It fires up the sympathetic nervous system and automatically gives us the energy to defend ourselves by speeding up our breathing and heart rate. It does this by triggering the release of the hormones of adrenalin and cortisol into our body. This “conflict cocktail” may have helped our cave dwelling ancestors escape predators, but it doesn’t help us much in a struggle with an employee about on-time attendance, a boss who would rather command than collaborate or a colleague who firmly disagrees with us in a meeting. In fact, in moments of persistent disagreement, we can raise each other’s heart rate from a calm, sitting rate of 80 beats per minute to as high as 130 beats per minute, in one beat.
This occurs without our Rider noticing. We think we’re fine in the moment, but we actually can't listen to others in such an aroused state. The circuits in our pre-frontal cortex become overloaded with negative reactions and our Rider is forced out of the present and back onto deeply learned habits of reactive talk. What's worse is that over time these flight-fight reaction surges can damage our bodily organs.
The only way to get your Rider to focus on the moment is to calm the Elephant’s emotional responses and our body’s regulation (fight-flight, rest-digest) systems. The oldest and most powerful way into our self-regulation system is through the breath. To be present in the next moment we need to take a deep, conscious breath. We must consciously take over one of the things the Elephant controls automatically: our breathing.
Creating the unnatural - a conscious, calming breath
The natural breath that we take every few seconds is from the upper half of the chest. Worse, when we are frightened or angry, we breathe more rapidly, higher in the chest cavity. We draw in our gut and raise our shoulders and, essentially, we pant. To calm the mind, we reverse this through the conscious calming breath.
The unnatural - conscious and calming - breath comes from our belly, not our chest. It is sometimes called “diaphragmatic breathing”, because when we breathe in, we push our stomach outward against our belt or skirt line. I call it creating your “Buddha Belly”.
Here’s what I need you to do: sit comfortably and interlace your fingers in front of you. Then lower your hands onto the upper part of your stomach and put the lowest little finger inside your belly button. I’m asking you to do this to find the right place on which to focus your mind. I also want you to use the gentle pressure of your hands as a target for your next breath.
Then close your eyes, breathe in slowly, and imagine your breath moving downward to push your hands outward. When you breathe out, gently push your hands inward. While you’re doing this notice your shoulders. Keep them down and relaxed. In other words, consciously simulate the opposite of all of the bodily aspects of an automatic breath.
After several repetitions, most people begin to breathe more deeply and move their upper chest and shoulders only slightly. More importantly, when I do this with a group of people, a genuine stillness comes over the room. Everyone feels the calming power of conscious breathing.
I suggest that, with this breath, you can create a moment of inner calm before you enter a difficult situation and, with regular practice, you can manage it even in the midst of one that’s going downhill. At work, do it before you enter a meeting or, even during a meeting, pretend to look down at your phone and take one slow breath. Whenever you do it, engage your conscious mind. Be mindful.
Focus on the present, on purpose by noticing your breath flow in and out. When you use the conscious, calming breath, your Rider communicates with your Elephant directly, through the body. What you’re telling your body is that you’re not as frightened or angry as it’s setting you up to be.
Here is Dalton's video demonstration of the Conscious Calming Breath: