My revelation came in the winter of 2010, when following a spell of intense hard work I was harbouring a low- grade cough for weeks. Thinking it would disappear I kept ploughing on with my intense work schedule and commitments at home. As winter deepened I began to get worse, having flu like symptoms (Swine Flu?) and then one day I collapsed at home, blacking out. I remember nothing but my husband resuscitating me as I had stopped breathing and in his words "I had died in his arms". I went into hospital where I collapsed again and a junior doctor assigned to the weekend shift and over the Christmas period didn't know what to do with me so I was sent home. That night my temperature soared, I became delirious in my head (I had undiagnosed pneumonia). I knew I was on the edge, I knew I could slip away and from within I felt a deep desire and longing to remain on this earth.
I was not ready for my early demise. As I lay there I had what could only be described as a bolt of truth which surfaced like a deep sensing and knowingness, an acknowledgement of the truth that mattered. In those moments not only was I able to see what my purpose was in a deep visceral way but also the acknowledgement of the fact that I had betrayed myself. I remember a deep anger well up from within: why had I compromised my life so much? I could call this experience an awakening, an epiphany. I had read about it but until that point I had not really understood it. It was to be the turning point in my life.
In 2009, a lady called Bronnie Ware in Australia spent time with those dying of cancer, providing palliative care in the last 3 to 12 weeks of their lives. She was able to ask them some difficult questions; in particular she wanted to know what they regretted as they looked back on their lives.
The number one regret which was cited was “I wish I had the courage to live a life which was true to myself, not the life that others had expected of me. I wish I had served my dreams, not the dreams of others”. The other regrets were connected to happiness i.e. “I wish I had tried to be happier, sustained my relationships, watched my children grow instead of working too hard or worrying what others thought of me”. Ware then went on to write a book called The Five Deathbed Regrets of the Dying, and it is worth reading as a wake-up call for each and every one of us because one day these realisations will come anyway.
This was also true in the world of leadership where a number of authors such as Diana Gabriel, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas had discovered or identified what they called "Leadership Crucible Experiences". These were life-threatening events where typically the trials, tests or failures which people experienced resulted in deep self-reflection. It forced each and every one of them to question who they were and what they were really here to do. When Warren Bennis interviewed 200 highly effective leaders, all of them could point to an intense one-off and traumatic, always unplanned experience that deeply transformed their distinctive leadership abilities. This was a starting point for something more authentic and meaningful to emerge for them as leaders. In short, the negative event was the critical wake-up call that was needed to ignite their lives.
In the research work for the book Meaning Inc. the same truth was unearthed. The high performing leaders and individuals, or Outliers as I called them, were previously functioning differently because of the way they had experienced their lives. What marked them out was the deep sense of self commitment and realisation of what mattered and the course of their lives as a result.
A bit of science
When we look at those working in the field of psychology and neuroscience today we are beginning to unravel the different functional aspects of our human system. At the simplest level we have a duality or a binary component to the way we choose to live. To put it simply, we have two key responses to the world, one based on fear and the need to protect and survive, i.e. our sympathetic response; and the other based on creativity and prospering, i.e. our para-sympathetic response. The former helps us tackle threat or danger and the latter is when the body feels safe and starts to heal and replenish itself. When we are in our survival mode our heart and brain are activated in such a way that we are operating through the hormones of stress which are connected to flight and fight responses. These stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are helpful in the short term, allowing us to tackle threats, but not over the medium to long term as they erode our capacities at all levels. When Martin Seligman (Happiness Professor) researched happiness he found that predominantly in the western hemisphere individuals were living in a low-level stress responses for most of their waking day.
Recently this has been verified by scientists in that 70% of our waking life is based on a set of reactions which are reactive and stress based. These stress hormones are useful in the short term but are damaging to our whole system when sustained over time. We need within our bodies to be able to oscillate or shift away from stress reaction in order to recuperate and find the means to move into much more coherent states from a physiological perspective. In fact, high performance in top athletes and in the corporate world is based the capacity to switch off our stress responses (see Jim Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement).
Heart brain coherence
Coherence has been understood and researched for many years at The HeartMath Institute in California. The scientific research conducted here indicates clearly that we are able to move into much more coherent states of well-being. This is achieved when the heart and the brain come into energetic alignment. It is the heart which is the most powerful electrical and magnetic agent in the whole-body, far stronger (in the order of thousand fold) than the brain. Physiologically, therefore, the heart has precedence and power over how to regulate and control our whole human system in a way that maximises optimisation. This experience not only generates coherence in our body, but as Seligman has noted in Authentic Happiness that personal alignment and happiness generate a wealth of positive outcomes including, for example the fact that our immune system is supercharged, we become not only happier but physically healthier; creativity increases; the muscle and bodily functions become more efficient and we are able to exercise judgement. This state of being puts us in the best possible place to have powerful, positive exchanges with each other in the world, promoting healthy mutually beneficial relationships.
The most recent work done in this field shows that states of heart-brain alignment generates some of the most powerful and life enhancing hormones for our body. These come in the form of antioxidants, anti-ageing, feel good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin, to name but a few.
As we begin to understand the physiological basis connected to this alignment we are beginning to understand the power within our own hands to shape a life which is optimal and intrinsically rewarding. The good news is that this is possible for everyone. The bad news is that we are all conditioned and controlled through our life experiences and often the key barrier to overcoming our limited selves are the beliefs and habits which coexist within our conditioned selves, our social identities or personas. In later blogs I will be addressing this area in a very practical and accessible way.
Brain envy is the phrase that researchers are using to describe this optimal functioning within the human system. Recently I was to experience that at first hand when different individuals approached me and said "I want to have what's inside your brain". Each time I have laughed and my response has been to each person that I actually don't know where my ideas comes from. But deep inside I do understand and that there is a stream of consciousness which flows out when we start to become united with our inherent truths, when our heart and mind work in unison. When we unite with the truth of who you are and what you want we bring heart brain coherence into our life. We are then in a position to truly commit to creating the life that we want. The truth is that when we recognise who we are and where we want to go in the world we are in a position to tell the story that is meaningful. I've now come to the conclusion that purpose is akin to plugging into our own energetic vital resources and through doing that we build an important bridge between ourselves and what we can offer the world. Inner coherence not only allows us to have a better dialogue and interaction with ourselves but with each other.
Drawing on my Indian lineage, there is word called Shakti which describes the creative universal energy that exists in the world. The goddess Shiva is the embodiment of this energy and you have probably seen the multi handed figures. She/he uses this energy to conduct what is called the cosmic dance. We are here on this earth as conduits for this life force and energy. We are the creative energy who have the capacity to realise our best selves and to share that with each other, the people that we care about and beyond. It is through this manifestation of the life force that the seeds of purpose are sown and it is up to each and every one of us to be responsible in this respect and direct it appropriately.
What could be more fulfilling than that? In my mind nothing because when I lay on that bed that night thinking that I was about to die I knew what my purpose would be if I survived: that I would serve others through this knowledge. I wanted to understand the source of our life energy so that I could help others use it in their lives. I wanted to live in a win-win way. As the biologist Wright noted our very existence and sustainability of our human system or for that matter any system is achieved through enacting a win-win outlook. As a human species we have come to the brink of destroying our very existence through adopting a win-lose mind-set which involves conflict, control over each other and the resources at our disposal.
"Are we busy being born or busy dying is a reality and the truth is sobering.'
Going forward we should consider we each have to make a conscious choice, each and every one of us. To sustain the energy that creates us from within and without because without it we are spent. And we should be conscious that this choice exists and to teach our children to understand and live by it. The world needs it like never before.