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Would it surprise you to learn that to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, you need to get up and leave the room? A walk in the woods will help you finish your novel? Humming can make you a better tennis player? Or completely giving up is the way to succeed? In The Breakout Principle, the bestselling author of The Relaxation Response delivers the ultimate self-help principle — simple instructions to activate a powerful biological trigger that converts conflict and confusion into clarity and extraordinary ...
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Would it surprise you to learn that to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, you need to get up and leave the room? A walk in the woods will help you finish your novel? Humming can make you a better tennis player? Or completely giving up is the way to succeed? In The Breakout Principle, the bestselling author of The Relaxation Response delivers the ultimate self-help principle — simple instructions to activate a powerful biological trigger that converts conflict and confusion into clarity and extraordinary performance, a state athletes refer to as "the zone." More than three decades ago, Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School began research into why some people are devastated by stress while others thrive, turning it into brilliant achievement. Now The Breakout Principle reports the discovery of an easy-to-access inner switch that increases mental function, enhances creativity and productivity, maximizes athletic performance, and enriches spiritual life. The same internal mechanism that improves a tennis serve or golf putt strengthens your speaking skills, makes you a better negotiator, and fosters inner peace and belief.
Chapter One: Powering the Breakout
What Is a Breakout?
Have you ever noticed that self-improvement books, tapes, and programs often promise the moon, but then don't deliver?
* Perhaps no matter how hard you study and practice, they just don't help you at all.
* Or maybe they work, but only for a limited time. Either they - or you - lack staying power.
* Or you are wrestling with some deep fear, grief, or other trauma - and the program doesn't take your concern into account.
* Or a particular self-help program may prove useful, but you still feel shortchanged because you need improvement in several areas - such as playing golf, public speaking, and developing a consistent prayer life. Yet you lack the time or inclination to concentrate on more than one routine at a time.
Most people have had such feelings and have wistfully concluded that what's really needed is an ultimate self-help principle. In the best of all worlds, you might like to find a single, one-size-fits-all solution to your personal needs andaspirations - a panacea that would combine every personal improvement concept into one all-encompassing, easily accessible formula. Also, ideally, this single concept would infuse you with the personal discipline to stick with the program year after year, as you transform your life for the better.
If you've ever found yourself longing for the self-help program to end all self-help programs, I have good news. After my more than thirty years of research at the Harvard Medical School, I've discovered that a fundamental self-transforming principle does indeed exist - a principle that has been firmly established in exciting new studies on the molecular, biochemical, and neurological levels. What's more, the benefits - which reach well beyond traditional notions of self-help and have the potential to revolutionize your entire life - can be accessed through a simple but extremely powerful concept that I call the Breakout Principle.
So What Exactly Is the Breakout Principle?
In a nutshell, here is our basic working definition:
The Breakout Principle refers to a powerful mind-body impulse that severs prior mental patterns and - even in times of great stress or emotional trauma - opens an inner door to a host of personal benefits, including
* greater mental acuity
* enhanced creativity
* increased job productivity
* maximal athletic performance
* spiritual development
The most significant phrase in the above definition is "severs prior mental patterns." Many if not most of the problems we face in terms of blocked creativity and productivity, subpar athletic performance, flawed health, or even stunted spirituality can be traced back to unresolved destructive or negative thought patterns - such as nagging anxieties, stress-related emotional baggage, or circular, obsessive "mental tapes."
But there's more. You can actually learn to turn on a natural inner switch to sever those past mental patterns and activate Breakouts that will transform your daily life. My investigations, which have been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, have convinced me that this accessible, biological-medical "trigger" can be used to power up creativity, deep philosophical insights, stress-reduction responses, and top-notch professional performance.
Learning to activate this trigger can also provide you with what superior athletes call the physiology of zoning, or getting in the zone. In postcompetition interviews, world-class baseball sluggers "in the zone" have reported that 95-mile-per-hour fastballs seemed to be moving in slow motion. Professional tennis players have said that their opponent's bullet serves seemed the "size of basketballs." And top basketball players have reported that when they shoot, they somehow know they are unable to miss.
These almost mystical mind-sets - which typically involve a sense of invulnerability or perfection, effortless activity, or extreme clarity of thought - certainly aren't limited to superior sports achievement. Public speakers, writers, and other professionals who have entered into similar high-performance states have described their experiences in similar terms.
In many ways, then, the Breakout concept does promise to open the door to an ultimate self-help principle that spans the secular to the spiritual. But to understand how the abstract definition applies in a real-life situation, let's consider the rather unusual creative experience of a top management consultant whom we'll call Jason.
The Needlepoint School of Management Consulting
Jason was facing one of the toughest challenges of his career. A leading management consultant, he had been asked by a major U.S. corporation to take charge of the search for a new chief executive officer. But the problem was particularly difficult and multifaceted.
Several top executives in the company were vying for the CEO position, and two had let it be known that they expected to quit if they weren't selected. Opinions on the board of directors diverged radically. Stockholders had even divided into factions over the pending succession - they knew that the value of their portfolios might be seriously damaged by the wrong choice.
Unfortunately, there was no clear front-runner. Even after exhaustive analyses by Jason and his firm, including numerous reports from a leading executive headhunter, the picture remained murky.
"To use a grammatical image, it's a compound-complex problem," Jason complained to a confidant. "Extensive research - but no solution. No obvious heir apparent."
So what was required to move the consulting forward?
"I need a 'shazam,' " Jason said. "A brilliant way out of my pickle. All the analysis and detailed matrices - all the research in the world isn't going to help now. Forget additional lists. No more pros and cons. The time's arrived for needlepoint."
Needlepoint was Jason's favorite way to escape the day's frustrations. Just as important, the pastime often helped him "think outside the box" - and come up with million- or billion-dollar solutions.
So that day he left the office building, settled down in his hotel room, and pulled out his latest needlepoint canvas - a cover for a pillow that he was doing in petit point. (Petit point, for the uninitiated, is needlepoint that requires relatively small stitches - for Jason, usually about twenty-four per inch.)
During his career, Jason had learned that monumental amounts of research were necessary to move toward a solution. But after finishing all the hard, plodding research and analysis, Jason often hit an inner wall that intense work and thought couldn't penetrate. In many ways, his experience provided a classic illustration of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which, as we'll see in Chapter 2, says that efficiency increases with stress up to a point. But if stress continues after that point, efficiency will begin to decline steadily.
Although Jason had heard that traditional relaxation techniques were supposed to help control stress, he knew he wasn't the "meditator type." Still, he had found that through needlepoint, he could control his stress and position himself to receive a "shazam."
As it happens, Jason was in good company. A feature in the Boston Globe (January 31, 2002, H1, H4), published long after he had embarked on his petit point, disclosed that the male knitting underground included such notables as Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe; Ethan Zohn, winner of the CBS Survivor: Africa contest; fashion designer Bob Mackie; and network TV executive Stu Bloomberg.
One reason for the surge in male knitting, the Globe surmised, was "a need for stress relief during anxious time" (H4) - which was at least part of the reason Jason pursued petit point. But the consultant was mainly interested in that shazam.
Seeking the Shazam
"The insight has to come from outside," Jason explained. "It's absolutely essential for me to get away from the job and coworkers. Put myself in a position where my mind can roam around in a completely different space. The best way for me to shift gears is needlepoint."
In particular, he had found that when he was working on a background canvas, with only one color and one type of stitch, the work was highly repetitive. Row after row, he executed exactly the same finger movements. As a result, he could "zone out." Most important of all, he could break all previous trains of thought - and let his mind wander and hover freely, over this or that.
"That's when I often get my shazam," he said.
But unlike the old superhero Captain Marvel, who had employed the magic word in the comic books Jason had read as a youth, the consultant knew intuitively that it was virtually impossible to mandate a shazam. He couldn't force a brilliant insight. Instead, he had to release any preconceived agenda and be perfectly willing to emerge on the other side of the stitching without any new insight.
"First of all, it's best for me to forget the problem - just let my mind zero out and become a blank," he said. "I'll allow myself to get carried away with mindless repetition. Focus on nothing but those stitches, doing one after the other. Then, the solution may drift into my mind."
If that happened, he would "float or hover above the facts. But I won't review them in detail. I'll just watch them, hold them in my head."
On this occasion, Jason settled into a comfortable chair in his hotel room and began to stitch a petit point background. As he labored quietly for about fifteen minutes, the activity lulled him into a kind of trance. Random thoughts about the CEO issue drifted into his mind - and without warning, a solution burst forth.
Jason suddenly saw an elegant way to fit together all the difficult, moving parts in the selection process. He concluded that a senior executive with nearly fifteen years in the company and who was only a couple of years from retirement should be given the CEO position. That would satisfy a board faction that wanted him in the top slot. The move would also assuage fears of stockholders and securities analysts who were worried about the continuity of the firm's policies.
Another leading candidate - a senior executive with the company known for his sophisticated, continental tastes - would be offered the position as head of the company's European operations. Given his predilections, this man seemed quite likely to accept the overseas job.
The third main candidate, who was currently working with another company, was in many ways the strongest of all. He would be brought in as second-in-command. Then, when the newly installed CEO retired after two years, he would move up into the top spot.
Finally, the fourth main candidate, a young female executive, was favored strongly by some on the board. At the same time, others felt she was not quite seasoned enough. So she would be moved up to third-in-command. This would position her to take over after about ten years - when the second CEO retired.
By deftly moving these executive "chess pieces" around, Jason saw that all the strong candidates could become a vital part of the company for the foreseeable future, with the skills of each fully utilized. Also, none would be sent a signal that he or she was being pushed out or passed over. The result would be a stronger company than now existed, with the CEO succession settled for years to come. Having the major outlines of his solution in mind, Jason was now ready to plunge back into the high-pressured corporate environment and hammer out the details.
Although this unusual idea-generating technique worked well for Jason, the same approach obviously won't fly for those who lack a passion for needlepoint. Fortunately, there are other ways to trigger Breakouts and their creative benefits - not only in business but also in sports, the arts, religion, and an almost limitless range of other pursuits.
The Incredibly Broad Range of the Breakout
The Breakout phenomenon has emerged in such wildly different circumstances as these:
* Lisa, an avid tennis player, typically played at the top of her game during most of a match - then fell apart.
In the early games, she often found herself playing with effortless, winning strokes. But in the last point or two, when the final outcome was on the line, she hit easy balls out and double-faulted when she was serving for the match. By using a variation of the Breakout mechanism, she was able to stay "in the zone" even when the pressure was greatest.
* Rebecca, a novelist, periodically found herself confronting seemingly insuperable roadblocks in her plots.
To break through a barrier that was preventing her from getting one of her characters out of a tight spot, she resorted to her usual method of triggering creativity: she stopped work, donned her sneakers, and walk-jogged to a favorite seaside vista near her home. As she strolled and gazed out over the water, an insight popped into her mind that enabled her to make significant progress in her plotting. Without knowing the scientific explanation, she had made effective use of the Breakout.
* Ted's primary goal in life was to deepen his spiritual awareness - but the stresses of life kept getting in the way.
Ted found that his faith fell short in helping him manage the cares of daily life. But a study of works by the Counter-Reformation mystic Archbishop Fenelon and St. Augustine caused him to revamp his approach. He determined that when he confronted a crisis in his family, banking job, or volunteer activity, he would "let go" of his worries and accept the difficulty as an opportunity to cultivate his prayer life. As a result, his anxieties began to give way to increasing inner peace.
* Sheila, who was extremely sensitive to stress, had chronic high blood pressure averaging 160/95, a level serious enough to require medical intervention.
Dietary manipulation and counseling for high-stress family problems failed to bring her readings down to acceptable levels. So her physician prescribed antihypertensive medication - an ACE inhibitor - to correct the problem. But then Sheila began to practice a daily mind-calming technique that enabled her to cut her drug dosage significantly.
Specifically, the first thing every morning, she would spend ten to fifteen minutes focusing sequentially on tensing and then relaxing every main muscle group in her body, beginning with her feet and moving up through her legs, trunk, arms, and neck. Also, whenever she experienced a tense situation during the day, she would concentrate on breathing regularly and silently, repeating the word peace on the outbreath.
Excerpted from The Breakout Principle by Herbert Benson Copyright © 2003 by Herbert Benson. Excerpted by permission.
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