Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #124 Living in the Learning Zone
About this episode

There are three zones we can inhabit. Two will shrink our lives and one will grow them. Learn the difference and how to stay in the sweet spot with this week’s Gathering Room!

Living in the Learning Zone

Martha Beck:

How is everybody? I am frazzled because we are doing some traveling. The pandemic was a time of no travel. I used to travel constantly and then it did happen, the pandemic, and we did not travel. And slowly, slowly since the pandemic, I’ve started traveling again, but not very much until now. Now it’s becoming a big overseas year where Roe’s folks are in Australia. We’re going to see them. I got invited to speak in Europe, we’re going to Africa. All the things. We’re going all over all the oceans. And I find myself in a deep and meditative freak out because here’s the thing, my comfort zone shrank when I was not traveling. Because I’m not one of those, I’m going to travel all my life. It doesn’t matter what they do to me. I’m not one of those people. I always was a bit nervous about travel. As I’m a homebody, I like to stay doing the things that I’m used to doing.

But I realized when I was 14 years old that every single day, I should do something that scared me at least a little or I would literally end up living in a box under the bed somewhere. So I learned at that age, that there are three zones to life and we’ve talked about this before. In one zone, the center, we are comfortable, it’s fine. That is our comfort zone.

Outside the comfort zone is what’s called the learning zone. That’s where you’re having to push yourself and make new connections in your brain and create new experiences and learn to cope with them. Roe, could you come check the… It says, my live video has ended on Facebook. So we’re out of our comfort zone here. We’re into the learning zone. Now outside of that, if you think of it like a bullseye, is the panic zone. Yeah, I’m calling it the panic zone.

Ro says she is there. She’s fully in the panic zone. So we’ve got a representation of the dog is in the comfort zone because he doesn’t know, I’m in the learning zone because I’m here doing this and Roe is in the panic zone trying to fix Facebook even as I speak.

So my point is, two of those zones will shrink your life and only one will make it grow bigger and richer. So the comfort zone will shrink your life, but so will the panic zone. So if I stay and never, ever travel again, not only will I be afraid to travel, but I’ll be afraid, gradually be afraid to go to … Well during the pandemic, I barely went to the store. So it became kind of an adventure to go to the store or have to go to the post office. How do I even do that? I don’t even remember how that works.

So your comfort zone, if you stay in it all the time will shrink and your life will get very tiny. But if you say, I’m just going to throw myself into the fire, I’m going to go do things that are incredibly hard and scary, I’m going to write an entire memoir on Facebook and just post it for the world to see and let the haters be haters, and you’re not ready for that, what will happen is that you’ll be so traumatized that you’ll snap back to the comfort zone and your brain will learn that challenge is devastating and you mustn’t do it.

So you have to stay in the middle zone, the learning zone and the Middle Way as the Buddha called it. I suppose that’s part of what he meant when he said the Middle Way. So if you push yourself a little out of your comfort zone but not into the panic zone, what happens is you do something that’s a little bit scary every day and then it becomes less scary. You have to repeatedly do it so your amygdala can just relax with it. So you have to go into the learning zone, a little bit outside your comfort zone and then relax. If you keep going and you exhaust yourself or you become truly terrified or something genuinely bad happens, there will be trauma, you’ll snap back to an even tighter grip in the comfort zone and it will be even harder to go into the learning zone.

So that’s all very well, it’s like I thought, well, I’ll just tell them all to do that. And then I thought, but you know what? Life does that for us. And it doesn’t always obey the rules that I have just set forth. Can you imagine? It’s so shocking. Life will take you out of your comfort zone and push you into a learning zone more often than it will shove you into your comfort zone. I mean, the pandemic was a really odd circumstance and sometimes we’re held in like that, but even then we were terrified. We were learning in a whole new way. So going through the learning zone is great and life will take you there, but sometimes life will push you beyond.

Often life will push you beyond the learning zone into the panic zone, and that will make your life smaller. So what do you do? What do you do when life has pushed you as far as your learning zone will go, and you really, really need to get back into the middle of the middle way without retreating all the way to your comfort zone, which will again, slow or shrink your life.

So going out and coming back shrinks your life, going out a little and staying until your amygdala calms down, that’s what grows your life. So how do you pull back from the panic zone when it looms? This is the question I’ve been asking myself as we get ready to travel, not only overseas, but with a two-year old who hat is basically like a cannonball with legs and a very, very strong set of opinions. And in fact, Roe came in a couple of days ago and Lila excited by all the commotion, decided not to take naps anymore. And naps were our one time to get things done, to record podcasts, to do our work, to write things. And Roe came into my room while I was working away and she just looked at me and she said, “she’s not napping.”

She has to nap. If she doesn’t nap, we are, well and truly screwed. And we both nearly went into the panic zone because we have a very, very small learning zone. Other people have harder things to deal with than the baby isn’t napping right now. That was enough to take us right to the edge of panic, but we could pull ourselves back. And I’ve been in truly life-threatening actually situations and I actually find this more useful when I’m really truly needing it, even when life in general gets difficult. So I started thinking, how do you pull back from the panic zone? And we were thinking about from pain to panic, what’s the center? And I kept thinking of these P words. So here’s the thing, first, you need a safe person. As a primate, you are one of the few animals in nature that when you need safety will run first not for a safe place, but to a safe person.

And you don’t need to have the Buddha or your best friend or your mother in the room. In fact, the person who comes to calm you, will usually be yourself. And if you can connect with the self that is at the center of your consciousness, that sees all the other parts with calm and peace, that you can just calm yourself down using what I call “kind internal self-talk.” I’ve told you this before, you just say “You’re okay, you’re all right. You’ve got this, you’ve done this before” or you haven’t done this before, but it will be okay.”

So you can be that person if it’s your pure self. If you can’t do that, you can imagine a person. And I was thinking about Victor Frankl who survived the in Auschwitz, partly by imagining, very vividly imagining, his wife present and some guard would be screaming at him and it was freezing. But in his mind, he was talking to her and he just kept talking to her. And he wrote that people in the camps who had a person in mind, they actually outlived people who couldn’t do that.

So you can use also audiobooks and songs, anything that has a soft, gentle voice that’s not only going to make you feel like there’s a person with you, but it will actually go to your, it goes right through the vagus nerve. Calm human voices go through the vagus nerve, straight down to our hearts, and to the place where we can be most calm. So a safe person in whatever form you can make that happen.

Next, it is nice to have a safe place. So again, usually we’re in safe places imagining that things could be dangerous. That if you think of most of your life, we’re either sitting somewhere as Byron Katie says, no matter what you do, you work and work and you always just end up sitting in a chair somewhere.

So we’re sitting in a chair or we’re lying on a bed or we’re walking down the street and we’re basically physically safe, but we’re imagining what could go wrong. So try to reverse that negativity bias. Even in a dangerous place, imagine what could go right. Or better yet don’t imagine at all. Shrink it down to the actual moment where you’re alive and stay alive. That’s what your brain is built to do. So one of the most relaxed places for me was when I was skiing, when it got dangerous at first I would tense up, which causes you to crash horribly. But if you’re in a dangerous position, you’ve just caught an edge and one ski is off the snow, you learn to go completely limp and that will put you back and physics will just bring you back into a place where you can absorb the shock.

I also learned this about getting injections and dental work and stuff. I used to tense up and it would really, really hurt, but then I would get really, really relaxed by imagining that I was in a very, very special place where I could just focus on what was right around, usually in nature. So make the safe place the inside of your mind in this moment. Either imagine a safer situation or be present in the situation as it is. Presence, presence, presence is what makes place happen.

And then I thought it could also help to have plants and pets since we’re on P words, because I walk out into the trees here in Pennsylvania and I swear to God they have an energy, they have a wisdom that just calms me right down and so do my dogs and so do even the birds and the chipmunks. When I used to meditate outside with the birds and the chipmunks and they would land on me, I would feel such a stillness coming from them, even in their quick little motions, in their psyches was a deep, deep sense of presence and peace that calmed me down.

And then in a final P, I thought about, was permission. Because mostly when we go into the panic zone, it’s when we want to react a certain way, but we don’t have permission to do it. We want to sob, we want to shake, we want to tell someone how scared we are and we hide that. We tamp it down. And what they found with people who go through trauma and do not allow themselves to shake or tremble or cry, is that they get PTSD, where people who have permission to shake, tremble, cry, complain, whatever it is, vent, if you give yourself permission to offload your anxiety with those physical and verbal mechanisms, then it goes out and you can come back to presence.

So you need a person, a place, a plant, a pet or permission, any permission to let yourself be. So the permission as you go into the permission, remember these things. Number one, lower your standards. The learning zone, if you’re headed toward the panic zone, this is no place for high standards. That’s why I do this live. I would end up perfecting and perfecting it and then I would never do it because I’d be too freaked out. So lower your standards and suddenly you’re back out of the panic zone into the learning zone. Roe came in after Lila had successfully learned to manipulate all the furniture in her room to try to open the windows and get out during her nap time, Roe just came in and said, “Yeah, she’s not napping, she’s never going to take a nap again.” And she had lowered her standards of how her day would go and it was working well. So surrender to whatever is happening, even if it’s not what you wanted.

Another thing is permission to self-regulate. A person with autism was telling me, or I think they prefer to be called an autistic person, that they finally gave themselves permission to do what they call stemming. So there are a number of things that you can do. Shaking your hands is one, and all of us are on sort of, there’s a very vast spectrum of how we self-regulate with simulation, but things like pacing can work. Anything rhythmic, rhythmic music. Some people prefer to move, others of us prefer to hunker down and be very still, but watch something getting done in a very soothing manner. My favorite, I’m not kidding, watching people mix paint online. There’s this joke about watching paint dry is the most boring thing in the world. I find it fascinating. So you can go and find like there’s also a man who makes pancakes that is just so relaxing to watch him. Find something online that allows you to self-regulate your emotions back from panicking into learning.

Finally, space out. Give yourself permission to be really spacey. Okay, you’ve been told to pay sharp attention and be on the ball. Keep your eye on the ball and keep it going. If you’re in danger, this is the time you really need to pay attention, sharply. No. If you’re going to the edge of the learning zone and you’re starting to panic, you want to broaden and soften your attention. So literally look at the whole scene as if everything in it is equal and let your eyes go soft. And this will cause your brain to come over from the left hemisphere where it’s wrapped up in anxiety, over into the right hemisphere where attention is very broad and connected and everything is softer.

And that little thing, other people will tell you, “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be paying sharp attention. You’re almost in danger.” No, that’s the time not to sharpen, but to soften your attention. And if you do this, you have that little journey that I’ve talked about so often. You go from surrender, in the place of permission, you go to surrender. From surrender, you can get to acceptance the way Roe did with Lila’s nap or lack thereof. From acceptance you can come into peace. That’s all right. It’s okay that I’m here at the edge of my learning zone and I’m kind of scared. Once you get to acceptance, you get to peace and peace is, did I just say that? I don’t know if I repeated that.

Anyway, once you get to peace, oh, that’s a nice place. You can sit there in the middle of chaos and be really quite still. And from there you can go to gratitude, which is gratitude for the little space of peace, which will make you feel so good when you’ve been almost at the edge of the panic zone. And from gratitude, you go to appreciation. Like, wow, I am crushing this. This is awesome. And from appreciation, you can get to joy and that’s where we always want to be, and that is where I am going today as I look at your questions, which always puts me in a wonderful mood.

Okay, Donna, “What if the panic zone is a place that motivates you to get stuff done? How do we allow ourselves to see the benefit of the learning zone [inaudible 00:16:46] also not trying to soothe with the comfort zone?” In the comfort zone, you’ll get bored eventually and you’ll want to take an adventure or life will hand you an adventure and then you won’t have a choice. That’s the nice thing about it. The panic zone is never motivating. That’s like saying, okay, I am going to punch you squarely in the nose every time you clean your living room. Isn’t that motivating? Doesn’t that just make you want to get going? No, it does not. It puts you back in the comfort zone. So you don’t say, if I don’t do this, I’ll go into a horrible panic and terrible things will happen. It is the opposite of motivation.

What you do is you say, I’m going to stay in the learning zone and I’m going to give myself permission to be with people who calm me, even in my imagination, in places that calm me with plants and animals and all the things that reset my system, that re-regulate my system. If you do that, that’s motivation. That calm easy space, watching the paint mixing online as a reward, really, really motivates me. I’m just grateful people put it online.

Tracy says, “Wonder brings you into the learning zone too, right?” Oh, that’s a good way to go, right? I remember once, maybe I shouldn’t admit this, ah, it’s over and I’m old. I was in Africa once, South Africa at Londolozi, and it was nighttime and right outside my door, which was a screen door, I heard something rustling and rustling and rustling and rustling and it just went on. And I got out of bed and I went over to the window, I looked up and this gigantic bowl, elephant was standing right there munching on some leaves, and I went, oh, like they’re dangerous animals. Don’t do this. I went into awe instead of fear, and I didn’t really value my life that much more highly than I valued the elephant.

So there came a moment when I left my comfort zone, I just slid open the door and went and stood by him, literally close enough to touch him. I knew he knew I was there. He seemed completely, completely peaceful, and that’s what I did, and I will never regret it because I lived that moment in such complete joy, like right there at the edge of too dangerous. Again, stupid thing to do. Don’t do that. Don’t do it. But wonder will take you into the learning zone and when it takes you into a place that you can look back on later and go, wow, that was, I probably shouldn’t have done that, but it was pure wonder that took me there. Wonder is a very good motivation. Yay.

So Nan says, “Let’s give it up for getting in nature for a while lately, digging in the dirt, planting, et cetera especially before making any decisions or opening my pie hole.” Thank you, Nan. That’s really a very good set of instructions for how to stay in the learning zone and calm and relaxed while also doing a task that makes you grow and it makes things grow. Fabulous way to go out and stay in the learning zone.

Jessica says, “Do you have a method of how to do this in a public setting? Can we do a little exercise internal without having to excuse ourselves to a quiet place?” Absolutely. Crowds and crowded places are very overstimulating to most of us. So you might get to the edge of your panic zone in a crowd. That’s what agoraphobia is all about. It means fear of the marketplace, but actually it’s fear of crowded spaces is usually the first way it manifests. So the way I always bring myself back from the panic zone in a crowded space is that I pull my attention inward and I imagine almost that my vision is going inward and down, so I’m focusing on my own center of gravity like my solar plexus and usually the eyes go to about three quarters and I look at something that’s right in front of me and then I broaden my attention.

So you can do it right now. Look at whatever’s in front of you if you’re looking at me on a screen or whatever. Don’t move your eyes, but allow everything else in your visual field to also come in by softening your attention and then turn your perception inward to your heart and watch it beat and then down to your solar plexus and just stay in the center. And that will usually create a little private space right in the middle of a crowded screaming hoard. I’ve tried this at sports complexes and other crowded places, and it works like a charm.

Steph says “Sometimes the panic zone comes on so quickly without much time or space. Is there a way to stop the panic from coming or is there always panic associated with going into the learning zone?” No, there isn’t panic always associated with it. Usually, and it’s really true, you want to head it off as it comes close, and if it comes on quickly, then you may just have an experience of relative trauma, whether it’s a genuine horrifying trauma or just, oh my gosh, I almost tripped and fell down the stairs or something like that.

There can be a, if you have that and your adrenaline’s up, that’s a time to immediately give yourself the comfort, the person, the place, the permission, the pets, the plants, whatever it was that scared you, pull back to your learning zone. Give yourself permission to shake through the trauma and you’ll end up not having to go back to your comfort zone to be safe. You’ll be end up staying in the learning zone, allowing your amygdala to calm down with the knowledge of what just happened, and then notice that, oh, I’m okay. I didn’t die. Kind internal self-talk becomes very important after a quick panic like that. You need to say, “It’s fine. Look, I did it. I lived through it and I’ve got you. I’ve got you self. We’re okay.” Kind internal self-talk. It’s always helpful.

[inaudible 00:23:24] says “With something like watching the paint work if your panic zone means you go into freeze, I often go right into freeze and I don’t know how to get out.” Well, the same things I’ve been talking about will actually get you out if you can do it. First thing is to find that safe person or place. And if you’re not in the physical proximity of them, you need to do it very energetically with your imagination. So there you sit and freeze and your brain is frozen for a little while, but if you start to breathe and relax, lower your breathing, then you can say, “Oh, okay, now I’m going to imagine the safest person in the world is with me. I’m going to imagine that the Buddha or Jesus is right here with me and I’m going to get really, really into my visualization, and I’m going to imagine that I’m in a very safe place and I am going to give myself permission now to come out of the freeze by shaking and crying.” All those things will help pull you back from the freeze into the learning zone.

Gail says, “I often think I should be able to handle more than I actually can, and I find myself in panic zones when I was shooting for the learning zone. Any advice?” Yeah, that’s great. You need to hit things a little bit with your car to find out exactly where the bumpers are, but you go slowly. That’s the point. If you hit it at 100 miles an hour, you can die. If you hit it at one mile an hour, you won’t even dent your car. You’ll just learn how big it is. So always edge out if you can. And if you find that you’ve jumped off a cliff and now you’re stuck with a panic zone situation, use these instructions. Go to the Ps, the safe person, the safe place, the safe pet, the safe plant, anything, and give yourself permission to freak out all the way back into the learning zone and stay there with the experience to allow your brain to say, “That happened, but it’s okay. That did happen. But I’m not back in my comfort zone. I’m here in the learning zone and I’m okay. I’m still safe.”

Finally, Rick says, “I am learning how to …” he says, “I’m learning how to quickly shift from fear to that space between my eyes to find peace whenever I need it. Practicing this is helping me a lot.” Thank you, Rick. That takes us right into the final minutes of our gathering room where we always do the space meditation. And when I said one of the things we need permission to do is to space out, part of it can be by broadening attention, but this method that we’re using every time we meet now, is even better. And that is for those of you who haven’t been with us before, we think about imagining the empty space in the atoms and molecules in parts of our own bodies.

So the first prompt, the most powerful question they’ve found is, let’s do it together now, can I imagine the distance between my eyes? This’ll take you right back to the learning zone. Can I imagine the distance between the top of my head and my heart? Can I imagine the space inside my chest? Can I feel the stillness under all the activity of my body and whatever’s around me? Can I hear the silence under every sound? Can I imagine the space inside every atom of my entire body? Can I imagine how that space goes on from within me to the edges of the universe without any disturbance? Can I imagine that I am always safe in this space?

Well, I certainly feel that every time we do it. I used to finish by cheering and shouting as I begin, but I find that when we do that meditation, it puts me in such a space of reverence and awe and gratitude for you, is just I become quiet. So I will be back broadcasting again in a few weeks. Until then, or if you’re listening on the podcast after this, you’ll find that it picks up after a few weeks. And I just want to say to everyone live or listening later, thank you so much for being here. I love you. The space that is within us connects us all, and we are all one. Mwah, mwah, mwah. Stay in your learning zone, not in your panic zone. Bye.

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