Cycles of Breath and Feedback

Context: this was a very stream-of-consciousness post, tapping into something I had just learned when I wrote it, yesterday. I don’t necessarily think that what I suggest here makes sense for everyone. But it spoke something really valuable to me, and I suspect there will be others who deeply appreciate it as well.

Today, my friend Matt and I found ourselves in a particular head-space as well as an intense and exciting conversation where we were speeding up, and were continually needing to remind ourselves to take a breath. I found each breath so powerfully pleasant that it made for a really interesting feedback loop. Note that all uses of “breath(e)” here refer to the act of consciously, mindfully, taking a breath.

I’m going to invite you to do that now, as you read this.



The “take a breath” piece of feedback is part of a much larger energy-awareness thing I’ve been working with for a long time—it’s connected with againstness and so on as well. Essentially, I’ve been working to overcome an experience I’ve sometimes had of myself where I’ve gotten slightly caught up in my own thoughts and slightly worked up, while interacting with people, in ways that have felt disconnecting and unpleasant for them. And in general, when people have given me feedback about this, I’ve had largely positive reactions in response.

What I realized today though, was that it could be even more positive. Or perhaps we might say positive “sooner”.

This is a topic for another post, but I want to briefly present a model I’ve been using for awhile to capture the process of human interaction with the world.

  • sensation: the raw sensory signals that we receive, after just the bare minimum of processing from the visual cortex or whatever. We can access this, but most of us usually don’t, instead being much more aware of our…
  • perception: the basic categories we draw experiences into. What we notice. What we don’t. What relations or causal connections we understand into things at a low level. These form the basis for our…
  • interpretation: the more conscious act of making meaning from what we’re experiencing, and understanding it. Modelling it. This interpretation will generate some…
  • feeling/thought: I’m approximately using “feeling” to denote non-verbal responses here, and “thought” to denote verbal or procedural responses, perhaps to those feelings or just directly. Based on how we feel about this interpretation, we will have an…
  • intention: a way to respond to our surroundings that makes sense given our understanding of them.
  • action: the action will be the desired execution of the intention, though may get distorted by other factors. This action then produces new sensations, and the cycle begins again.



So, I had been having very positive interpretations of people giving me feedback on the intensity of my energy, and (as the feedback loop tightened) it was starting to slide into the perception level. What happened today was that those feelings of delight with the feedback were shoved all the way to the edge of perception, right next to sensation. My original understanding of why this was occurring was that breathing was so clearly a good idea, that I was always glad to hear it. Oh, and also that it was never “now you breathe because you’re getting worked up” but a sense of everyone inviting everyone to breathe, because the system as a whole is gaining tension.

While writing this post, I made the additional realization that there’s an obvious conditioning component: breathing, especially in this context, feels so immediately good that when the other person invites you to breathe, that invitation gets strongly, strongly associated with the good feels of taking the breath.

Two thoughts emerged around this:

  1. How can we tighten the feedback loops so that this happens automatically?
  2. How could we make all feedback feel this good?

1. How can we tighten the feedback loops so that this happens automatically?

Matt is also a polyphasic sleeper, so I made the analogy to him with polyphasic sleeping and naps. When you have a good sleep cycle going, you don’t nap because you’re tired. You’re not tired. You just nap anyway and then you don’t get tired.

Similarly, I proposed, our goal dynamic is one where we don’t breathe because we’re wired. We’re not wired. We just breathe anyway and then we don’t get wired.

I made another analogy: to a car’s gas pedal and cruise control. Regularly reminding ourselves to breathe is cruise control, because it will maintain us at approximately the right place. But (in 2014) cruise control doesn’t achieve the same stability that you can get by being a skilled, practiced driver, because the cruise control can only respond to a hill once you’re on it. So you slow down a little bit as you start to ascend the hill. Whereas a skilled driver will subtly accelerate into the hill, for a driving experience that’s actually even smoother than the automation, because the driver has the ability to anticipate the hill.

The skilled driver does not have to use a lot of conscious attention to accelerate into the hill: it just happens. We want to become skilled breathers such that the breath just happens without us needing to remind each other.

2. How could we make all feedback feel this good?



It’s a tall order, perhaps, but what would that actually entail?

  1. One thing that’s probably going to be necessary is for it to be feedback for the system as a whole, rather than for an individual. A “this whole thing isn’t working right now” rather than “what you’re doing isn’t working”. In many cases, it may be that the simplest solution looks approximately like one person just changing their behaviour (e.g. lowering their voice) but it feels important to recognize that the feedback exists within the system as a whole.

  2. However, people try to get at that, very naively, by pointing at “indoor voice”. They’re speaking to (and of) the context. But so often that has a quality of blame anyway, and there’s a certain self-righteousness, or a wanting to protect what you understand to be the nature of things. Maybe the person’s louder voice does somehow make sense. I mean, in most cases probably not, but the part of the system giving feedback into the rest of the system needs to be holding the whole thing without a sense of blame. That the person (or system-part) they’re giving feedback to… isn’t themselves the problem.

  3. A third piece that seems really core is knowing the other person wants the feedback. This was so utterly true with the breathing thing because it was evident how delightful it was for all involved. It’s much less true elsewhere! In fact, in many cases this just isn’t true. But I think we often fear the other person being upset by our feedback more than the other person actually is. Or at least, I’ve noticed that happening many times with me. Again, to use the voice volume thing again, I was once at a dinner party, and someone asked me if I wouldn’t mind speaking quieter, with a pained expression on his face. The pain seemed to be not so much the pain of my loud voice (though he did express that it was painful, not just annoying) but the pain of having to give me that feedback (fearing indignation or something from me perhaps).

When the person giving the feedback is cringing from it, it can make it hard to receive it cleanly, because it can create a feeling of need, for the person/system receiving the feedback, to reassure the person giving the feedback that “yes, their feedback was appreciated, and no I’m not mad that you asked, in fact I’m glad, I like feedback” etc. Which might be necessary the first few times but we want to build towards a place where that’s part of the common set of assumptions.

  1. With the breath, the first few times the others would thank the one who invited all to breathe. But eventually it was happening so often (every sentence or two on average) that the thanks no longer made sense. There was just a flow. In the same way that in team sports, you rarely thank someone for making a nice pass to you. There’s important stuff to be done, and the person who passed already knows that you appreciate it. So that’s a fourth thing, which is a sense of flow and a not needing to respond directly to the feedback but just to receive it and use it.

  2. Continuing the sports analogy, a fifth thing: a shared sense of purpose. On a team as such, members all have the same goal, in many cases with literal goalposts. Though even within a team, there maybe continuously-changing and varied perspectives on how to best achieve that goal. So it’s not just that you need a shared purpose, but you also need a shared sense that each person is acting upon a coherent and valid model for how that goal might be achieved, and a certain amount of trust in the quality of others’ thinking about this.

As for how to create all of this, well, that’s a much bigger question. There’s a hint of it in this post.

A final breath

I’m reminded of a story where a fellow has several men on his talk show, and at one point out of the blue he asks all of them to stand up and turn around, and then to zip up their flies. Of course, only one man’s fly was actually down, but the host managed to avoid singling that person out by having everyone perform the gesture. Similarly, at any given moment some people may need that breath more than others, and yet by inviting the system as a whole to take a breath, it takes the pressure off of individuals. And it has a stabilizing function. Like the analogy I drew to polyphasic: you don’t just breathe because you’re getting tense. You’re not tense. You breathe anyway and then you don’t get tense.

Returning one’s attention to the breath, as meditators know, can have a powerful effect on many other parts of one’s system. It can increase awareness of proprioception—where in space is your body? It also tends to get you out of thoughts the past and future, and into the present moment.

Taking a slow deep breath has a relaxing effect, causing a shift from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) with its stress and againstness and cortisol and feelings of self-righteousness… to the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) with its relaxation and togetherness and repair and feelings of empathy.

This means that maybe in many cases, we don’t even need to offer more specific feedback to people in an intense moment. Maybe we just need to invite everyone present to take a long, slow, deep breath together. As often as necessary.

Do it until the next person who starts speaking does so from a place of calmness and aliveness and presence and connection… a place that everyone is really excited to engage with and listen to.

And… if we do this enough, maybe it’ll start happening automatically, so that our conversational energy will be self-regulating, and we can actually focus our attention on the matters at hand.


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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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1 Comment

hamnox » 27 Nov 2014 » Reply

Many insight. So breath. Wow.

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