CHAPTER 17 – Executive 360 Debrief Tip: Lighten Up, Dude

The breakfast offerings in the company cafeteria included oily home fries and eggs any way you want them, if you were prepared to wait. Dan relished the ample supply of free Starbuck’s coffee, and he could always find an isolated corner there for a 7:30 AM meeting.

Michele, in her black pant suit, dark plum silk shirt, and jade pendant suspended on a fine gold chain, looked somewhat out of place. Yet, the longer he sat in her presence the more she seemed to carry her own sense of place, her own comfort. Across from one another on two plastic chairs at a Formica table, her straight posture, smile, and clear eyes drew his attention to just how weary he was.

Last night, before going to bed, he had glanced at Michele’s interview report in preparation for this meeting. He expected a mixture of appreciative comments and some of the normal griping. But each successive section – peers, direct reports, and superiors – hit him like a one, two, three punch. It was 2:00 AM before he attempted sleep.

By 3:00 AM, his imagined conversations in which he set people straight had run all possible permutations of phrasing, and then began to repeat on their own, in shuffle mode. They had no idea, none of them did, what it took to keep this project together. He thought of his networks outside the company and wondered how long it would take to line up another job. Then he thought, No, I need to finish this project well and professionally.

Eyes open in the darkness, and tired of his own thoughts, he recalled what Michele had taught him. He imagined the rhythm of her voice instructing him how to breathe. Gradually, he slowed his breath down, moved his entire torso with each inhale, and let go on each exhale. Then, it was morning.

Now, over breakfast in the cafeteria, Michele asked him, “How did the report strike you?”

The laugh that emerged from Dan surprised him. “How did it strike me?” he said. Why, he thought, why is this so funny? As the laugh continued, recruiting more of his body, it carried on with a life of its own and the fact that he was laughing seemed funny all by itself.

Looking down through a blur of tears at the twenty page report, his emphatic scribbles, highlighted sections and exclamation points, he closed his eyes and laughed all the more. Still laughing, he felt he was crying, too. He realized that Michele had asked him a question.

“Fine,” he managed to answer, and that brought a new wave which rolled on until his laugh gradually, gently set him down in front of Michele in the cafeteria. “Fine. It struck me just fine, thank you.”

They sat in silence amid the distant voices and clatter of plates and trays.

“Apparently, I needed that,” said Dan.

“Yes,” said Michele, who had quietly laughed along with him, “We all need a good belly laugh now and again.”

Dan looked around and was glad to see they were alone in their corner of the cafeteria. He pointed to the report. “What do you think of this? And don’t tell me it’s more important what I think of it.”

“It’s important what each of us thinks, because together we can understand what it’s telling us about how to make you a more effective leader. And the short answer to your question is: I’ve seen worse.”

“And you’ve seen better,” he said.

“Dan, you’re talking to someone who believes in the compost theory of leadership development. This is the stuff that makes you grow. If the report were too awful I would tell you. But it’s not. I took you on because I trust your intelligence and your capacity to learn. There’s nothing in here that isn’t 100% workable. It’s actually perfect.”

“Remember,” she said, “these interviews are a snapshot in time. Because of the way we’ll work, people’s perceptions could change dramatically in six months. May I tell you how I read this?”

“By all means,” he said.

“Here’s what I see. You are a highly intelligent and capable man. No one disputes this, not even your detractors. No one questions your dedication; nor does anyone think this project is a piece of cake. People enjoy your humor, except when it’s leveled at them, and they want you to succeed. There are also some hard feelings and mistrust. Do you agree with me so far?”

“Yes, I do,” he said picking up the report. “But what do I do with this information?”

“What’s your instinct? What do you want to do?”

He dropped the report back on the table.

“Besides putting plastic explosives underneath certain people’s houses?”

“Yes, besides that.”

“I don’t know. Talk to them, maybe,” he said.

“Yes, you need to talk to them. They’ve taken the time to be interviewed, express their opinions, and share their observations. What do you think they want in return?”

“Well, they don’t want business as usual. They want to see that I’ve listened to them.”

“Exactly, they want to see a change. And it’s up to you to decide what changes you want to make. I’ll teach you how to have productive conversations with the people who were interviewed. I’d also like to add the third ALIVE skill. It’s easy to learn and it will dramatically improve how the conversations go with your stakeholders. Are you interested in learning it now?”

“Barely,” said Dan.

“Out of 100 percent, how much of you is interested?”

“About 3%,” said Dan.

“If only 3% of you is interested, what’s the remaining 97% interested in?”

“Not much. Actually, that’s not true. But I have these moments when I feel like the project, the people, the politics – it’s overwhelming.”

“Would you like to try an experiment with how you’re feeling right now?”

“Yeah, sure,” replied Dan in a flat voice.

“All right, from the work we’ve done, you know what your body feels like when it’s breathing freely. Use your breath now to sense where your body feels tense or deadened.”

Dan shifted in his seat and noticed the small movement of his chest in response to his inhale.

“What do you notice?” asked Michele. “And where in your body do you feel it?””

“My chest feels tight. I’m hardly breathing.”

“It’s good that you’re aware of that. Now, I’m to give you some instructions. Don’t worry about making logical sense of them. Take the tightness in your chest and link it to your face, so that your face expresses any emotion that may be associated with the sensations in your chest. Just relax, and let your face respond. And feel how your body wants to move.”

Dan’s head moved slightly downward. He closed his eyes and his lips tightened.

“Are you OK with this?” asked Michele.

Dan nodded, eyes still closed.

“Now,” said Michele, “reading your face from the inside, tell me, what is that emotion?”

“It’s as though I’m saying, ‘Too bad. I wish it wasn’t this way.’ It feels like regret.”

“OK, stay with it for a few moments while I tell you about emotions. Emotions come and go. They have their onset, their fullest expression, and then they dissolve. When they fully dissolve, the tension in the body that’s associated with them goes, too. To completely let them go, this next instruction is important: Never mind what these sensations are about. For the moment, just focus on the sensations themselves. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“Simply get to know them, just as they are, without having to change them. Observe precisely how your body holds this constellation of sensations.”

“Yeah, I can feel it,” said Dan, his eyes still closed.

“Perfect,” said Michele, “Can you comfortably experience the sensations just as they are?”

Dan paused for awhile and then nodded.

“Now, can you also let them soften? Let them complete themselves and dissolve, so that you’re at rest. And while that’s happening, simply observe how your body returns to relaxation and ease, moment by moment. Take all the time you need to resolve these sensations.”

After awhile, Dan’s posture straightened and his face relaxed.

“What’s it like now, Dan, to take a breath?”

“Easier, more free in my upper chest, but now the tightness has moved lower down.”

They worked with this new sensation in a similar way. Reading his face from the inside, he felt the tightness was an expression of anger. Through observing and breathing, he dissolved these sensations, as well.

“Dan,” said Michele. “Rather than explain to you how and why this works, I’d like to show you one more skill. Reading your own expression offers you insight. It’s the “I” in ALIVE, and there’s more to learn about it, but let’s move on to how you can use your facial expression to change your mood and give you more energy. We’re getting to the fourth skill, the “L” in ALIVE, which stands for ‘Love.’”

“This is easy. Think of something or someone that brings a smile to your face. It could be a pet, a place in nature, a person – just call to mind that experience and let your enjoyment show up on your face as a smile. Allow the joy to be so deep that you feel it in your eyes. It doesn’t have to be a big expression but it needs to involve your eyes. An authentic smile radiates from the outer corners of the eyes. It can’t be faked. Got something in mind?”

An image of Maggie, giggling, with her face buried in a pile of stuffed animals on her bed, burst into his mind.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Yes, I can see that you do. Now, take that feeling of the smile in the eyes and let it deepen.”

Dan’s expression broadened.

“Nicely done. Feel how the smile fills your whole face. Now feel its qualities. Is it buoyant? Peaceful? Fun-loving? Wise? Joyous? There are many facets to happiness…yes? Let it deepen into kindness…wisdom…love…appreciation. Relax your facial expression and you will still feel the energy of the smile at the outer corner of your eyes.”

Dan nodded.

“Now, let’s get the rest of your body involved. Take that feeling, the energy of the smile, and move it to your belly. Smile into your belly as though it is a vast storehouse that holds immense happiness. And just as before, yield to the breath on the inhale. On the exhale, relax into being still and alive.

“Breathe and smile, so that you yield happily to the breath. Now let the breath expand to include more of the torso. Fill the entire torso with the energy of a smile on the inhale. On the exhale, settle your attention peacefully into your belly…Good, keep going.”

After a few minutes Michele asked, “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” said Dan, very still as he exhaled.

“Linking the smile with the breath allows you to feel joy and love with your whole body-mind. Take a breath now, and feel joy for the full duration of an inhale…and an exhale… If you want to feel even more vitality, let your joints subtly open on the inhale, and relax on the exhale.”

After a few more minutes she told him, “Let your attention rest in the belly, and let your eyes open of their own accord.”

Dan opened his eyes.

“How do you feel?” asked Michele.

“Relaxed…and happy.”

“Yeah, you look happy and relaxed. Do you remember how you felt when we started this process?” she asked.

“I was in a bad mood.”

“Right. You worked with anger and regret. Connecting with those feelings and letting them go made it much easier for you to feel joyful. Notice how dramatically different you feel? Do you feel more resourceful, now?”

“I do,” he said.

“Like you could look those reports in the face?”

“At this moment they don’t seem like much of a problem.”

“They aren’t a problem. They simply require your resourceful attention. Can you meet tomorrow, so we can dig into them?”

“How’s 8:00 AM in the Thoreau Room?” Dan said.

“8:00 AM it is,” said Michele.

 

Do you have a reliable way of shifting your mood? How have you applied it? Please tell us your story in the comment section.

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Yielding to the Breath With Your Whole Body

Check your breathing in this moment. As you inhale or exhale what parts of your torso move with the breath, and what parts remains still? Does it feel like your muscles, and ribs yield to an incoming breath, or resist it? When you exhale do you relax? How long does it take to complete a full breath?

If you’re practiced in breathing you’ll be able to take a breath that almost instantly calms, refocuses, and energizes you. While it’s true that even unpracticed people can interrupt angry states by simply taking a breath, breathing practice develops a more profound capacity to shift states and attention.

From meditative arts to martial arts, singing, and athletic performance – breathing enhances performance. Looking at the sheer variety of techniques these arts employ you might wonder if there’s any “right way” to breathe?

For nearly half a century I’ve practiced techniques from a wide variety of disciplines, and I now prefer to teach the gentle Taoist methods that produce profound responses quickly.

We dwell in the realm between sky and earth. In the Chinese internal energy arts you’ll find practices designed to deepen our awareness or our human condition called the Marriage of Heaven and Earth. Their purpose is to draw in and integrate the sublime qualities above and below us.

Imagine that, like a tree, your roots extend deeply into the earth while your leaves draw in the heavenly energy of our star, the Sun. And imagine as you inhale, your rib cage and torso make more and more room for the sky inside your belly and chest. You do this by becoming soft and yielding to the breath, so there is no place in you that cannot accommodate and melt to an inspiration of breath.

On your exhale, continue to relax. Become still and alert, so the next breath enters an even more receptive body. If you stay in the moment each incoming breath will feel new and fresh with each inhale. You feel innocent.

If you learn how to integrate not only your torso but your limbs, hands, and feet into your breath you’ll breathe with your whole body.

The A.L.I.V.E. system that Michele teaches Dan will get you started on whole body breathing. In an upcoming post my friend and colleague Anat Baniel will also teach you how to make your body responsive to a complete breath.

Here are some audio instructions that will help you yield to the breath:

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Please share your experiences with the breathing audio in the comments section.

CHAPTER 14 – Work Place Stress: Can You Breathe in This Joint?

Dragons At Work Work Place StressDan’s wardrobe reflected his preference for simplicity and comfort. He could reach into his closet in the dark and pull out a shirt and chinos which almost always matched. He often chose his clothes this way to keep the closet light from waking Janice. Today’s blind selection paired a light blue polo shirt with khakis. His brown Italian loafers could be mistaken as a nod to style, but for Dan, they were simply the most comfortable shoes he owned. When they inevitably wore out, Janice replaced them with an identical pair purchased through an online discount retailer. In Silicon Valley, where pricy wristwatches conveyed wealth or taste, Dan’s $19.00 Casio made a different kind of statement. It answered the question: “What time is it?”

10:00 a.m. on Monday. As Michele and Dan settled into their swivel chairs in the Thoreau room, Dan asked, “What do we do today, Coach?”

“We’ll explore the use of feedback in our coaching. Without third party observations, you and I would only be guessing which changes in your leadership style may matter most to the people around you. So the next step is for me to interview your boss, your peers, and your direct reports.”

“Sounds scary,” he said.

“Compared to what?”

“Blissful ignorance,” he said.

“Ah, yes, the choice many of us prefer.”

“Explain how this works,” he said.

“You and I decide whose feedback would be useful,” said Michele. “We generate a list of about a dozen people who have worked with you closely. Then, I interview them, compile the data, and together we work with the report I generate.”

Dan took a deep breath and let it out with an audible sigh.

“What are your reservations?”

“You’re in for an earful from them, Michele. I hope they talk about my results, not just my shortcomings in the niceties of management.”

“You may be surprised at what we’ll get,” said Michele. “Whatever comes back, will be helpful. If you genuinely respond to people’s concerns, it can have a tremendous positive effect. This is not charm school. The interviews can reveal where precise changes will yield more effective leadership.”

“I think I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Dan.

“Spoken like a true empiricist,” said Michele. “The interviews also encourage people to be invested in your change process and more willing to participate in it. Often people are oblivious to changes in their coworkers. The interview process will sensitize your peers, direct reports, and superiors to the positive changes you make. Rather than avoid difficult people, include everyone who can make a difference for you.”

They compiled a list of thirteen key players: Dan’s boss, three senior executives, four peers, and five direct reports.

“If we have any luck with scheduling, I’ll have the report written in two weeks, three at the outside,” she said. “Meanwhile, there are other things we can work on, including stress reduction. By the way, did you like the breathing and ease of movement practices I showed you the other day?”

“I felt relaxed as you walked me through it, and I was able to recapture some of the feeling listening to the recording you made for me.”

“Excellent! You tried it on your own,” she said.

“I listened to the breathing instructions on my way home after our last session. By the time I got home I actually felt less stressed. I even listened to your recording in bed, and I think it helped me get to sleep. Then I just forgot about it. I haven’t done it since.”

“You don’t need to practice a lot. Still, if that little bit I showed you had an effect, it’s a good sign. We may move toward your health goals more quickly than I thought. Are you ready to learn your next skill?”

“I am ready,” he said.

“Let’s start with what you’ve learned so far. Show me your breathing.”

With his hands on his thighs, Dan began breathing into his belly. He coordinated the movement of his torso and the joints of his hands with the rhythm of his breath.

“Nicely done! Now, we’ll add the shoulders, elbows and wrists into the mix so every part of your body from the belly up will move with the breath. Breathing that way will increase your vitality significantly. This completes the first two skills of A-L-I-V-E – the “V” stands for vitality, and the “E” for ease. The next skills will change your experience exponentially. For now, let’s stay with the breathing.”

Michele demonstrated how to involve the upper torso, shoulders, arms, and wrists. By the end of the lesson Dan could move his body in synchrony with full, relaxed inhales and exhales.

She encouraged him to continue to relax and focus on his movement. “Let the breath move you,” she urged.

When they stopped, Dan reported he felt energized and relaxed.

“Good,” she said. “Most people only use the opening and closing of the joints at the start of each session to integrate their whole body into their breathing practice. But you can use it anytime to revitalize you. You’re picking this up very quickly. Were you an athlete?”

“I swam in high school and the first two years of college. Then I got too busy.”

“Maybe that’s where you developed a good sense of your body and how to breathe,” Michele said. “I think it’s helping you now. It’s best to practice with concentration in short sessions. The trick is not to turn this into an obligation. Let it be easy and enjoyable – something you can play with. Try it before and during meetings when you want your head clear.”

“Lucky me. Today I’m booked solid with opportunities to practice.”

Of the people in your network, whose feedback would you be most reluctant to hear? Do you avoid asking them for feedback? Me too! Give me a break. We’re all human. Leave comments.

 

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CHAPTER 7 – A Helping Hand

Drangons-At-Work-Chapter-7-A-Helping-HandArriving on time for their first meeting, he dived right in and told her the whole story – the love seat showdown, his trembling hands, shortness of breath, the emergency room, and the doctor’s warnings.

“Sounds like you had a bit of a scare,” said Michele.

“I did.”

“And that’s why you agreed to coaching?”

“Yes. Who said fear isn’t a great motivator?” he said.

“I can’t deny that it moves people,” Michele laughed.

“So, are you going to ask me to surrender my secret weapon – fear?”

Michele leaned forward, looked side to side and whispered, “I don’t think it’s that much of a secret, Dan.”

“True enough,” he said, “but it works.”

“It certainly got you here. So, let’s talk about what you want to get from coaching. If our coaching were successful,” she continued, “what would be different for you at the end?”

“Everything would magically get done by itself; I’d be a senior vice president, and spend a lot of time by the ocean under palm trees, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.”

“Excellent,” she said. “What else?”

“I’d be fully in control of this project. I’d be healthier. And I’d have a life.”

“All worthwhile goals,” she said. “Choose one to work on first.”

“I’ll take health for $400.”

“Good choice. First, let’s talk about how we’ll approach any goal. Whatever you decide to work on must be your choice; it can’t be my prescription. If it starts to feel like I’m directing you, tell me immediately. I’ll help you brainstorm ideas and clarify your thinking. I will not withhold my opinions, but the goals have to be yours. Otherwise, coaching won’t work. Does that make sense?”

“It does,” he said.

“What are your health goals?” she asked.

“I’m overweight and my blood pressure and cholesterol are too high. My doctor says I’m a heart attack or a stroke waiting to happen…or diabetes. None of these are pleasant prospects. My doctor referred me to a nutritionist and a personal trainer. He thinks I can turn it around that way, and I’m willing to give it a go.”

“If you can do it, that’s the best way” said Michele. “You and I are meeting in a week, what do you want to have done by then?”

“I will have made appointments and seen them both. We’ll see how that goes. There’s a reason why I don’t look like a tri-athlete.”

“I think I can help you with your health goals,” she said. “More on that later. Next topic: Having a life, or control of your project?”

“Well,” said Dan, “I can’t really have a life until I get the project under control.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I’m totally committed to it. If it fails, I fail. And failure has never been an option for me. I will not let this project fail.”

“And you’ll do whatever it takes to make it succeed,” said Michele.

“Yes.”

“Good. I assume that includes experimenting with new ways of operating, if they seem worthwhile to you.”

“Provided they work,” he said.

“Often, you won’t know if they work until you put them into action. You don’t have to believe what I say at the outset. But I do need you to be empirical about our work. Otherwise, you won’t learn anything new and you won’t progress. Can I count on you to keep an open mind? Will you actively experiment?”

“Yeah, if the experiments seem reasonable,” said Dan.

“You sound skeptical.”

“Just wary.”

“You should be. You have a lot at stake. Will you tell me when you have misgivings, and that you’ll only try things you believe have a chance of working?”

“Agreed.”

“That’s all we need. Another thing: I read a lot about business, health, and psychology. Given your demanding project, I imagine you have little time to read.”

“You got that right,” said Dan.

“What I can do is give you brief summaries of current books and articles that I think pertain to you. New ideas may stimulate our thinking or offer direction for a course of action. But if you feel lectured at, let me know. I’m here to serve your needs, not to hold forth.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll let you know.”

“Also, I’d like you to take an assessment called the ‘7 Powers Profile.’ It will give us a comprehensive and detailed view into which of your capacities support your long term success and which ones need developing. You take it online. I’ll send you the link.”

“Finally,” she said, “I’ve studied the interconnection between the mind and the body. Because of your health concerns and because smoothing out your emotional responses could make you a much more effective leader, you would benefit from learning some simple mind-body techniques. Are you interested in exploring that, too?”

“Will I be chanting OM and sitting in strange, uncomfortable postures?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because that’s what my brother does, and I tease him mercilessly. The irony of doing it myself is a bit much.”

“All right. No chanting, no postures,” said Michele. “I’ll make a note of that.”

“I’m serious. I’m not into that stuff.”

“We don’t have to do any of it. You and I can stick to the business issues, and you can address your health concerns with the nutritionist and the personal trainer. Would you prefer that?”

Dan sat silently. “Michele, before I reject your offer, maybe I ought to know what I’m rejecting. What do you have in mind?”

“Just some things I learned from my grandfather. They’re ancient methods of relaxing.”

“Do they help with hypertension?”

“They do,” she said.

“As evidenced by what studies?”

“I could show you a stack of convincing published studies, but you don’t have time to read them. Besides, even if the studies conclude that these techniques work for 95% of its practitioners, we have no idea whether it will work for you, or whether you’d like it.”

“How can we test that?” Dan said.

“We experiment. You try it. If it works, you do more. If you don’t like it, we drop it. Given your initial objections, why don’t we save that for another time?”

“Actually, Michele, I’m curious now. What is this mysterious method your grandfather taught you?”

Michele looked at Dan. He seemed earnest enough, but she felt hesitant. Her breathing was shallow and her belly felt tight. Why should I have to prove to this ignorant skeptic what my grandfather and generations before him knew as invaluable truth? In China, students would beg for such teachings. She smiled at herself – at her own haughtiness and the cultural chasm between her and Dan. With an exhale, she dropped her resentment, relaxed her breathing, and refocused on Dan. Why not teach him? If he rejects it, I won’t have to mention it again. But if he takes to it, it would make our work together go much faster.

“The method comes from Chinese qigong (“chee gong”). It’s an exercise system which promotes health and vitality. It wakes up the body and makes you feel fully alive. In fact, the word “A-L-I-V-E” serves as an acronym to help remember the five building blocks of the system. I’d teach them to you, one at a time. As you master each skill, we add the next one. Eventually they become second nature, and you have access to optimal performance states whenever you need them. Do you want to try the first skill?”

“Strangely enough, I do. I’m still curious.”

“Our first experiment entails helping you feel at ease in your body – the “E” in “ALIVE.” What’s the opposite of ease for you?

“Tension.”

“Right. Our aim is to reverse your hyper-tension, your dis-ease. Ever watched a baby learn to walk? They fall hundreds of times, often in awkward positions that would send an adult to the hospital. Part of the reason babies fall without getting hurt is their relaxed state and their flexible joints. As we age, the elasticity of our joints diminishes. We’ll start by working with the joints of your hands to restore their ease of motion. Let me demonstrate something,” she said, standing up.

“This is the opening move of a tai chi form.”

Michele stood still and erect for a moment, arms at her sides. Then, her entire body sank in an unbroken motion as she bent at the knees, raising her arms in front of her, and extending her palms facing out.

“When I extend my hand like this,” she said, “I open it slightly; the fingers spread a bit. But it’s not just the fingers that open. My wrist opens, too, as do my elbow, shoulder, spine, hips, knees, and ankles – all the way down to my feet. When my hand opens, my feet open. When I draw my hand back, like this, simultaneously all the joints begin to close in one fluid motion. Then I open them again.”

She repeated the movement, and while Dan couldn’t perceive the motion of individual joints, he did see her body expand in one posture and smoothly draw inward in the next.

“There’s a saying in the Tai Chi Classics,” she said, continuing her tai chi. “‘One part moves, all parts move. One part stops, all parts stop.’ I realize you don’t have time to learn tai chi, but you can bring some of that same ease into your body, by simply sitting in a chair and working with the joints of your hands.”

“Ready to try the armchair version?”

“O.K, but remember, no chanting.”

“No chanting,” she said.

Michele sat down facing him and instructed, “Hold up both of your hands like this.” She raised both hands to shoulder level, palms facing toward Dan, and opened and closed her fingers. Dan mirrored her movement.

“Is there one hand that feels stiffer than the other?” she said.

“This one,” he said, motioning with his right hand.

“Fine. We’ll work with your right hand.”

She removed her jacket, folded it, and set it on the table between them.

“Are you comfortable resting your right hand here on my jacket and letting me work with the joints of your fingers?” she asked.

“If not, there’s another way to do it.”

“Go ahead,” he said, extending his hand.

She placed his hand, palm up on her jacket.

“Just relax, and as I begin to work with your hand, see if you can feel the sensations of movement in the joints of your fingers.”

She held his ring finger at the nail between her thumb and index finger and began to slowly, gently pull the finger outward; then she guided it back to its original relaxed position.

“I could extend your joints farther, but I’m staying within 70% of their range of movement. That way, we’re not creating stress by overextending the joints.”

She worked each finger in turn, instructing him to simply relax and let her initiate the movement. “In that way,” she said, “you’ll experience what it’s like to move with minimum effort.”

It took five minutes to work all the fingers of his right hand.

“Now pick up both hands,” she said. “Open and close them. What do you notice?”

“Now the left hand is the stiff one,” he said, his eyes widening. “The right hand feels as if someone oiled every joint; the fingers are swimming in hydraulic fluid.”

“Excellent,” she said, gesturing for his left hand.

As she finished working with his left hand, she said, “That’s part of the first skill. It’s the ‘E’ in ALIVE which stands for ‘ease.’ Your entire body-mind will feel that kind of ease when you finish learning these skills.

“That sounds good,” he said.

“To start spreading the ease in your hands into your entire body, you coordinate the movement of your joints with the breath. Now, as I lengthen the joints of your fingers, expand your belly with each inhalation. When you exhale, relax your belly as I return your finger to a resting position. I’ve noticed that when you’re relaxed, you naturally breathe into your belly. Keep doing that.”

After a few breaths, Dan found it easier to synchronize his inhalations and exhalations with the movement of his fingers.

Letting go of his hand, Michele said, “Rest your hands on your thighs. Keep breathing while you gently open and close the joints of your fingers. Let the movement of your belly and hands feel easy. Now, rest for a few moments. How do you feel?”

“Good, actually.”

“You’re getting it, Dan, and you’re ready for the next skill, the “V” in ALIVE. It stands for the ‘Vitality’ that comes from engaging the entire torso as you breathe. Sit near the edge of your chair, with your spine straight. By the way,” she said,

“I can record the next instructions, so you can listen to them later.”

“Great, I’ll put them on my iPod.”

“Again, rest your hands on your thighs, and as you breathe, transfer the ease you feel in your hands to your belly. With each breath, let your hands and belly relax. It’s as though both the belly and hands yield to the incoming breath…” she said as he inhaled, “and relax and become still as you exhale. Continue like this, yielding on the inhale…and relaxing on the exhale.”

Dan settled into the cadence of Michele’s instructions as she guided him for another few minutes. Then she began teaching him the technique of breathing into the back.

“Place one hand on your belly and the other on your lower back. As you inhale, feel your belly expand into the front hand. On the next inhale, also breathe into your lower back. Both front and back expand on the inhale, although the movement in the back is smaller.”

After a few breaths she said, “Can you feel your lower back expand into your hand?

“Barely.”

“In the beginning, the motion is slight; later, it will increase. The key is to strengthen the motion through relaxation, not by forcing breath into the body. It’s the ‘ease,’ the yielding to the breath that increases your capacity.”

“When someone breathes fully,” she explained, “with each inhalation the whole torso feels like an inflating cylinder that expands to the front, back and sides. You feel bigger and taller on the inhale, and return to stillness on the exhale. It takes time and practice to build this capacity, and it looks like you’ve done enough for today. How do you feel?”

“Relaxed, but a little sleepy.”

“That’s because you’ve become aware enough of your body to realize you need rest.”

“I thought you weren’t going to ruin me,” he said.

“When you run as close to the edge as you do, you’re vulnerable to breakdown. And if you break down, no deadlines will get met,” she said.

“Except maybe the ultimate deadline,” said Dan.

“When you reach it, what will they write on your tombstone?”

“He died on time and under budget,” Dan said.

Michele laughed.

“And what’s the benefit of a life lived like that?” she asked.

“I actually live for more than that. I have a life with Janice, my wife and with Maggie, our daughter. But, I see precious little of them these days.”

“How are they with that?” she said.

“They don’t like it, but they’ve adapted.”

Lao Tsu, the ancient Taoist master, wrote a little about this,” she said.

Which means more to you,
You or your renown?
Which brings more to you,
You or what you own?
And which would cost you more
If it were gone?

Click here to listen to the poem:

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“Very cool. When did he live?” he said.

“2,500 years ago,” she said.

“Did he have a mortgage?”

Michele laughed.

“Then, how could he possibly understand?” said Dan.

“Lao Tzu was the keeper of the royal archives at a time when scholars were executed if they were found wanting in the performance of their duties. It’s not as though we invented stress.”

Dan held up his hands and opened and closed his fingers. He asked Michele how long they would feel so relaxed.

“They’ll still feel that way tonight,” she said, “maybe longer.”

“Amazing,” he said.

She promised to send an audio file of the breathing instructions, and advised that progress can be achieved more quickly with relaxed short sessions – nothing longer than five or ten minutes.

“I think I can restrain myself,” said Dan.

 Click here to read Chapter 8.

Click here to read Bill Ryan’s Interview on Chapter 7.

Readers: Leave comments! Can you find Vitality and Ease when you need to? How do you do it?

Dragons at Work
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