What a concert pianist, a high-wire walker, and a hypnotherapist can teach you about getting unstuck
3 hours ago·4 min read
Unthink your way to action
There is no ‘why?’
Before she goes out on stage, the French concert pianist Hélène Grimaud gets stage fright. It manifests in what she calls the “adrenalin phenomenon.” Her heart races. Blood drains from her extremities. Her breath shortens. Her body thinks for her and, like a scratched record, goes over and over the same groove of fear.
Stress, panic, and inaction are often byproducts of anxious rumination — the playing and replaying of thoughts. Think about an event or action that you’re dreading, whether that be a work deadline or, say, a major political election. Notice how the very thought of that stressor makes you freeze in your tracks. Maybe your heartbeat quickens, like Grimaud’s pre-concert adrenaline phenomenon. It becomes difficult to think about anything else.
Grimaud learned through trial and error that sheer willpower is next to useless for breaking the cycle of rumination. Instead, she pours her effort into completely emptying her lungs and drawing large belly breaths to replace the air. She fixes her attention on three things, always the same ones. She concentrates on the first, then the second, then all three together, like the three cherries in a slot machine. In her memoir, Wild Harmonies, Grimaud explains: “This technique draws me into the rhythm, until I reach illumination.” Her mind and body get out of her way, and she’s able to execute her performance with ease.
Grimaud’s strategy echoes a theme I’ve observed time and again in my many years of studying, teaching, and writing about philosophy: When your mind gets stuck in a ruminative loop, you jeopardize your ability to achieve forward motion. The solution, counterintuitively, is to think less.
A Better Way to Pay Attention
Try less hard
Unthink your way to action
Some people might view Grimaud’s relaxation technique as a form of self-hypnosis. Others might call it meditation. Whatever the preferred terminology, the basic premise is to suspend the effort of thinking — both body and mind — and focus on the breath. Breathing well, breathing slowly and deeply, as a way of reestablishing the flow of action.
The late French psychoanalyst, philosopher, and hypnotherapist François Roustang encouraged his patients in distress to use an approach similar to Grimaud’s, guiding them through the following three exercises:
1. Fix your gaze on one specific detail of a nearby object — for example, the tip of a pencil, the handle of a cup, or the pattern on a cushion. The aim is to isolate what you’re looking at from its context, banishing everything else into the background haze.
2. Transport yourself in your imagination to somewhere you love. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s a place you associate with pleasant feelings.
3. In your mind, narrate a vague journey to an unspecified destination. In one of his writings, Roustang provides a sample script for this exercise: “Take a path you don’t know, to reach an unknown place, to do something you’re incapable of doing.” Using language in this way means you can’t visualize anything precise, and this is exactly the point of the exercise: to reestablish a sense of what’s possible.
By practicing techniques like this, you can learn to interrupt stressful thoughts anytime you have to act.
Or better yet, don’t let those thoughts in at all.
There is no ‘why?’
After French high-wire walker Philippe Petit came down from a 45-minute balancing act between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, he listed his greatest obstacle as reflection on what he was accomplishing. “Every thought on the wire leads to a fall,” Petit writes in his memoir. Stop looking down; look straight out ahead. It’s an apt metaphor for transcending our own, self-imposed limitations.
Thinking is the enemy. It means moving out of the moment to look at yourself acting, leaving the point of action and projecting yourself into the past or the future. And projecting yourself when you are on a rope means falling.
How does Philippe Petit manage not to give in to fear, or the very thought of fear? It’s simple: He doesn’t fight it. He neither tries to pick up this thought nor moves forward with it. He recognizes its existence, then casts it aside.
“The feeling of a second of immobility — if the wire grants it to you — is an intimate happiness,” Petit writes. “If no thought came to disturb this miracle, it would go on and on forever.”