Radical Sabbatical: Turtle Out

When I was a young adult, my dad invited me to visit him at his new office.  It was a slick spot, on a high floor (for Middletown, Connecticut, anyway) and it had a great view of the Connecticut River.  On the wide window sill, Dad had arranged a whole slew of turtle figurines.  In stone and wood, painted and plain, he had dozens of turtles hanging out with him, gazing at the river.

Being the (recent) college grad and English major that I was, symbol was not lost on me.  No it wasn’t.  So I pointed to the turtles and with a wink I said, “ ‘Slow and steady wins the race.’  Eh, Dad?”  He shook his head and smiled, “Nope.  ‘The turtle doesn’t get anywhere without sticking his neck out.’”

Oh.  Of course.  I should have known.  My dad is a lot of things:  smart, curious, resourceful, imaginative.  At heart, though, my dad is an entrepreneur.  He loves to see an opportunity or potential and take a risk to see if it will go.  He’s brave, my dad.  He’s stuck his neck out in lots of ways in his life:  some that haven’t gone too far and some that have taken him literally around the world.

I appreciate his bravery and sometimes wonder if I got ANY of it in my DNA.  I like to know what is going to happen.  I like to control things.  (I know, I know, as I’ve written about often and recently, that’s all an illusion.  But still, that’s what I would LIKE.)  Dad likes to jump onto The Uncertainty Bus (or in this case, The Uncertainty Turtle), and go for whatever ride it gives him.  Dad likes to be Turtle OUT!

At its essence, Turtle Out is about fear.  Can we, as the title of Susan Jeffers’ book suggests, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway?”  When I think of the wrinkly, tender skin around a turtle’s neck, and how vulnerable it must feel to poke it out of the safe, protecting shell, it’s a wonder she gets anywhere at all.  And when I think of us, people, with our tender hearts and how dangerous it can feel to take a risk, it’s a wonder we get anywhere either.

In some ways, taking a Radical Sabbatical was a risk:  not a huge one, but given my tendencies, it felt pretty Turtle Out-y.  Given the incredible support I have from Frank, my Nia team, my family and friends and students, it was probably more accurately what we call in Nia a “safe risk.”  I wasn’t walking a tightrope between the twin towers and I wasn’t gambling my life savings.  And yet it did feel scary.

Just the other day, as I’m thinking about fear and risks (safe and otherwise), Dr. Rick Hanson posted something in his Just One Thing blog that spoke directly to the neurology behind these fearful feelings*, and how understanding the science can help us navigate them.  He explains that we are wired to pay more attention to scary things than to rewards and pleasure.  For our ancestors (and for the turtle), this is what kept us alive:  paying very, very careful attention to the things that could kill us was way more important than anything positive.  He writes,

“The alarm bell of your brain – the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory – in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

“In effect, … the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Which is helpful for explaining any number of things.  Why, for example, in a job review that was full of all the things I do well, I focused on (and yes, obsessed about) the one thing that “needed improvement.”  And why when parenting, it’s important to say five positive things to my child for every one negative thing.  And why when I look in the mirror, I only see that puffy place under my eyes and that poochie thing that happens at my waist, rather than taking in my whole healthy self.  (In a wonderful dharma talk from Dharma Seed, Mark Coleman also talks about this tendency to focus on the scary and bad.  Click here to download/listen to his delightful and insightful  talk called Waking up to the Senses.)

The thing is, there are few true threats out there.  Most of us are lucky enough to live in situations that are not prowling with real dangers to life or limb.  Dr. Hanson points out, however, that the brain doesn’t make the distinction between a tiger that wants to eat us, and a boss that wants to give us feedback.  From the brain’s point of view, it is all dangerous.  Our opportunity is to notice our fearful reaction and make a choice about how to respond.  This can be none-too-easy when that alarming amygdala kicks in, but as I’ve posited before, if we allow ourselves to sense our bodies or take a breath, the higher order of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, activates and we have more resources available to us.

In Nia, we do this with safe risks.  In a cool way, even experimenting with dancing outside our habit, or making more or different sound in class can help the brain get adjusted to risk-taking and get less alarmed and rattled at the prospect.  So in class this week, or as you dance through your life, take a safe risk.  Small is good.  Nobody else even has to know you’re doing it.  But do it.  Stick out your tender turtle neck and make a step toward where you want to go.

Turtle OUT, y’all!

Note:  I couldn’t find a link to Dr. Hanson’s Just One Thing piece I read, so I’ve reprinted it with links to his site and blog on the menu to the right of this post under Helpful Links]

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