The Wolverine, Psychosynthesis & Athletic Performance

Last night I was lecturing to my graduate students on Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli and his system for personal development called Psychosynthesis. His system rests upon leveraging the power of creative imagination to cultivate, refine and establish a more integrated self. Instead of the self being taken over and controlled by "subpersonalities" this more integrated self can control, regulate and mediate how the various subpersonalities find expression, or not. 

After class last night I found myself swimming laps and doing some agility work in the pool when I was visited by a story I had watched years ago on NFL.com. The story was on NFL safety Brian Dawkins and how he prepared for his games. Dawkins played at the highest levels for 16 years while being selected to the pro bowl 9 times. He's considered one of the top safety's to have played the game of football. Needless to say, he's worthy of some our attention and study if you're interested in consistent high level performance. 

To cut to the chase, Dawkins undergoes a transformation of sorts as he takes the field. He transforms from his normal self into the Wolverine, modeled after the Marvel comic character, who embodies intensity, fortitude and an unbreakable spirit that, regardless of the situation, brings a warrior spirit to the game.  

He even goes to the lengths of having two lockers, one for his normal clothes and conventional persona and a second filled with action figurines, posters, images and other reminders of the characteristics of the Wolverine as he knows it. Above this second locker "Weapon X" is listed instead of his name "Dawkins."

The intersection between our Italian psychiatrist who's famous for challenging Freud's model of psychoanalysis and Brain Dawkins can be found in the creative imaginative faculty of the human being. Dawkins is not a likely future hall of fame athlete because he was playing with imagination and participating with a realm of fantasy. Instead I would venture to guess he was leveraging this powerful human faculty to connect and participate with an energy, consciousness and will that in many ways transcended his everyday self. 

Assagioli points to a process called Spiritual Psychosynthesis which is his advanced stage of adult development following the completion of Personal Psychosynthesis. Dawkins was knowingly or unknowingly participating with many of these features. First, Dawkins was making contact with the imagery, symbolism and energy that was in many ways beyond his every day personality. Competition often requires this of us. We cannot be inside our preferences, anxieties, fears and doubts if we are to compete at our highest levels. This contact creates a transformation of sorts. 

The transformation Dawkins appeared to participate with was not into a make-believe action hero as our less nuanced understanding of his actions and behavior might suggest. The Wolverine for Dawkins exhibited a few interesting characteristics. First, there was integrity. He would not swear. The Wolverine abided by high standards for his personal conduct. This illustrates greater control, and from my vantage point more integrative maturity. 

Secondly, and more importantly this warrior he transformed into game in and game out was also a figure who prayed to himself, his team and even prayed to the football as he crouched down on elbows and knees looking at a single football resting on the field. He even spoke in tongues all as a means of entering into and participating with the energy, consciousness and will of the Wolverine. Dawkins outside of the game of football is a devoted religious man off the field. Again, we see features of the wolverine appearing not to be merely a pretend character but instead a living integration or synthesis of dimensions of himself that are beyond his conventional self. By going beyond himself, he naturally included what was most important off the field. 

I find this interesting as perhaps this is what sport is about. Sport is most certainly about conflict, fierce competition and the drive to win. However, inside of these conventional aims we can find how sport can be used to grow and develop athletes. Perhaps sport is a powerful integral practice than can cultivate and refine the many facets of the self. In Dawkin's case perhaps sport elicited a synthesis of personhood and the enlivening dimensions of human experience that stretch beyond conventional personhood.  

Interested in watching this video on Dawkins? Check it out here.


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The Role of Meditation in Sport

I remember going into the green turf room just down the hallway from my locker room before my lacrosse games in college at Susquehanna University. I would disappear from the locker room for 5 or 10 minutes to find my posture of stillness. These brief sessions are amongst the most important meditation practices I did throughout my time in college. They were always, without question, the most enlivening meditations. Meditating before a highly competitive game that you pour hours of practice into every day is a different beast altogether than the meditations I would do outside of athletics. Even today, as I write about this experience, I can feel the subtle threads of anxiety coursing throughout my body, my mind trying to figure out a way to cope with the stress of competition and leadership and the vibrations of aliveness that would build throughout my meditation.

To be honest, I was trying to calm myself down. I was sitting in an attempt to be less attached to the outcome of the game. I was sitting to be more accepting of my performance, good or bad. I was in my meditation posture to be more present to the game so that I could perform better. But underneath I really wanted to get rid of this intense vibration of aliveness that felt like immense anxiety.

Did it work?

Yes and No.

Without fail, the longer I did my meditation before a game the more anxious I became. I couldn't distract myself from the energies coursing throughout my body and mind. While I calmly breathed and the experiential intensity grew I started noticing that my body and mind had an intelligence all to it's own for conducting this energy fluidly throughout myself. The more "conductive" I became, the more powerful of presence I had to lead my team on the field. Meditation appeared to galvanize more strength and energy within me. This undoubtably made me a better competitor.

What was failing in my mind was I wanted meditation to make me more comfortable before games. This never worked, ever. While I didn't know it at the time, meditation was powerfully sculpting my nervous system. I was becoming more "vertically integrated" as Daniel Siegel eloquently describes it.

Intense anxiety for athletes often results in a fragmentation in their nervous systems which compromises performance... always. The mind usually starts to spin out into various scenarios following a few basic fantasies. The first involves disaster scenarios the second involves fantasies of everything turning out positive and for the best while one of the most fearful fantasies formulates a story that the game doesn't "really" matter. The first two are an imaginary world that is disconnected from the actual territory of what's happening in the larger reality around the athlete, while the last option is a fantasy fueled with a blunt lie to themselves to buffer just how much the game (and their life) does mean to them. For athletes caught within their own private fantasies they are "sitting ducks" to a competition who's nervous systems are sculpted to attend to the specificity and nuance of what is actually going.

For me, my anxiety was increasing but my mind was getting closer into contact with what was going on in my body. While I didn't realize it at the time, this was growing my nervous system in essential ways.

To cover just one point, meditation practice strengthened my anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC as it's often called. By growing my brain's connectivity to the ACC I was able to have greater influence and control over my attention. I was becoming more in control of what's called my "executive attention," not my less complex and impulsive facets of my brain.

For you young athletes, the one's who are traversing the territory out of adolescence and into young adulthood take this into consideration: Your ACC is often called the Chief Operating Officer of your brain. You started to grow a tenuous connection to your ACC between the ages of 3 and 7. But this integration will not be complete well into your adulthood.

Accelerate your ability to aim and sustain attention with your intention. 

The better you get at this, the more mature your brain becomes, regardless of your age. The more mature your brain, the greater your capacities become for performing on the field and in life.

This translates into you focusing on the right cues under pressure and in the face of distractions. It means you can process emotions quicker and not get suck in the stories that surround challenging emotions. During games the ACC supervises what is happening with your attention. For example, if you start focusing on outcomes during a play, the ACC can stop this daydream and sharpen your attention onto the specific cues your mind needs to be tracking to be successful. Furthermore, in the face of adversity, which good competition always provides, you can stay focused on you, your behavior and your strategies instead of uncritically watching your opponents.

So, meditate. As I often call it, practice managing your attention. Do it rigorously. Do it regularly. What you are capable of achieving depends largely on your ability to manage attention.

If you're interested in joining attention management to strength training, consider killing two birds with one stone and do them simultaneously. Strength to Awaken is the most nuanced and sophisticated approach to integrating attention management into the discipline of strength training.

Rob McNamara
Author of The Elegant Self & Strength To Awaken






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Caution: Don't Train This Way!


Last week at the Integral Center I was fortunate enough to sit down with my Strength To Awaken small group plus a handful of people from around the world visiting Boulder for the Whats Next Conference. Again, motivation was a big topic. I think it is the major challenge for most people when it comes to training.

I'm going to share with you part of what we explored together because it is essential. If you don't get this there's a very good chance you are digging yourself into a ditch that quite honestly you probably don't want to dive into.

Whenever I speak about motivation I end up talking about discipline. They are interwoven in complex and important ways. For those of you who are already receiving my free 12 Training Tips, you'll hear more about this topic there and for those of you with my book Strength to Awaken in your hands already please see Chapter Nine for a deeper dive. Right now though, we are going to cut right to the heart of the problem.

Conventional discipline divides your mind.

Conventional approaches to training divide your mind.

Got those?
Good.

The common element I'd like you to que into is the divided mind.

Is your mind divided now?

Chances are it is. This is a problem. It is actually a very big one although it's probably familiar so you likely aren't that concerned. Having a mind that is divided is kind of like having your kitchen roaring in flames. Go on, picture that. You're in the living room going on as usual simply because you're used to that fire.

A divided mind is in many ways similar to your kitchen engulfed in flames because:
- both block you from nourishment you need.
and …
- both keep you out of places in your life you need to go.

The divided mind can be defined as two or more oppositional drives inside of you with divergent agendas. Part of you is going this way and part is headed that way. Most of the time these discordant drives are in a struggle with precisely what is happening in the present moment.

Strength training, or any kind of training, from this divided mind is a tremendous waste of energy. It is inefficient. It wastes time. It steals your enjoyment and pleasure.

The divided mind is what most adults live in. They haven't grown their mind to become strong enough to unify and cohere a drive that brings the mind into a synergy. Don't get all hard on yourself here, research suggests that less than 1% of adults do… this is our potential not where you "should be already."

So, training with divisions in your mind is the common climate of most people in the gym. And it also shows up in bed, in the office and in cars on the drive home. The problem is that training is supposed to be an activity that you do for a short period of time that carries you forward. Do this and it will take you FORWARD. Training a divided mind may give you some relative physical benefit when compared to a sedentary lifestyle; however, it often fails to draw you forward in any legitimate fashion. Instead, conventional training results in more division within yourself. Mentally you are not training, you're simply rehearsing or repeating. You're getting better at something that you already know how to do.

If you're like most adults you are not in any need on developing the ability to waste time and energy, be inefficient and erode your own joy and pleasure in or out of the gym. I think these come built in, they are not our future but our current predicament.

Stop repeating the habit of dividing your mind when you train. See what happens when you draw your mind into a greater coherence. Divide your mind and will likely find yourself saying that you are "struggling with not having enough motivation" as I hear often. Bring your mind into its larger resonance and direct it completely into the activity of your training and you will discover the heart of discipline. Become your mind's larger coherence and you will save time and energy, you will become more efficient and proficient. You will discover more joy and pleasure. And if you do this in your training you'll be shocked at how simply a unified and coherent mind shows up in other facets of your life.
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The Future of Spiritual Praxis


Spiritual Praxis is, by and large, a progressive exploration of more and more subtle and transcendental states of awareness leading up to the simple, direct, unmoving dynamic that is your unmediated and obvious liberation. The vast spectrum of paths, practices and discourses around the world are an investigation into ever more expansive states of consciousness. Throw away the many labels and the differing value systems that rest upon divergent states of consciousness and you have one massive tradition, one broad lineage of human beings that are yoking their awareness from their habituated identities that consolidate limitations where liberations belong.

Let us all give a huge, wide open bow to the billions of human beings that have carved forth these groves of wakefulness. Both those who are here, alive in practice today and the many that are no longer animating their known and unknown forms. Whether you're alive, died 5000, 2000, 100 years ago or if the great Cessation raptured you yesterday - there is a Silent Space beyond all habituated movement that shines a calm simple gratitude. That's for all of us :-)


There is a new form of spiritual praxis that is emerging. By new, I mean an explicit supra-developmentally-organized-practice picked up with an explicit developmental aim. Implicitly we have been participating with this since our origins, but it is only very recently that we have begun to pick up these novel forms of spirituality to explicitly participate with our evolving developmental complexity.

This new praxis is not the investigation, stabilization and realization of greater states of consciousness, rather it stems from the investigation of structure stages of consciousness. This has largely been born through modern Western psychological research methodologies, but more specifically it stems from an even more rarified specialization into studying the highest known levels of developmental maturity. So while childhood developmental psychology might not be disclosing these novel spiritual practices, the study of the highest levels of complexity of adult development is disclosing something profoundly new for spiritual practice.

Why?

These maps of our most privileged stages of maturity (development is a privilege, one of the central ones) can be used as a type of pointing out instruction. They point to novel ways of relating to everything. These maps disclose new subjective world spaces of self-organization with greater functional capacities for engaging life. They can tell most of us about our own developmental future and our larger ability to respond to the complexities of life. It takes what is called the "emergent unconscious" and points the spot light of wakeful attention into this area of the unconscious. What happens is stunning.

What I have been doing is inviting people to participate with their larger complexity by providing developmental injunctions that yokes them out of their embedded structure stages and invites them into their larger aliveness, elegance and authenticity.

Something powerful often happens when this occurs and it is very different than the more known and practiced explorations of states of consciousness. I brought some of this teaching to my instruction at the Integral Spiritual Experience a couple of years ago and I had a number of people telling me that my sessions were the most significant of their experience of the entire event. I've been leveraging this technology with coaching and psychotherapy clients, in my classrooms with my students and in my own practice life and my sense is there is something deeply vital, cutting edge and pragmatic about this approach.

Translating our highest known levels of maturity into practice injunctions appears to facilitate development dramatically and from my vantage point is a different form of spirituality.

So what does this mean? I've got a few thoughts for us here.

1. Spiritual teachers are wise to pick up developmental injunctions to shape and refine their own teaching methodologies and to refine the complexity with which they interpret the states of consciousness their traditions explore.

2. Spiritual practitioners (who has more or less stabilized conventional adult stages of development) are served by picking up injunctions in both state training and structure-stage training.

3. Integral spiritual teachers should be required to rigorously study these developmental maps with an expert who has access to at least some of the highest known forms of meaning-making. Reading about these maps on your own is a great start, but it is not sufficient just as reading about states is no substitute for actual state-refining practices. Teachers need developmental structure stage transmission and the continual re-organizing of experience into their larger complexity. Without this spiritual teachers are extremely susceptible to consolidating their meaning making, teaching and practice injections around levels of complexity that lack the larger elegance that evolution is demanding.

4. Spiritual teaching, instruction and practice is most effective and efficient when the rigorous state-training methodologies are being translated through some of the most privileged stages of maturity. We need novel systems, new traditions, and a larger methodology for holding the most privileged developmental stages as a new requisite for spiritual instruction.

Finally, we need ongoing open inquiries and a full, unmediated participation with the mystery of developmental complexity amongst our genuine leading edge. What does this practice community look like? How do we support one another? How do we challenge one another? There is no terminus to development, and one of our most important responsibilities that is co-creating us moment to moment is our unknowable evolutionary possibility. We must Submit to this participatory-immediacy.

The practice injunctions I speak of are to follow. I'm developing a course to teach at The Integral Center here in Boulder CO. I just met on this last week so I'll be sharing some of this with you in the coming weeks. If you're hungry for some of it now, tear into my book Strength to Awaken as it's littered with developmental injunctions to yoke you into your greater embodiment.

Enjoy,
~Rob

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