As I returned from spending a week alone in Yellowstone National Park, I thought about what I had learned from the experience. One of the primary, and yet subtle, lessons is about the concept of expansiveness. Expansiveness. The wide vision. The heart-opening, heart-expanding sense of openness and scale beyond the narrow limits of the ordinary world view.
Research says that we humans take in about 11,000,000 bits of information a second, and yet we only cognitively process some 150 bits per second. We also only see what we pay attention to. All too often we only pay attention to the negative, the close, the near-space. Our automatic, subconscious brains are always watchful for danger - real or social. We often have that vague but pervasive sense of the need to protect ourselves, whether physically or psychologically. Our perspectives are defensive and closed - and often outside of our conscious awareness.
As I gazed at Yellowstone's broad expanses of open land and distant mountains I experienced an actual physical sensation of "taking a deep breath," opening the chest, standing or sitting straighter, looking out beyond the immediate and near, resting the eyes and the mind, and simply being without judgment. I am sure that there are other descriptors for this sense of openness, but I like the word "expansiveness." Almost every time I found myself gazing off into the distance to take in a stunning vista, I felt this same physical and psychological sense of expansiveness.
I loved this feeling and began to wander about how I can place myself in this state of "expansiveness" in the midst of the demands of everyday life? How do I change my cognitive, emotional, and psychological focal point from the near and constricted to the beyond and open? I came to the conclusion that while I typically spend a lot of my thinking/being in "my head," that this sense of expansiveness is achieved primarily through the body and our innate body wisdom - the wisdom that is there, but typically ignored.
Moving from Closed and Clutched to Expansive and Open
Our everyday experience tells us that the mind effects the body. The thoughts that we think effect our physical reaction - we calm, we tense, we prepare to fight, flee, or freeze. However, there is research evidence that the reverse is also true. Our body can impact our mind. One of the most well-known advocates for this thesis is Dr. Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School Professor and researcher, who explains this body impacting mind phenomena so compellingly in her TED talk (which has been viewed over 42 million times) and in her book Presence. Cuddy's research shows that by adopting certain "power poses" in advance of (or more subtly in the midst of) challenging situations such as difficult conversations, job interviews, public speaking, business meetings, sporting events, etc, we perform better - measurably better. Our body informs and encourages our brain.
I believe that the sense of expansiveness which I experienced in my exploration of Yellowstone and now seek to integrate into everyday life is similar to that described by Dr. Cuddy. All too often our body posture is closed, tight, defensive. Our body is tense, our breathing is shallow, and our vision is narrow. These are the hallmarks of the body's "fight or flight" response. The subconscious mind has identified a potential "threat" and activated this powerful body-wide response before we are aware consciously aware of it.
Therefore, the first step in adopting the state of expansiveness is to recognize when we are literally "up tight" and intentionally adopt a more relaxed open posture, slowing and deepening our breathing, softening our gaze, opening our chest. Our conscious, executive brain, the seat of our emotional intelligence and self-regulation, steps in, gives the "all clear." We can begin the process of "standing down." We do not go from being "on alert" to being calm and composed instantaneously. The alert and stress chemicals take time to subside.
We can adopt an expansive presence - in body and in mind. Our mind will listen to our body, just as our body listens to our mind. We move from closed and "hunkered down" to open and expansive. It feels good. It also is contagious because those with whom we interact often unconsciously mirror our posture and our mental state. Expansiveness is a gift to ourselves and to others.