When Aimee Bernstein was 7, she started to experience petit mal seizures that were attributed to stress and pressure. A doctor said she had "sensitive brain cells." But when her mother enrolled her in dance classes, the pressure never bothered her – if anything, it seemed to help her focus and flow.
Today, a South Florida executive coach after years of working as a psychotherapist, and trained in aikido by the acclaimed master Robert Nadeau, she has turned her experience into a formula for others to handle stress and attain their goals: Awareness + Hereness = Skillful Action.
It may sound "New Agey," but she notes that New Age is now mainstream. In the 1970s, then living in San Francisco, she had trouble finding a yoga instructor – it was so unusual. Today, yoga is everywhere. And so are the allied ideas.
Indeed, while many celebrate the current era as the Information Age, the author of Stress Less, Achieve More believes it's the Energy Age. From quantum physics to apps for blood pressure to a new research into energy fields around the body and how our intuition works, she says we are transcending physical structures for a more complete picture of our world. How often have you walked into a meeting and felt the energy in the room lift you or take you down? "Everything is energy. This is a time when we are understanding this. It's not woo-woo," she said in an interview.
She points to Steve Jobs. He was successful because he was centred – calm, relaxed and open to others. But most of us have lost ourselves in the frenzy that is life. Pressure and stress is part of that life. It can spur us on, help us to achieve. "But we have to control how we relate to the pressure," she said in an interview.
It starts with not giving our attention away so easily. Too often we feel like we're fishing, with a dozen or more lines in the water, each tugging away at us. In the process, our attention is outside of ourselves and we lose awareness of what we need as well as sensitivity to others. "Our attention should be inside ourselves but open to others," she said.
At times, say reading a book, we'll be closed, within ourselves, a state she calls dropped attention. It's not a bad place to be, in such times. Open attention is when we are open to others. Military Special Forces operatives are still and contained but at the same time very alert to their environment.
You can practise noticing the difference between here and there. She suggests looking at an object in the room – not too distant – and staring at it for a few minutes. Your focus is now on "there." Then slowly close your eyes and bring your attention back to yourself, bit by bit, as if reeling in a fishing line. Usually it hits your eyes first, then the back of your head, and then sinks into the body. As it settles in, notice your breathing. After a while, open your eyes and look again at the object. It may seem a trivial exercise and you may feel inept but she says it is giving you a better sense of there and here – and of awareness of self.
That awareness comes at various levels. In the book, she delineates between three perceptual centres – head, heart, and hara, which is located a few inches below the belly button. Living in your mind can cut you off from emotions, bodily sensations and intuition, limiting the richness of your experiences. We're sometimes told to live from the heart, but that can lead you to miss the bigger picture.
The hara, which means "one point" in aikido, has been described by psychologist Richard Strozzi-Heckler as "the place from which we are both inwardly calm and outwardly ready for action." Meditation students learn to breathe from it in order to relax the belly and experience higher states of consciousness. Singers use it for attaining richer sound. Martial artists use it to learn to move.
It helps us to centre – to feel balanced, relaxed, and present. "It's not just aikido," she stresses in the interview. "You can be centred running a race, or walking to the race." Or in any stressful times of the day.
In the book, she suggests these tactics for centring yourself when feeling stressed:
Take three deep breaths into your lower belly, allowing your rib cage to expand wide rather than rising up.
Take a walk, get something to eat, or speak to a colleague instead of sending an e-mail. As your walk, feel how the body moves. Try keeping your attention in your hara as you walk.
In good weather, if your workplace has a suitable outdoor area, bring a blanket and lie on the ground at lunchtime. Spend five minutes on your belly doing nothing and then a similar time on your back. Your mood will improve and your tension melt into the ground.
If your shoulders are tight, imagine you have wings connected to your shoulder blades. Let them expand and feel the tension release.
"If you're rushing through life, come back into yourself and be centred," she said in the interview.
Awareness + Hereness = Skillful Action.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter