It was one of those nights where you are in limbo between your pillow and your laptop repeating the mantra, “I should go to sleep, one more video. Okay, it’s really late now. Time to go to sleep…one last one and then I will…” By the time I went to bed, my circadian rhythm got derailed but I was inspired. At least this particular night it was TED Talks, so I felt that feeding my mind with the knowledge from intellectuals is worth the sleep deprivation. The next morning those videos were whirring in my mind. That’s what brought me to writing this essay, even though I’m not in school and will not receive any economic or academic attention for it. I’m integrating all these pieces of inspiring snippets of wisdom and maybe combusting in the process. But what stuck out to me is a phrase, a phrase that I feel when I’ve run twenty laps around the park and feel that I can do twenty more or when I’m teaching a group of thirty kids how to make their imaginations come to life. This phrase was introduced to me when someone noticed I seemed different after the end of a relationship. He noticed that I seemed to have “the power to do.” I was slower, waterier, sadder before. Shedding that gave this new forward facing and slightly restless charge. This charge has been very helpful and is something that shaped many events that have occurred within the past year.
I have a hypothesis that people who live the majority of their lives with a “power to do” mentality live longer, happier lives. It’s similar to how there’s research about how “Flow”*, self-efficacy, meditation and mindfulness improves quality of life. There’s a certain happiness that comes from being disciplined and putting all your energy and focus on a task. It is invigorating and potentially could impact the physiology, chemistry and molecular structure of the body in a positive way and also impact choices, habits and lifestyle.
In a way, this feeling has a similar sentiment as “let the force be with you” except that you already have it; you are feeling it now. What’s more is that it is something that comes from within you rather than outside of you. It is similar to “Flow”, self-efficacy, mindfulness and meditation because of the concentration and attention involved as well as the belief in one’s abilities, but it also has a slightly fiery element to it. This element is due to the fact that there is more of an emphasis on potential energy, motivation and a deep strong desire for change, action and expansion.
Change, Action, Expansion
In physics the term “power” refers to the amount of energy consumed within a given unit of time. Time can be interpreted physically with aging and chronological events or it can be interpreted as a perceptual phenomenon. In this case with “the power to do” energy can be translated into attention. The attention we give to what we do expands the perceived experience of time while we are engaged making time seem longer and richer. The complexities and novelties that you are interacting with create space, meaning and depth in a compact spot in your mind. The attention you are giving is feeding, growing, expanding time as if you are gently blowing a bubble. This space may give you more leverage to also expand the physical space and time or your life, giving you energy way down the line when you most need it.
The amount of attention consumed within a given unit of time is power.
This feeling to some degree can also be slightly related to stress because there’s a pinch of adrenaline involved. There is the same kind of intensity as stress, though it feels more like courageousness. Kelly McGonigal spoke on TED about how stress does not harm your health but that it is the belief that stress harms your health that actually does damage. Using the phrase “the power to do” to associate with the physiological responses of doing something important may help to relate to that experience in a more positive way than using the word “stress.” When we are feeling stress but don’t believe that it is harmful, McGonigal noticed in her research that the arteries of her participants were expanding. This is a similar response to when we experience joy. Not only does that happen during stress, but surprisingly enough, oxytocin is triggered to protect the heart and encourages us to reach out to others.
Oxytocin, Expanding arteries, Joy
At the end of McGonigal’s talk someone asks if it is worth it to strive for more challenging ventures that cause stress as long as you believe that stress is something good for you. Her response was “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort […] Go after what creates meaning in your life and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”
Having “the power to do” is a drive for something intrinsically meaningful that aids in overcoming internal and external barriers. The mind is compelled to find opportunities to express its values and commitments, to accomplish its goals, and to manifest its dreams. It gives you strength because deep down you appreciate something about yourself that you just learned about and never knew you had and it is also something you never had the opportunity to invest in and let grow until now. The choices you make never feel like you’re nagging at yourself to change or that you are chasing yourself with self-improvements, but more like rewarding and joyous nourishment that empowers you to seek more of what you need. (McGonigal)
“The power to do” can also be a force to conquer your fears and the things that make you feel uncomfortable. With meditation, a key aspect is the ability to let thoughts and images float past your mind without feeding into them or being distracted away from your breathing and the present moment. There is a courageously disciplined mindset that enables a person to have that strong concentration, a concentration that could be helpful to not only clear someone’s mind and be more in touch with themselves and their surroundings, but to be more mentally healthy.
Eleanor Longden, a research psychologist with schizophrenia, who shared her experience on TED, spoke of how she used a disciplined courageousness to face the demonic voices in her mind. She learned from her psychologists that she needed to ask these voices what they needed and stop fearfully running away from them because they were parts of herself that she was unable to reach consciously. These voices came from being deeply hurt and they needed to know that no one is out to get them and they were not alone. Coming from this place of feeling compassionate for what makes you afraid or uncomfortable is the same for panic disorder, anxiety, pain, self-improvement, many other mental and physical health challenges as well as social justice ones. It’s a special type of discipline to let go of control. McGonigal said in a TED Q&A about willpower, “When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control.” The focus gives you the courage to drop the rope, end the fight or flight response, face the scary place with the same compassion you would give anyone you care about, even yourself.
Courageously disciplined, a disciplined courageousness
It is when we compassionately accept these sore spots in ourselves and others that we allow room and freedom for change and the possibility for the soreness to dissolve. This is a key point delivered by Eugene Gendlin, a psychotherapist and author of the book, Focusing. Focusing provides a precise step by step method of identifying a feeling, locating the feeling in the body, and slowly, gradually and consistently describing the physical nature of the feeling while watching the feeling change as you describe it. This relates to “the power to do” in how there needs to be intense attention and a courage to sit with and relate to an uncomfortable internal experience. The authors emphasized to not categorize the feeling with an emotional label but instead use more neutral tactile descriptions that are readily changeable and not fixated. The act of identifying and labeling a feeling impacts the experience of the feeling almost as much as the feeling itself. The attentiveness is also required because the nature and quality of the feeling is changing and to keep up with it you need a patient watchfulness. You do this until something dramatically shifts in you but you have to stay watchful and objective in order to not jump to conclusions about what you are feeling. The experience is a fluid moving thing that you are interacting with. You can’t force it and there’s a certain strength that it takes to diligently and passively let subtle suggestions and attention take on their own course. Singing works in a similar way when you try to move air in a specific part of the body. If you force it, the body will shut down and your subconscious won’t be open and receptive to your conscious mind. It’s the power of a subtle suggestion that creates a strong passive undercurrent and it is lit by the small and persistent flame of concentration.
We are surrounded by these subtle suggestions. We are constantly copying other people’s behaviors, intonations and body language subconsciously via mirror neurons, but we also influence our own subconscious. The way we practice body language, facial expressions, handwriting, vocal tones and self-talk creates a self-perpetuating loop between our conscious and unconscious selves. These modalities are avenues to express the language of the limbic system. If you talk to yourself with slumping shoulders and frowns, it’s going to make you feel like slumping and frowning. However, if you interrupt the loop by physically contradicting your internal state by initiating a conversation with yourself with a fake smile, your subconscious will slowly return the gesture with a polite smile of its own accord, almost accidentally. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist on TED, stated how having a power stance with your hands on your hips for two minutes can dramatically lower your cortisol levels. An external physical suggestion can tell the body a different message. Being able to challenge the loop comes from “the power to do” because it is the persistent awareness of how one is constantly interplaying with his or her state of mind by making choices and building internal and external habits that makes the impact of your efforts long term.
Internal and External Suggestions, Passive Undercurrents
Alanna Shaikh, a global health and development specialist, shared on TED how she was preparing for her own future with Alzheimer’s, was telling about how she is trying to make a long term impact on her unconscious so her future self will be a better person than she is now without her conscious mind. She said that with Alzheimer’s the heart becomes naked without the mind. It is questionable whether someone can change their fundamental temperament but there is research that shows that the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for empathy and emotion) and other parts of the brain in mice grew when the mice were placed in stimulating and social environments. Daniel Reisel, a neuroscientist, explained on TED that this research could potentially impact our justice system by giving prisoners who are sociopaths the opportunity to be in an environment that may physically change how their brains are wired to prevent them from reoffending. It is not quite certain the extent nurture has on nature but it is known that it does have an effect. Overcoming one’s nature is something that needs to be done with compassion and diligence. It’s not about fighting who you are but strengthening something that you already are and becoming more authentic to that part of yourself. When you are practicing this and steadily being true to a part of you and letting it physiologically grow against the grain of your saturated intrapersonal garden, you have “the power to do.”
As mentioned earlier we are surrounded by subtle suggestions. Because those subtle suggestions are able to influence us, when one person has “the power to do” others around him or her start having that power as well. In a TED Talk about the influence of social networks, Nicholas Christakis, a physician and social scientist, spoke about how obesity, happiness and general behaviors are contagious between people in a social circle and at least three degrees beyond that. Emotions are contagious but their extent goes far beyond what a person realizes. When people have “the power to do” they become contagious vessels of willpower, self-efficacy, concentration, courage and compassion.
Now where does this “power to do” come from?
After reading about how wonderful this state of mind is, it would only seem right to address where this feeling originates and how the average person can have the opportunity to develop such an empowering mentality.
Being fed up would be my answer. Being fed up to the point that there is nothing else you want more than change. Discontentment can be powerfully motivating. It can make it clearer to you what you actually want. When you are at this level of discontentment you also are fed up with the “shoulds” that convolute and confuse you with what you actually care about. It sheds the “shoulds” and only leaves you with the “wants” and “needs.” Whenever you lose focus, you start feeling the twang of the rock bottom that you were at before learning to jump and swim toward the surface. You want to swim, you need to breathe, you focus one step at a time.
“The power to do” can be used and felt while engaging in any regular mundane thing. Whether it’s washing dishes, faxing a document or brushing your teeth the way you do something changes the experience of that action. Simple activities are very involved but most of the time we don’t pay attention to how involved they are. A lot of times we act automatically or are jumping ahead thinking about other things that need to get done. One of the most valuable things that people have is time, even more so than money and power. People get angry by how they have no choice but give away most of their time to a job but at the same time complain how hard it is to find a job, let alone a job that they are truly in love with. But in some ways, our attention is even more valuable than time because it gives that time quality and meaning. In a sense it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you can fully pay attention to it, whether it’s at work or at home or in another country. If you can pay attention to it you feel more satisfied. Whether there is a way to not work or depend on money, it may not change our happiness. When we have nothing to do for a week it’s okay, but after 6 months, 12 months, 5 years, we try to look for things to do to escape the boredom and emptiness or even the insanity of nothing-to-do-ism. When we have nothing to do we complain, when we have work we complain. We are stressed, we are bored, we want more freedom; we want more direction.
Having that same discipline as the monk or the lady with schizophrenia with thinking about how present you are to what you are doing and even the components of task you are doing along with the components of what you are doing like your body alignment, your breathing, your emotions, or how much you are rushing or not rushing while engaged in a task can make a positive impact on the ability to concentrate and be satisfied with whatever you may be doing. By engaging with the activity in this way you are celebrating it because you actually discovered how intriguing and complex it is and how it is something that constantly keeps you on your toes and learning. When someone has a disability or acquires a disability everyday tasks are very complicated. What someone else can do in five minutes without thinking another person is taking 40 minutes thinking about their body alignment, social interaction, vestibular input, auditory input, lower body strength, balance, visual perception, tactile input, proprioception, and much more for the same task, which in this case might be going up the stairs at a school. All these demands can be very daunting and stressful, but most people have a deep desire pushing them forward to accomplish goals to successfully gain function and make life easier. What motivates people to function and be independent during these difficult times is that same fire. That same magical combination of willpower, self-efficacy, concentration, courage, and compassion is what can make one person choose life over death. Regardless of where you are in terms of your disabilities and abilities, this fire is also pushing towards life. And that’s why I have a hypothesis that “the power to do” makes people live longer, happier lives.
*”Flow” is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of the “in the zone” state of mind that occurs when challenge of a task is balanced with the skill of the performer.
Christakis, N. (2010, June). Nicholas Christakis: Hidden influences of social networks
[Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/nicholas_christakis_how_social_networks_predict_epidemics
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Cuddy, A. (2012, June). Amy Cuddy: Your body shapes who you are
[Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Gendlin, E. (1978). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
Longden, E. (2013, February). Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head
[Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/eleanor_longden_the_voices_in_my_head
McGonigal, K. (2013, June). Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend
[Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
McGonigal, K. (2014, January 8). The science of willpower: Kelly McGonigal on why it’s so dang hard to stick to a resolutions
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Reisel, D. (2013, February). Daniel Reisel: The neuroscience of restorative justice
[Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_reisel_the_neuroscience_of_restorative_justice?awesm=on.ted.com_pkLe
Shaikh, A. (2012, June). Alanna Shaikh: I’m preparing for Alzheimer’s
[Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/alanna_shaikh_how_i_m_preparing_to_get_alzheimer_s