Coaching from the paradigm of systematic correspondence: the heart and the mind by Simon Darnton

Credit: Photo by  Marko Horvat  on  Unsplash

Credit: Photo by Marko Horvat on Unsplash

In the second part of this series I described how, to get a sense of this Chinese (and South East Asian) way of thinking, I had to learn a way to park my intellect. Not only that, I had to drop this idea I held about patterns appearing to be consistent and coherent - in my normal reasoned sense anyway.

The Heart and The Mind

There's no question that my life experience had yielded the development of a comfort in being in my head. I spent a lot of time there and had become pretty adept at using my intellect, especially when it came to doing my work.

Now I'd found a different space to be which necessarily involved a bit more of an inner journey, or perhaps more of an inner re-appraisal of my experience, looking at it and getting to know it from a different perspective. Because at the end of the day, my overall experience hadn't actually changed, apart from becoming aware of and engaging with a greater spectrum of it.

This brought me into a new dimension of Chinese thought which will momentarily take us away from my previous analogies with nature. It's the concept of heart-mind which is in this paradigm is central to how we as humans function in the world.

Given my typical western predisposition, I was used to referring to mind and body as if they're separate entities where the body is typically considered to be somewhat subordinate to the mind. I'd also learned a lot that made me consider the seat of consciousness and a whole host of other inner workings, such as feelings and emotions to be in the brain somewhere.

Growing fields of research such as Embodied Cognition are changing these views slightly and are in some respects taking some steps closer to the Chinese Heart-Mind concept. This is particularly in the case of considering our behaviour not to arise out of the brain (or mind) but out of a complex interaction between the brain, nervous system (whole body) its capabilities and opportunities afforded in the environment. There is also the growing number of approaches to somatic work to get us into our bodies, often referred to as embodied too.

Whilst there may be some similar strands between these 'newer' approaches in the West and the Chinese thinking, I can't stress enough how fundamentally different they really are, which is why I want to raise this now and avoid placing it into a space where it doesn't belong.

The Chinese Heart-Mind (Xin)

Some key points about the Heart-Mind function:

  • The Heart-Mind is the ruler and commander, taking charge of everything we do.

  • The Heart-Mind represents a direct connection with the environment. It is interwoven with and inseparable from mind/body/person/environment (social and natural)/universe.

  • The Heart-Mind does not create knowledge through reason, but through an active relationship with the social and natural environment (knowledge is 'out there' as well as 'in here').

  • Thinking is feeling and feeling is thinking.

To illustrate, here is a translation from one of the classics on the process of 'becoming' a person (and learning):

'What responds to the environment is called xin (heart-mind).
What xin brings out is called yi (imagery).
What yi stores is called zhi (memory; memorization).
Because of zhi, knowledge is reorganized.
This is called si (thinking; reflection).
Because of si, one thinks for the future.
This is called lu (strategy; plan).
Because of lu, one makes decisions and takes actions.
This is called zhi (wise; wisdom).'

Neijing:Lingshu as translated in Zhang (2007, p. 41)

Thinking is feeling/Feeling is thinking

I'm going to focus on this concept of thinking as feeling and feeling as thinking in this part.

In my previous life, despite training as a humanistic counsellor, I'd been a bit of a cognitive school of thought fan. I enjoyed the psycho-technological analogies and I thought it worked quite well. I had also undertaken lots of training in aligned areas like becoming a fully fledged trainer in NLP.

When I did my research into elite motorcycle racers, which was to be the initial undoing of my fanaticism shall we say, I came across some interesting things that I couldn't get a handle on.

This motorcycle racer research I did was both formal and informal, some of which was done as part of my Master’s in Psychological Coaching. The main body of this research,  I did partly as a result of accidental happenings and curiosity.

Motorcycle racing has been as much of my Heart-Mind (Xin) as Tai Chi probably. I’ve lived a lot of my life on motorcycles. I used to race. I used to coach motorcycle racers in riding technique with the world’s foremost coaching organisation of its kind, the California Superbike School. In this role, I was an on-track riding coach, riding the circuits with my coachees to observe and demonstrate the techniques live on the motorcycle, so that was an amazing privilege and experience. My balance disorder put an end to this, but my interest in the psychology of motorcycle racers had been sown. So while I was off ill, I maintained some links with the scene. One thing led to another. As I asked some bizarre questions of motorcycle racers, I got some equally intriguing answers. Suddenly I was sucked into the fascinating world of elite motorcycle racers’ heads. It was an amazing blessing to me because it gave me something to keep my sanity during some very dark years of experiencing a paradoxical incapacity caused by a balance dysfunction. If time is the appropriate measure of experience, I’ve now spent probably 16 years in this particular domain.

The motorcycle racers I studied to begin with were world-class. Then, I was asked some questions by active amateur racers experiencing frustration with their racing and my answers seemed to help them. Things went from there.

After a few false starts with my research, especially around how I dealt with what racers were describing to me,  I began to realise that I would be wrong to try and translate what they were sayinginto alternative terminology.  What they were telling me was literally what they were experiencing.

One of the main threads of their experience was when they described the nature of their thinking while racing. They were telling me what they're thinking, which could be the same thoughts, but they'd describe how those thoughts felt different to them. Fundamentally there was a different quality about them. For example, they could have a thought about passing an opponent on a particular corner that tells them it's time to make the pass. One quality of thought would yield a mistake, sometimes even a crash, and another quality of thought would yield a successful move. When we explored this, there was a consistent pattern about the feel of those thoughts.

When we explored other areas of action, there were similar patterns. For example, a world-class rider when testing his new bike, questions whether he can actually make it round the corners he entering at the speed he was entering them. Lacking in confidence is something we often think as a negative yet here there is a clear lacking in confidence without any negative affect.

I couldn't ignore this, nor could I ignore that when I explored changing the content of the thoughts with riders, I received a stern backlash. For example, narrating their way around the circuit, telling themselves what they needed to do when in a 'normal' thinking quality slowed them down considerably and yielded more mistakes. Using their natural riding thought brought speed and consistency back, yet in its own way it was telling them what to do and when.


Qualities of thought and thinking

So I began to explore the qualities of my thinking, particularly in relation to how I functioned. If I reconsider edmy thoughts to be feelings rather than thoughts, how does that change my experience of them? I noticed a significant and meaningful difference.

If I take a leaf out of the mindfulness book, and Tai Chi of course, and pay in the moment attention to my feelings, I can begin to describe them in lots of wonderful ways. I can usually identify their location somewhere in my body as well as their most apparent qualities, like sharp, fuzzy, hot, cold, heavy. Often I can sense whether they're moving or stagnant and with some I have access to even greater nuances. These qualities of feelings can lead me to be a certain way too. Like a rising pressure in my chest that has nowhere to go corresponds with a sense of frustration or a heavy lump descending in my stomach could be a sense of dread.

With thinking, it's easy to get caught up in the stream of thoughts - the content. Yet if instead I focus on the qualities, I can identify where they're coming from in my head. For example, whether they're light or heavy, do they flow or stutter, or they thin, thick, deep or light. For example, a thick and heavy feeling at the front of my head usually signifies that I'm thinking too hard about something and need to let it go for a bit!

To illustrate with the motorcycle racers, the thoughts that cause them problems typically came from the front of their head, they were more hurried, quick and somehow 'thoughtless' and pressured, with a sense of impatience and they felt unplanned. The qualities that were more reliable came from deep inside the head at the back, were quiet, assured, had gravitas and felt more rhythmical with a sense of clear calm waters and even though the action could be entirely unplanned due to the nature of what they were doing, the thoughts felt like they were planned, giving them more time. To use a phrase from a martial artist somewhere, it was like being in a place of ‘thought without thought.’ These thoughts also helped them to feel relaxed, calm, and breathe with more fulfilment.

Five-phase theory and the qualities of thinking

In the Chinese way of thinking, the cosmos has a complex, systematic and dynamic structure. This dynamic structure is mirrored within each of us. This is the human microcosm.

In this sense everything that is human can be categorised in terms of this structure, including thoughts, feelings and emotions. And it was in this way that I found an entirely new way to systematically relate to thoughts and thinking according to this paradigm of systematic correspondence.

To be continued...

To connect with Simon Darnton


Simon Darnton works with leaders, entrepreneurs and executives who want to explore important questions, develop themselves or their organisations, and improve performance. He draws on a unique blend of business, psychology, and extreme sports experience, working in collaboration with clients to effectively navigate their personal and professional challenges. He holds an MA in Psychological Coaching. He also teaches Tai Chi Chuan.
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