Effortless Thursdays #8: How to trust your three brains and hold the tension of opposites
Make better decisions
A roomful of arms shoots up in the air instantaneously like a time-lapse video of a thin-stalk fungus growing towards the sky from a verdant forest floor.
“That’s right”, says the teacher. “The square root of 144 is 12.”
We learn in life how to make lightning fast decisions.
These aren’t the decisions we make subconsciously, like whether my frienddecides to fight, flee or freeze when he’s immersed in a forest trying to capture the essence of wildlife on camera.
“I was almost thrown under an elephant, gored by a buffalo and arrested all just two hours into a photography expedition.”
I’m referring, instead, to the decisions we make and the problems we solve.
What's the square root of 144?
How do we deal with the issue of modern slavery if we are sourcing metals from a war torn country?
Do we lay off half of our workforce?
Answers guided by your entire wisdom
Yet our conditioning to answer quickly can betray our capacity for making better decisions.
The lightning fast answer isn't always the answer to go with. That's not to say we're looking for the "right" answer either.
It's about arriving at an answer that taps into your entire wisdom.
One way of doing that is to do nothing. How many times have you come up with the answer only to think about it a few minutes, or hours or days later and think: ‘oh, I should have thought of X, or Y’?
What's responsible for that afterthought is, in part, our creative brain working. There IS a lazy way to creativity and productivity.
Another way of tapping into our wisdom is to trust our two other brains.
The first brain - the one in our head - is the one you've given a proper work out already: trained at school, at university, perhaps, and in the workplace. It's a supreme problem solver.
But the other two brains that we tend to indulge less - our heart and our gut - are also worth trusting.
Just like our first brain comes up with good ideas - “I’ve had a brain wave” - our heart and gut do, too.
We speak about ‘matters of the heart’ and ‘heart-centred leadership’. Our second brain - our heart - brings into play strengths like courage, compassion and creating connection.
We also speak about our ‘gut instinct’ and ‘butterflies in our stomach’. Our third brain - our gut - often knows what’s best for us.
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Jim’s three brains in action
One of the leaders I’ve worked with - let’s call him Jim - was struggling in his career to find his next move.
He wanted to do something meaningful, impactful - making a difference. “I’m really good at what I do, but I feel like I’m coasting.”
But Jim was stuck because he couldn’t answer that simple question. He was approaching his problem in a very logical, cognitive way: tapping into his first brain as if the answer was as easy as 12.
It was only when we started exploring what his other two brains were telling him that what he truly needed emerged in the midst of some long pauses and tears.
What mattered most was the care he had for others at work. But what was missing was those around him caring for him, too. Figuring out that this core need was not being met - the insight that his other two brains offered - instantly allowed the path to a solution to be visible.
How our three brains are linked
It turns out that our brain (in our head) and gut are in direct communication with each other along a gut-brain axis. Our vagus nerve connects our brain to our heart, lungs and digestive tract.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body that comprises 75 percent of our parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the system that prepares us when we encounter danger and stress with a fight, flight or freeze response.
If you monitor your heart rate variability, like I do, with a device like an Oura Ring or Hanu, then you’ll be aware that HRV - often referred to as ‘vagal tone’ - is an indicator for your health and wellbeing.
In general, an increased HRV indicates better health and better autonomic balance - in other words, how well you deal with stress and your ability to move from a state of fight-flight-freeze to rest-relax-digest states.
However, we tend to ignore our heart and gut - especially in the workplace.
When we’re focused on doing tasks and getting things done, our first brain shoots its hand up to answer first.
But our other two brains are the ones that bring the rest of our wisdom - our strengths, our values, what’s needed - to the fore.
And that’s a source of wisdom that’s too important to ignore when the answers are complex and nuanced.
When we ignore that wisdom, decisions tend to feel “off”.
How do we tap into our other two brains?
It’s simple, but not always easy because our other two brains are like the student in class who puts up their hand last, or not at all.
We need to be the teacher who gently elicits the answer from the student who is perhaps shy or recalcitrant.
It requires us to slow down and pay attention. To notice what’s going on in our heart and our gut. It’s not that they are literally speaking words to us. They’ll be giving us bodily sensations - like butterflies in our stomach - that will reveal something.
That something might not be immediate. We might need to “think about it” overnight. Or go outside for a walk.
Here are a couple of suggestions that you could try. They rely on a sense we all have: interoception. At its most basic it’s the ability to notice feelings in our body. Interoception has a profound impact on many areas of our lives, like self-regulation, mental health and social connection.
First, you can “interview” your heart and gut!
Why is my heart giving me this insight?
What happens if I don't go with my gut instinct?
Where am I feeling the emotion in my body?
Second, you can focus your attention by using touch
Because we are interested in the emotions in our body, it can help to focus on them by placing our left hand on our heart, and our right hand on our stomach.
The first time I did this it felt “woo woo”. Sometimes clients who are not as familiar with tuning into sensations in their body can find it somewhat alien (eg “Where does that excitement show up inside you?” or “Where do you feel the sense of loss?”). But the wisdom you can discern is worth it.
It’s time to put your cognitive, brain skills on pause for a moment and listen carefully to your heart and your gut!
What do you do with the tug of war between your head, heart and gut?
If you open yourself up to tuning in to the wisdom of your heart and gut, it might leave you with a plethora of thoughts and uncertainty about what to do with them: a tug of war between your head, your heart and your gut.
Whose hand will the teacher pick next to answer the square root of 144?
But there’s a better way to look at it in order to shine a light on what to do next.
There's a concept, holding the tension of opposites, that some in Jungian circles call it The Third Space.
It's a belief that people who can hold the discomfort of paradox are truly the most transformative among us.
It is a rare skill set because it requires a level of comfort with ambiguity. It’s easy to turn away from ambiguity by distracting ourselves with activities or objects, like browsing our electronic devices.
Yet, when we cultivate the skill to hold the tension of opposites:
we stretch and grow bigger
we become less rigid and more flexible, less judgmental and more tolerant, less fearful and more loving
there is more space for seemingly opposite ideas, feelings and behaviours to come together - and ways forward emerge
How do we hold the tension of opposites?
Adopt “both/and” thinking. We can hold the opposites loosely in our awareness and sit patiently with the discomfort.
When we feel tension and discomfort rise - like noticing tightness in our chest, or our breathing becomes shallow, we get angry, or frustrated - we can choose to accept it, and also notice what is good that goes with it.
For example, if someone is annoying us, we can notice the beautiful qualities that that person has, not just the negative traits, and we can interpret their actions in that light.
Keep on noticing: holding the tension is a demanding discipline. Practice makes progress, and we move towards the goal: to develop a higher tolerance for being with ambiguity.
I hope these insights and practices are helpful for you when navigating difficult, important decisions that you’re making.
What’s grabbing your - and my - attention
A couple of weeks ago (ET #6 Do nothing (Yes, really, nothing!)), I wrote about how doing nothing boosts your creativity and productivity.
What emerged from it was a chat with one of my readers and a comment on the post from my friendboth of whom resonated with the challenge of the "high octane energy of a major corporate transaction and the “ordinary” days".
One of the articles I wrote as a partial response to that challenge was to adopt three mindsets that apply to boosting productivity, but they can also be used to bring balance between high octane and ordinary days.
You can find another answer from my friend,’s “Don't just do something, stand there“. Adopting intentional boredom is a great practice. I invite you to check it out to see what Arman recommends!
ps If you want to indulge in photos and tales of wildlife in India, you’re in for a treat with. You get to feel like you’re sitting next to him in those moments of beauty - some of them death defying - from the comfort of your own armchair.
That’s it for this week!
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