Thursday, August 1, 2013

Competence by Getting Centered

…Competent folks have skills...

One of my most treasured skills is being “grounded,” more specifically: “centered.” Seldom do I hear people speak about these skills, rarely do I come across these words in print. Certainly the army doesn’t cover it in leadership training; I don’t recall reading the concept in any book on business management. Perhaps the concept of centering is too new, too “Southern Californian.” But I know this much: Getting centered has been one of my most fun skills to learn. And it makes other skills fun to learn.

For fun, as a boy, I relished the rip-roaring young adult novels of Robert A. Heinlein. Usually Heinlein’s teenage protagonist, on the moon or in a struggling Mars colony, would know a skillful elderly person who was very competent. (One time an adult helped a teen be centered by noting any sentence that starts, "I really ought to—" is suspect) This gave each novel a subtle sub theme: One day the teen would himself be one of the competent ones of his generation. Dared I hope that one day I too…? Today, true to boy I was, I’m into growth, although not relentlessly—after all, I live in peaceful times, unlike, say, Gerrold’s hero.

David Gerrold is writing a science fiction masterpiece about North Americans battling an ecological infestation: The Chtorr War series. Gerrold once described his connected series as showing on-the-job training for a hero, James McCarthy, who starts out as a spoiled adolescent. Truly committed, over the years McCarthy learns from others, and he even takes special human potential training—He learns to be centered. I can’t help smiling: Gerrold, a native of Southern California, has imagined such training becoming a part of the war effort. No doubt as a boy, just as I did, Gerrold read about Heinlein’s skilled heroes.

"Centering" is an inner skill: While mechanical skills can be “swiftly taught,” inner skills are “slowly learned” over time.

 A tutor can swiftly teach the equation for a triangle; learning to think logically like Pythagoras takes longer. Alas, we all know someone who goes through life illogical and scatterbrained. A “teacher,” such as Heinlein’s elderly person or a colleague at work, can be a role model, raise awareness, and be exasperated when you fall short—and then your learning continues percolating inside over time. For me, looking down the years, I think being centered has “leveraged” all my skills into being more productive.

Years ago my college teacher, talking about our jobs after graduation, professed: “You can be competent, or you can be incompetent.” I would hope we all resolved to do the right thing. Years later, at a workshop for managers, the trainer explained to us how the simplest way to increase our job performance is to change our attitude. Again, inner learning. But of course, as we well know from tales like A Christmas Carol and stories from recovering alcoholics, an attitude change all too often won’t happen until after a painful wake up call. I guess many hear, but few are called.

I’m sure “doing” overlaps with “learning”; the “mechanical” connects to the “inner.” Classically, the Buddhist monk “hews wood and draws water” while the apprentice painstakingly copies the masters. The apprentice may think copying is a “chore,” but of course something else is going on too. Tobias Wolff, in his essay Civilian, about his life post-Vietnam, expressed an insight into that “something else.” He appreciated doing his daily writing, even though he knew his prose was a long ways from being good enough to send out for publication, because his writing was clearing his head, sharpening his thoughts, and increasing his self-discipline.

I don’t remember when I learned of centering. Probably I first noticed the concept back in my mid twenties, when I was in college digging into Outward Bound just for fun. I read of a leader at Outward Bound, a lady wearing a bandana and baseball cap. When facing a problem she would briefly gaze at nothing and look inside herself, and come back with the best answer. I was inspired. Hey, I have to say, being into personal growth: I was pleased as punch when my college Outdoor Pursuits teacher said I could be a leader in Outward Bound.

I suppose centering is something to be modeled and “learned.” …If perchance I could describe “getting centered” on a page, then how might I do so? ... Happily, to start off my description, along with the resurgence of yoga, there are now some slogans:
“Don’t panic; first stop and take a breath,”
 “Notice your breathing,”
And in the words of a country song, “Just breathe.”

The breath concept goes part of the way to getting centered, going as far as be still… the purpose of the focus on breath is to achieve distance from the problem, and take a blessed moment. I suppose the “blessed moment” is like what I feel for long stretches at a time when I am serving as an ego-less judge or as a meeting chairman. Those are times for straight thinking by centering.

Being still is only a part. I remember how back in my youth I always tried to be fair and conscientious, even if this meant over-thinking a problem. So I would figuratively walk around the problem, seeing it from both sides. Back and forth, seeing first from one angle, then the other, repeat, repeat, like a silly teeter-totter. And my eventual solution would not be the best. It would take time for me to walk around, quite unlike that lady with the bandana—who would just fly! Getting centered, then, has a swift Zen to it, far above my poor left brain plodding. My old way, although better than any uptight impulsive decisions, felt slow. My new way, getting centered, is timeless and peaceful, as if several planks of a teeter-totter were spread out around me flat on the grass, like so many decision-paths, and I need not, with any deliberation, think-it-out by walking along any of them. No. Instead I’d be still, balanced, as my better brain would make its calculations unknown to me … I’d then know the best plank to walk. No second-guessing, because my decision would feel right.

And no going against my better judgement while an alarm rings franticly and dimly in the background.

Centering is a nice skill to know; on the other hand, there are those special occasions in life when I have the luxury of time, times when it is very handy to draw a line down the center of a page and consciously write pros and cons. (Maybe I bought my new car that way) But even then, a little centering helps.

One of the joys of “being centered” is a blessed de-coupling of the ego, a momentary separating from any inappropriate “should” and “have to,” free of family, subculture and society. Of course these heavy considerations could all come rushing back, but at least, for a few shining moments, I am free. Looking back into the past, I wonder about the scatterbrained folks, the tense impulsive ones and the ordinary people who were known to made an inordinate number of mistakes: Surely they were never centered. I think they were all driven by forces they were unaware of, forces unseen of family and culture and hang-ups, just like in physics class where so many force arrows combine to move a rocket off at an angle.

I know silent forces exist. Sometimes I think advertisers and playwrights know more about unseen forces than do the scientists in the white lab coats. Maybe David Mamet would agree. A well respected playwright, Mamet’s collection of essays, Writing in Cafes, contains a piece where he and his middle aged friends get together to play poker once a year. They find their playing has really improved since they were young. Not from practicing or taking lessons in poker, since they only play with each other. No, just from living their lives and the lessening of unseen forces. Mamet makes a credible case for people dealing with issues over time, issues they don’t even know they have. The proof is in the playing.

And life goes on. … In my cozy evenings, while reading books from my youth, I count my blessings. By day, in the hurly burly of work, I always take a blessed moment to get centered before I act. That’s automatic for me now. As for what my life would be like if I had never learned to be grounded… I shake my head; I just can’t imagine living my old life.

Sean Crawford
Cozy in Calgary,
Summer 2013

~Looking to popular culture, for “breathe,” I always think of Faith Hill’s song, or Anna Nalick’s: “2 a.m. and she calls me and I’m still awake, can you help me unravel my latest mistake… Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable, and life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table.”

~In the “real world,” in my reading and in keeping my ear to the ground, I don’t come across much on centering, while there is a lot of stuff posted in that “other world,” the Internet. Stuff by “real experts”… Nevertheless, I am confidently posting my essay, because it is true for me, and because it comes at the concept from a different angle than others do. …

~What do you think?

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