I am sitting in a space with high ceilings and walls of windows. Most of the wood tables and chairs are empty. Light is pouring in. Outside the window is a clear blue sky and the hum of cars whizzing by on the road.
My intention in this moment is to sift through the maze of competing thoughts and ideas currently whirring through my mind, settle on one topic, write a short article, then move on to other work.
As I sit in the wicker chair trying to gather my thoughts to write, I notice a gripping in my chest, a lump coming up in my throat, and a tightening of my left hip flexor.
It’s the fight-or-flight response. It squeezes the well dry.
What’s Your Optimal Working Environment?
Bright open spaces with lots of natural light. A sunny day. People around, but not too crowded.
Typifally this is the type of environment I find best suited to doing my writing, creating and thought work — the work Cal Newport calls “deep work.”
In theory, I would be diving right in.
Alas, we don’t live in theory. We live in practical realities of sharing public spaces with other people, whose energy we cannot control.
Something is causing my body to react in fear.
What is causing my body to go into fight-or-flight mode?
Any number of internal or external stimuli can evoke the fear response in the body.
I check in, starting with the internal:
Am I hungry? No. I just ate lunch.
Do I have a fear of the work? Sometimes that might be the case, but it is not at play right now.
Do I feel pressed for time? Another frequent issue, but not today. I have plenty of time before my next appointment.
After a quick scan around the room, I hit on the culprit.
Two tables over from me sit a man and woman with a small child. The woman is on her phone, having a heated conversation that is filled with tension and aggravation.
After hanging up the phone she turns to the man and continues in her same tone. She is angry and upset. Indignant and fired up about something.
About what? I have no idea.
She speaks in a language that I don’t understand.
Then how do you know she is angry and upset?
Energy is Stronger Than Words
Words form only a small percentage of our communication.
I may not know the content of her conversation, but I know the context and emotion.
I know because I can see it in her face and body language and I can hear it in her tone.
Most crucially, I know because I can feel her emotion in my body.
What we can see or hear form only small percentage of what impacts our environment and our experience.
I can feel it even without seeing or hearing her.
I turn on my earphones and play my writing music — a soothing playlist of soundtracks without words that calms my nervous system.
With the volume turned up, I can no longer hear her.
I close my eyes and turn my attention inward. For added measure, I turn my body and head toward the window so that I’m facing away from her.
In this position, I cannot see her.
Music on. Eyes closed.
I breathe into my body, paying careful attention to the subtle shifts in sensation, especially at my hips, heart, and throat.
The shifts are subtle. Bringing them into focus is a skill I practice daily.
I feel the inner gripping abate. Curious, I open my eyes and glance over at the other table. The woman has stopped speaking. Her face looks more relaxed.
I close my eyes again and continue to breathe.
Suddenly I feel the gripping return. I open my eyes and glance over. She is again animated and tense.
I continue this experiment for the next few minutes.
Each time I notice an ease of the gripping, I glance over to see that she has stopped talking.
Each time the gripping tightens, I open my eyes to find her speaking.
This is Energy
This is energy, and it is contagious.
Some of us are more sensitive to it, and therefore more aware of it in our environment.
But nobody is immune.
Shifting the Energy
For years, I felt these energy shifts as sudden shifts in my emotional state or mental focus but didn’t understand what caused them.
Once I gained awareness of the subtleties of how my system responds to the energy of my environment, I gained the power to create the space I need for myself and to produce my best work.
If her tension and stress can fill the space and invade my body, my love and compassion can fill the space and invade her body.
Instead of my hyper-sensitivity being a curse, I can use it as a gift for myself and others.
I close my eyes again and focus on shifting the tense energy, in myself and in the space.
Soon enough, they leave the space. I bask in the silence.
Are you highly sensitive to the energy in your environment? Please share in the comments!