action-oriented coaching for these things. Others swear by peaceful retreats. Shall the twain never meet?
I just finished spending a fantastic weekend with advanced hypnosis speaker Michael Perez as a guest of the equally talented Nina Madden, talking about brain function and how knowledge of functional neurology can lead to less haphazard and more systemic, targeted hypnosis.
During this conversation, Michael talked about his knowledge of functional neurology—how it is made up of mutually inhibiting subsystems. Before you think I’m talking about some kind of inner civil war in which these subsystems fight and clearly needs a peace settlement, let me point out that one such pair is sleep and wakefulness. You wouldn’t want to sleep all the time and you’d die if you were awake all the time. You also wouldn’t want to be perpetually half-asleep and half-awake either, just as it would be horrible to be half-hungry and half-full all the time. So, it’s not about holding these systems in static, oppositional balance. A functional neurology works in cycles.
Let me introduce two words to you: “stress” and “phoria”.
In brain terms, stress doesn’t mean freaking out, it simply means the brain at work; driven by motivation to manifest something. That’s where we’re moving to where we’re going rather than resting where we are. Phoria is the brain at rest.
Now let me introduce you to two prefixes: “eu-” (simplistically, “good”); and “dis-” (simplistically, “bad”).
This gives us:
Euphoria: “good” resting; peace; happy, satisfied recovering.
Disphoria: “bad” resting; depressed; apathetic.
Eustress: “good” working; motivated; energetic; productive.
Distress: “bad” working; anxious; panic.
These brain states cycle under mutual inhibiting subsystems. Typically, euphoria cycles with eustress and disphoria cycles with distress, though we can also “jump track” from one cycle to the other. Let me illustrate that here. The solid lines illustrate the typical cycle and the dashed lines represent how we can jump track.
I must point out at this stage that distress and disphoria are not unhealthy as long as they are temporary and there is a return to the “good” track. In fact, distress and disphoria can be essential to survival in some contexts.
Let me introduce you to Bob. Bob works hard but he lacks vision and can’t make ends meet. He gets distressed and despondent. A friend invites him to a motivational seminar to kick him out of his apathy and get him reaching for more motivating goals. He goes. He loves it. He now has the tools to make the jump from disphoria to eustress.
The trouble is, Bob doesn’t see that what he did was a useful intervention to achieve that particular jump at that particular time. He becomes evangelical about pumping yourself up and even when he’s in eustress, he pumps himself up even more, to go over the top and stress himself harder and longer to achieve even bigger things. One day, having gotten progressively more tired, he makes the jump into distress. He gets frustrated and breaks into tears. He goes home and slides into disphoria.
Another friend recommends that Bob should take a peaceful retreat, where he and others with be in the country, free of toxins and learning to marvel at simple nature. He enrols and discovers that the peace he learns to experience enables him to experience euphoria again. Enjoying this state so much, he tries to live in euphoria all the time, resisting all inner urges to do productive work and reach for goals. With no eustress to recover from, however, his peace gradually slides into apathy and he experiences disphoria again.
He goes back to the motivational seminar.
Now, for the record, I’m not saying motivational seminars or peaceful retreats are bad. I’m not suggesting one is right and one is wrong. I actually think both types of even can be very powerful and life changing.
My point here is that we try to suppress the natural cycles of stress and phoria at our peril. In disphoria, a motivational seminar may be the useful intervention to nudge us into eustress rather than distress. In distress, peaceful retreating may be the useful nudge into euphoria rather than disphoria. Beyond that, any trying to control the natural cycles in the system—an inherently self-correcting system—is to simply get in the way and stop up the works.
What about spiritual practice?
Neither motivational seminar, peaceful retreat is truly a spiritual practice if we use them as interventions. Truly spiritual practices are about being at peace with the flow and our natural self-correcting cycles. There is nothing inherently anti-spiritual about being motivated and having goals or at least intentions resulting in work. What a spiritual practice may do, however, is help us see the difference between what we truly want and need to do as opposed to what we ‘think’ we want and need to do. And spiritual practices are practices rather than interventions.
This brings me to a motto you may have heard from me before when I talk about self-help addiction: the highest art of intervention is to intervene as little as necessary, not as much as possible.
I owe my friend and teacher Michael Perez a great big thanks for sharing his knowledge which helped me articulate this today. I recommend all who wish to understand functional neurology in support of coaching, hypnosis and personal change, seek him out.
Wishing you health and happiness,