David speaks with Michael Ashcroft, a writer and Alexander Technique teacher who previously spent 10 years consulting on clean energy innovation.
A lot of Michael's work centres around helping people expand their awareness. He's written several essays and posts I've loved, particularly about the concept of grinding, and how paying attention to our awareness can help us maximise our creativity, productivity, posture and physical engagement.
They talked about:
💡 Decision-making in challenging situations
👨👩👧👦 How to make big life decisions
🤔 The Alexander Technique explained
🌟 Knowing and accepting life's possibilities
🧠 Attention, expanded awareness, and non-fixation
🌌 Expanded awareness vs. traditional meditation
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📹 Watch on Youtube
👤 Connect with Michael Ashcroft:
📄 Show notes:
0:00 | Intro
03:06 | Decision-making in challenging situations
06:11 | How to make big life decisions
11:19 | The Alexander Technique explained
19:54 | Knowing and accepting life's possibilities
25:11 | Attention, expanded awareness, and non-fixation
34:39 | Expanded awareness vs. traditional meditation
🗣 Mentioned in the show:
Jonny Miller | https://www.theknowledge.io/jonnymiller/
Frederick Matthias Alexander | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F._Matthias_Alexander
Richard Wiseman | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wiseman
The Luck Factor | https://amzn.to/3PpX1Qe
Six degrees of separation | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation
Dzogchen | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dzogchen
Hooked | https://amzn.to/3PtSU5w
Nir Eyal | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nir_Eyal
Sam Harris | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris
👨🏾💻 About David Elikwu:
David Elikwu FRSA is a serial entrepreneur, strategist, and writer. David is the founder of The Knowledge, a platform helping people think deeper and work smarter.
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[00:00:00] Michael Ashcroft: You can intend very strongly towards something without putting too much effort into it. I can be very clear in my intention to be present talking to you and listening to you and looking at you right now without going like, right? Okay, what are you going to say next? And like, listening to you and like, what am I going to say? Like, all of all of the extra stuff that I layer in is a kind of effort or trying. The same thing with active listening, like mm hmm. Yeah, keep, looking. what are you gonna say? Mm hmm. Yeah, all, of that stuff.
[00:00:25] Michael Ashcroft: Doesn't actually help with my listening. In fact, it just kind of gets in the way because I'm doing all this stuff that isn't listening. All I have to do to listen to you is just nothing, ultimately. If you speak English fluently, you don't have to try it on to sound what I'm saying right now. Like, your brain just does it, right? So why do we then layer this extra stuff? So that's one thing of like, intention is a separate thing from effort.
[00:00:51] David Elikwu: This week I'm sharing part of my conversation with Michael Ashcroft.
[00:00:55] David Elikwu: Now, we ended up deciding to split this into three parts because we covered so much ground. This was a really engaging conversation covering a spectrum of ideas around life, work, and attention or awareness.
[00:01:08] David Elikwu: Michael is a writer and also teaches the Alexander Technique.
[00:01:12] David Elikwu: In this part, you're going to hear me and Michael talking about Life changing decisions and the frameworks that we can use to make tough decisions at various points in our lives. You're also going to hear us talking about the ideas of awareness and attention and being able to notice the things that we notice and how our awareness of all of these things and the extent to which we're distracted from them can shape our experiences and the way that we experience the world, not just for ourselves but also the way in which we can experience things with others.
[00:01:40] David Elikwu: You can get the full show notes transcript and read my Newletter at thenowledge.io and You can find Michael on Twitter @m_ashcroft.
[00:01:48] David Elikwu: And if you love this episode, please do share it with a friend. And don't forget to leave a review, particularly if you're listening on Apple podcasts, because it helps us tremendously to reach other people just like you.
[00:02:02] David Elikwu-1: I think there's a part of us that craves optionality, we want to keep our options open. We don't want to end up in a position where we only have one choice because that is also something that can cause a lot of tension that can feel like a massive constraint. But thinking just about this idea that sometimes we already know, releasing the clutch is something you should always do if you're driving. But sometimes that clutch can be something that we know that we should take off, but we kind of want to keep on and there's something that dynamic tension there between something we kind of want to keep in our lives and want to keep doing, but we, in the service of the greater goal, which is getting to some destination or to move off, we have to release that.
[00:02:41] David Elikwu-1: And so, like you say, you can end up in this position where you are grinding and you need to exert so much more energy for the same amount of movement simply because you refuse to let go of this other thing because you haven't released the clutch. Everything becomes harder. Achieving both goals of keeping the clutch and also being able to get to wherever you're going is so much harder for the act of doing that than if you had just released one or even release the other.
[00:03:06] David Elikwu-1: And I guess the thing is, in reality, not releasing the clutch is dangerous.
[00:03:11] David Elikwu-1: And if you were in a position where you already knew it would lead to a car crash, of course you would release the clutch. That's a foregone conclusion, you would never think twice about it. If you knew that doing it was dangerous and it would lead to some certain danger, you wouldn't do it. But the hard part is knowing when there are near misses and knowing like how far you can push it. This ties back to our earlier conversation, right? How far can you push keeping the clutch just a little bit down while you're still doing this other thing?
[00:03:37] David Elikwu-1: So how do you find a mechanism of knowing when to release the clutch and when to kind of make that trade off?
[00:03:44] Michael Ashcroft: I'm going to go on a tangent that will answer your question, I think, but the thing that I've been struggling with is the decision to have children or not, shall we say? Because that's a very binary, which way am I going, right? If you make a decision to go that way and have a child, you are committed, right? There is no giving that child back at that point, like you have a child. If you go this way, you get to a certain point where you can no longer have a child, right? You've passed the point, you've waited too long.
[00:04:10] Michael Ashcroft: And the way that I'm thinking about this is working for me is to recognize that, both options are good, right? There's either way you're going to be missing out on something. If I have a child, I'm missing out on a child free life. If I don't have a child, I'm missing out on all the growth and love and all the stuff that I would have if I had a child. And I will have to grieve either way, I will experience loss whichever way I go. I will suffer and struggle whichever way I go. And that's okay, right? It's not like I can't make an optimal choice because there are, truly there are pros and cons and there is no right path for me to take.
[00:04:44] Michael Ashcroft: So I have to kind of go inwards and say like, what do I actually want? And this is one of the hardest questions to answer I find, because until you're at the decision point where like, okay, I have to make a decision now, you can just put it off like in the, in the kind of the driving sense of like, well, nothing's broken yet, you know, like the car's still going. Um Sure And at some point it won't, you know, at some point you're committed to having a broken car or reaching destination um in that example.
[00:05:11] Michael Ashcroft: So for me it's again, real honesty and checking in with those felt senses of like, okay, neither option is perfect, which of these two options is preferable?
[00:05:22] Michael Ashcroft: And then I will grieve the other one, right? So in back to the work example, if I were to get to, let's say I made a partner in a consultancy firm, that's not a bad option. Like, that's a perfectly good life and many people do it and good for them. Would I rather that or take the risk of quitting and doing my own thing?
[00:05:39] Michael Ashcroft: And then who knows where I'll be you know, it's a kind of 45 age. Okay, I want the other one, I'm going to just decide, I'm going to cut that one off. I can no longer have that one. And I can grieve that one. I can grieve the loss of the me who was a partner in a management consultancy firm. He's lost. But this is awesome, you know?
[00:05:55] Michael Ashcroft: So I think it's just accepting that you will grieve and suffer and have to like, let go of something every time you make a decision like this. Otherwise you just end up in this recursive
[00:06:05] Michael Ashcroft: Oh, that way and that way at the same time, and then you end up going nowhere, I think, or damaging and grinding in the process.
[00:06:11] David Elikwu-1: The analogy that you used of likening it to deciding whether or not to have kids is really interesting. I'd actually love to know more about how your thinking has evolved on that, because as you were saying it, the immediate response or thought that came to my mind is that it's a bit of a, it's an asymmetric trade off. And, and I could be wrong on this, so this is just my, my thinking, so I'd love to hear your response.
[00:06:33] David Elikwu-1: To me, that decision seems like deciding between a linear outcome and an asymmetric one, where the more you lean into the asymmetry, you could get asymmetric highs and asymmetric lows, right? Life could be drastically better or drastically worse, whereas not having children is a linear bet because, I mean, life doesn't change. Like you are perfectly in control over whatever life you end up having. And it's a bit like thinking about, okay, should I leave my stable job and start a business every month at my stable job, I get paid X amount and I can keep getting that every single month. If I leave and start a business. That business could do extraordinarily well, and quote unquote, betting on myself could mean that, wow, like I'm trading off, earning a fixed income for being able to earn many multiples more. But the reality of running a business is that there are also lows. It's not just a fixed income every month. Some months are lower, some months are higher. What you are hoping for is that it will continually trend higher.
[00:07:36] David Elikwu-1: And I guess the, the other analogy I could tie this to is there's a sense in which, at least from everything that I know or I've heard about having kids, I haven't had kids myself, but there seems to be a qualia of what it is like to have kids that you can't quite guess at or estimate without actually having had the kids. You can't simulate having kids necessarily like kids of your own if you haven't actually had the kids.
[00:08:01] David Elikwu-1: And it's a bit like potentially, you know, trying to describe to a caterpillar what it's like to be a butterfly. And I think that's an interesting example specifically because butterflies, once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, its lifespan is, actually dramatically shortened. So, I'm not saying it's necessarily, you know, in, that way. Because the lifespan of butterflies is so short. I think caterpillars live for a few months and butterflies live for like a few weeks at the most. But there is a sense in which, I mean like to fly and to be able to do all of these things and to have wings and all of that stuff. I don't think you can, you can't just guess what that would feel like if you've only ever crawled on leaves, like as a caterpillar. And it's not that the life of a caterpillar is any worse because you get to live much longer as a caterpillar, but it's an entirely different life.
[00:08:49] David Elikwu-1: When you're a butterfly, first of all, you could also become a moth. So you don't know what you're going to come out of that chrysalis becoming. But someone might like swat you out of the sky. Like there's all kinds of other dangers to becoming a butterfly.
[00:09:01] David Elikwu-1: But I guess, yeah, it's the trade off of the potential of this, you know, touching the sky and having, a magical life. But there's also some dangers with that and the certainty of having a life that you can predict and you know what it's going to be like because there's an extent to which you've already lived it. I wonder how any of that lands with you and how it tracks your journey so far in thinking about that decision.
[00:09:23] Michael Ashcroft: Yeah. For me it comes down to a principle that is still emerging for me, but the idea that I want to feel more feelings, I guess that's my, my desire in life. For most of my life I was, you know, there are feelings I don't like and I've shut them all down. My, my opinion is there's like one master volume dial on experience.
[00:09:44] Michael Ashcroft: So if you don't like bad experiences, I don't like, this job, this food, this environment, I'm going to turn down my aliveness. I'm going to, like, mute everything. Like dissociation to some extent. Like everything's just a bit muted and dull. And the other direction is turning up all experience, turning up all feeling.
[00:10:01] Michael Ashcroft: So you're going to get more of the good ones and more of the bad ones, but you're like, they're just like flowing through you and you're like, okay, I'm, just like being burned by feelings here of all kinds. And for me, I think a good life, a life worth living is one where I've been like rollercoastered on emotions frankly like that's what I'm here for.
[00:10:20] Michael Ashcroft: I kind of have this image in my head of like, imagine there were a plane of existence where there were these non corporeal beings, right? There are these, these life forms that don't have bodies, they can't experience sensation. If they were looking down at us and going like, I really, like, I would give so much to be able to experience the idea, like the feeling of hands touching each other. I would give so much to cry. I would give so much to have the experience of like a child laughing and see what that feels like, because I don't have feelings. I don't think they would care about whether they're good or bad feelings at that point. They'd just be like, I want to feel something.
[00:10:53] Michael Ashcroft: And that's kind of how I'm thinking about the children is like, I've heard very similar things of, it's an asymmetric thing. Like, you are going to feel enormous highs and enormous lows. And I think that for me is the path I want to take. And this is not to say this is the correct path. This is the path for me, I think because of my life and my preferences. There are other ways of orienting, but yeah, the idea of like, just give me give me more of the human experience. You know, I'll take the risk and see what comes up. That's how I'm orienting towards this.
[00:11:19] David Elikwu-1: Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I think, not specifically just as it aligns with the decision to have children, but in general. And I think there's an extent to which, you know, I talked about this with Jonny Miller as well, having negative experience helps the positive experiences to feel better. And the breadth of the experiences that you have is what shapes your understanding of life. Like if you didn't have, just like the example you gave, I can imagine that if every single day of your life was a 3 out of 10, and if every single day of your life was a 7 out of 10, you might not end up feeling much different between the two of those. If no day of your life was truly awful but it was never really that good and it was just a 3 every single day, predictably. Versus no day is ever great, no day is ever wonderful, but it's never bad. I don't know if between those two states that ends up being a massive difference in your experience of life. I don't know if it necessarily feels any worse.
[00:12:15] David Elikwu-1: I think there is an extent to which you do need some of the rollercoaster, like you were saying, and some breadth of experiences that allows you to appreciate when something is a lot better or when something is a lot worse.
[00:12:27] David Elikwu-1: And I think maybe this can start tying into, oh, were you going to say something on that?
[00:12:31] Michael Ashcroft: I was just gonna offer you a, like a Morpheus pill question. I have a red pill and blue pill for you. The red pill guarantees that every day, every day of your life from now on is like between a 4 and a 6 and the blue pill is every day between like 1 and a 9. Which pill do you take?
[00:12:45] David Elikwu-1: Ooh, that's actually probably a better framing. It's interesting. I guess a part of me would want to pick between 1 and a 9. I think some of that might depend on what stage of life you're at. And because I'm still relatively young, I can , I can take the asymmetric option
[00:13:01] Michael Ashcroft: Your ones are recoverable, I guess. Yeah.
[00:13:03] David Elikwu-1: Yeah exactly. And you would hope that over time you go above five enough times that the benefits start to compound. And if I later in life, I'd probably pick between four and six because I'd rather have the consistency of knowing that I'm not about to get wiped out any day from now.
[00:13:19] Michael Ashcroft: I guess with the, so the kids example or even the quitting a safe study career example is, what if you need to have more threes and fours for now, such that you can have sevens and eights and nines in 30 years, right? So like, yeah, my, my kids are growing up, I have grandkids. There's family around me like that feels to me like it would be a seven, eight, nine experience.
[00:13:39] Michael Ashcroft: But then you have like, I haven't slept in weeks and this thing is kicking me. And I was just like fluids everywhere. like this is definitely a two or a three Like There are trade offs across time that give access to, let's say, more enjoyable states on the line. it's not just a random event.
[00:13:57] David Elikwu-1: Yeah, there's an aspect of this which I think we can link towards starting to think about the Alexander technique and this idea of expanded awareness and leaning into possible experiences that one could have, maybe it would be best if you just start with explaining what the Alexander technique is and who Alexander is. That was something I wondered for a while before I finally Googled it, so I'd love if you could explain that.
[00:14:19] Michael Ashcroft: Yeah. So the Alexander technique is essentially a kind of mindfulness practice that's practiced inactivity. And the way I'm going to describe it will be surprising to anyone who's listening who has heard of it, because they're probably associated with posture and movement and that kind of stuff. And I, so, yes and I'm gonna say to that like, I've learned a very different when I teach a very different way.
[00:14:40] Michael Ashcroft: So it's about noticing your habitual responses to the world and then being able to make a new choice in response to things that happen in the world. And the way that I teach it is via awareness, whereas other teachers tend to go via the body. That's the only difference, I guess.
[00:14:57] Michael Ashcroft: So I'll give the story of F. M. Alexander and then we can, we can go from there. So yeah, Frederick Matthias Alexander was a Tasmanian actor, performer in the late 19th century. His issue was that he lost his voice when he was presenting his doing this like his presentations almost is speeches. And he went to a doctor who said, just rest, like you're just straining your voice, whatever. He did, his voice recovered a little bit. He went back on stage and lost his voice again. And over time, doctor couldn't help. And he said he figured out there must be something I'm doing specifically when I'm like, on stage that's causing me to lose my voice because it's not happening any other time. So he this sent him on like a multi year adventure to figure out like what was going on. He sat up like a series of mirrors, and so he looked at himself in various different ways and he realized that when he was going into public speaking mode, shall we say, like giving a Shakespearean soliloquy mode, he would like depress his larynx. He would like pull and tense and do all kinds of silly things.
[00:15:52] Michael Ashcroft: So this is all fine until now. But the important thing about Alexander technique is when he tried not to do those things, he realized that he couldn't, right? He said, okay, I'm just going to not do this depression on my larynx thing. And even when he tried not to, he would emphasize it more like, he would try not to do the thing and he would do it more. So this led him to develop a technique called inhibition, which is not the same thing as Freud's inhibition. I think he used it beforehand.
[00:16:16] Michael Ashcroft: Inhibition is just the, the constructive not responding to something in a way that you could still do anything else. So rather than not doing this thing by doing it more or by doing something else, it's like pausing and creating a space for change to occur.
[00:16:32] Michael Ashcroft: The way that I teach this is through this thing called awareness.
[00:16:35] Michael Ashcroft: There are two main modes that your mind uses to perceive the world.
[00:16:39] Michael Ashcroft: One is attention, the like this, then this, then this, then this, then this. Like we're all very familiar with this in the work context. And then there's awareness, which is a wide open field. It's like the thing that attention moves around inside. So right now I'm looking at like your eyes on the screen and my awareness includes the space around me. It includes the sensations of like touching my chair on the ground, the temperature, all that kind of thing. But my attention is still on you. So while we're familiar with the dynamics of attention, we're less familiar with the dynamics of awareness. And what tends to happen is awareness can go away really easily without us noticing.
[00:17:13] Michael Ashcroft: So I'd invite you and your listeners actually like, just notice more of the room around you, just notice the space above your head, the space behind you. What's the farthest away sound that you can, that you can notice right now in any direction?
[00:17:25] Michael Ashcroft: And you'll realize that there is like, oh yeah, I'm actually a being in space. There's like this spatial component around me. But then if I invite you to like that, your mind drift to the thorniest item on your to-do list and like that thing you've been avoiding and that you just don't want to do, what happens to the world around you? What's the your awareness of the world around you? It kind of diminishes, it goes away a little bit when you're off in your head and not paying attention to these things.
[00:17:48] Michael Ashcroft: And that's how I teach Alexander technique. When you encounter a stimulus, notice when your awareness goes away. Because when your awareness goes away, you have very little choice in life. Like you can't do something unless it first occurs to you that you can do it. The way that I like to communicate this is a guy called Richard Wiseman, Psychologist who wrote a book called The Luck Factor, he said that lucky people are lucky because they're open and aware. So they will first notice the 20 pound note on the floor. That's why they can pick it up. If they're so focused on like their own world and like, I want to get to my destination, they won't notice the 20 pound note. So they can't pick it up. So you have to notice something before you can act on it. And when your awareness is like contracted like this, you are essentially living on like a railway tracks of habit. Like you can't get off the track because you're just so tunnel visioned in on it. And when you expand in this way, you expand spatially, sure, but you also expand in being able to better notice emotions and physical sensations and thoughts and all these kinds of stuff. And then you realize, oh, I'm doing this thing. I'm caught in this pattern. I could not do this. And you know, when you realize, oh, I could not do this, then you cannot do it.
[00:18:56] Michael Ashcroft: So this is the fundamental practice, and it deepens from here, but it's basically about being able to notice more things going on, and then being able to make different choices in response to when they happen.
[00:19:54] David Elikwu-1: Yeah, there's a lot of that, that I loved. One thing I wanted to jump on very quickly was you mentioned The Luck Factor, which is a book that I love. And one of the studies that Richard Wiseman mentions in there that I use often when I give talks and stuff that I find really interesting is a replication of another better known study that gave birth to the idea of six degrees of separation. So the original study was I think they sent a bunch of letters to, people in the south, and they had to send this package to a named stockbroker in Boston. So obviously these people are sufficiently far away that they probably don't know this person's name or who, you know, they don't necessarily know anyone in Boston. And so their job is just to send it to whoever they think is most likely to know that person. And the study found that typically it took six passes for the package to go from the very first person to this random stockbroker in Boston. And so that's where we get the idea of six degrees of separation.
[00:20:51] David Elikwu-1: But the replication of that that I find interesting from that book was that the variation they added was they split these people into, people that said that they were lucky and people that said that they were unlucky. And so you run the same experiment. And it's so interesting that I think it was something like, I can't remember the exact numbers, but a much smaller proportion of the packages ended up going from the original people to, I think the destination was a generic woman's name. I think she was like a party, an event manager in Chelmsford or something like that. And so a very similar task, this was replicated in the UK. And a much lower proportion of packages made it all the way to the end. But then when you split it out into people that thought they were lucky and people that were unlucky, you realize that I think something like 60% of the people that thought they were unlucky didn't even send the package. So it never actually left their house. And so if you think you're unlucky and you don't even contemplate the possibility that if you send out this package, it could eventually reach the destination. But for a large majority of the that did think of themselves as lucky, then you get the standard track of, okay, yeah, you can send it up to six times and eventually it'll reach there And so again, going to what you were saying, there's just this really interesting idea that, simply by expanding your awareness or opening yourself up to more possibilities, it can drastically change the outcomes that you have in life. I know that maybe that is an extrapolation of what we're talking about, which is maybe just in like day to day activities of expanding your awareness.
[00:22:20] David Elikwu-1: But I think it still tracks this idea that the more you believe in, whether it's luck or serendipity or whatever, the more you open yourself up to these possibilities, the more that you can achieve and the more that you can do. And I think maybe in a similar way, even just in your day to day life, the more you expand the things you are aware of. So as an example, one thing that I think is a regular practice for me is trying to just go out walking. And I try and do, I don't know if you would call it expanded awareness, maybe it's a version of it, but just trying to notice more things. And I'm not specifically looking for things to notice, but just as I look around just thinking of all the things I could possibly notice, like I would just see interesting doors and you know, interesting people and interesting cars and lots of different things.
[00:23:04] David Elikwu-1: And I'm not keeping track of any of these things, but just by opening yourself up to the, I guess the wonder of all the things you could possibly find, the experience of the walk itself becomes a lot more enriching than if I was just walking with a fixed destination. 'Cause also when I do these walks, I have no idea where I'm going. I see a left, I say, huh, you know, this road is interesting. I haven't been down it. I just walk that way and I see where I end up.
[00:23:25] Michael Ashcroft: And I'm guessing that when you do that, it's not just that it's more interesting, but the world itself, at least when I do that kind of thing, the world literally becomes more vivid. It gets more brighter more colourful the sounds are richer somehow.
[00:23:36] Michael Ashcroft: And this is a real thing, it's that same thing I was saying before about the, the master volume dialing experience. Like when you're living in your head or going for walkers, most people do now with podcasting or something like, you're not really in the world, you're like collapsed and contracted into this little like intellectual thing going on in your ears and you miss all of this going around you.
[00:23:56] Michael Ashcroft: So one of the things I actually say in my course is like, go for a walk in nature without something playing in your, ears and do exactly what you're describing. And just like notice the world.
[00:24:04] Michael Ashcroft: The one thing I'd suggest from what you said is, you used the word try and that's a tricky word, like try to notice more things because Alexander said that trying is only emphasizing the thing you already know, so when you're trying to notice things, you're activating the existing familiar pathways if you like. Whereas if you let go of the trying, then you can notice new things that you haven't noticed before because you can't try to notice something that you already know. That you don't already know. because, like it, it, it's within existing patterns.
[00:24:32] Michael Ashcroft: So there's a wonderful prompt from Dzogchen, which is a Buddhist lineage, which is just listen for the sounds in the distant harbour. Any moment this is going on, like there's somewhere around you, there's a distant harbor. Just listen to the sounds from it. And there could be another one further away in the opposite direction. And just listen to the sounds from that distant harbor, that you don't know what they're going to be just like out there somewhere. There are these things you could notice and you're available to them rather than like, okay, I think it's in that direction, I'm going to strain my ear towards that harbor and try and hear the thing, I don't know, just like be available to the sounds as they come up. And naturally you'll expand out and start to notice things that you hadn't noticed before.
[00:25:11] David Elikwu-1: There's a question that I want to ask you before. that I wanted to share something that what you were saying made me think of, which was, I think it's in the book, Hooked by Nir Eyal. He talks about another study where they gave parents money to take their kids to the science museum. And one group of parents, they told them to leave their friends at home. And then the other ones, they just didn't say anything, so they could take their phones. And then afterwards they asked them, and I think what's really interesting about this is that it's qualitative rather than quantitative. So it wasn't like they tracked them and said, how much time did you spend on your phone? They just asked them like, how would you rate your experience out of 10? And what's interesting is for the group that took their phones with them, they rated that experience as worse. And it's almost not, not intentionally worse, but just lower than the group that just didn't take their phones. And it's interesting how the availability of distraction, even passively, can somehow detract from our experience of things. And when you don't have that distraction present, you just in a sense are almost instantly more open to the realm of experiences you could be having, even without trying.
[00:26:14] David Elikwu-1: So they didn't tell this group of parents, you know, have specific conversations with your kids. They didn't tell them, go and look for particular things. They just said, remove this distraction and just go and do the same thing in both sets, you know, the study was paying for it, so they just gave them the money to go have fun with their kids.
[00:26:29] David Elikwu-1: And so I think that's another really interesting aspect of what you were sharing, which is, you know, sometimes intentionally removing distractions just opens you up to all the possible experiences you could be having, even without, like you say, trying even without striving or intentionally looking for something else that you need to do. The question that I wanted to ask was, oh, go on. Were you gonna say something?
[00:26:49] Michael Ashcroft: Yeah. There's one, one layer I wanted to add in there with the, experience of those, kids at the museum, which is humans seem to enter what I call a shared awareness space. So like the example being you're watching a movie with you know, a friend or a partner at home and like, you feel as if you're in the same place, like you're having a shared experience watching this movie, but then you notice that your, your friend, your partner is like scrolling on Twitter on the phone. Like they're not really watching the film, like what is the felt experience that you have in that moment? So for me, there's like a, a disconnection. There's like a, oh, I thought we were in the same space and we were, and now suddenly we're in different spaces. We are not in the same space having a shared experience. And that I think causes all kinds of like tensions and like less enjoyment. And like, there's something about watching a movie together that is like more fun because you're doing it together. And I think in the example of walking around the museum, let's say at the gallery, you're looking at something in the museum like, oh, I'm having a shared experience beholding the, you know, whatever this thing is. And then I realize that my child is looking at their phone and I'm like, oh, okay. This is not, you know, it's not just distraction, it's that they're not with you. They're not in the same place that you're in. And that, yeah, disconnection and discomfort, I think come from that.
[00:27:59] David Elikwu-1: Yeah, it's interesting. So it kind of reduces the maximum cap of the experience you could be having simply by not sharing that experience. That's really interesting.
[00:28:08] David Elikwu-1: Going back to, you pointed it out with me when I mentioned trying, I would love to hear you maybe expand more on how you see the balance of some of these different ideas. As I was listening to some of your stuff before and reading some of your work, the frame that came to my mind intuitively is almost like a circle, but also a scale where perhaps originally a lot of people think of the balance between inattention and attention. So inattention, there's a lack of focus. You're not actually trying to think of anything, but it's a negative thing, right? You, you are not paying attention to anything. And then you have attention where you are actively trying to pay attention to something. And so there's already this dynamic tension between those two things.
[00:28:49] David Elikwu-1: But then if you pull more towards the right of attention, you could have expanded awareness, which is, it's not just that you are paying attention to one thing, but you are paying attention to all the things you could possibly be paying attention to. You're expanding the realm of things that you possibly be thinking about.
[00:29:06] David Elikwu-1: And then maybe going even a step further to the right of that, which in a sense kind of brings you round back to being to the left of inattention is non fixation. This is at least how it came to my mind non fixation is less than inattention because it's not just that you are absent minded and not being able to focus on anything, but you are intentionally not fixing your attention on anything. And it's still to the right of extended awareness because it's not just that you are expanding your awareness to all the possible things you could be thinking about, but you are also not attaching your attention to any of those specific things, but kind of in a state where you are open to, I guess, the realm of experiences.
[00:29:49] David Elikwu-1: It probably sounds like a very esoteric description that I've just given, but that's how it came to my
[00:29:54] Michael Ashcroft: Oh, I'm used to that.
[00:29:57] David Elikwu-1: Is that how you would frame it a better way you could explain it?
[00:30:00] Michael Ashcroft: So there are a few different things going on there. The first one to pick up on, I guess, is, the idea that you can intend very strongly towards something without putting too much effort into it, right? So I can, I can be very clear in my intention to be present talking to you and listening to you and looking at you right now without going like, right? Okay, what are you going to say next? And like, listening to you and like, what am I going to say? Like, all of all of the extra stuff that I layer in is a kind of effort or trying.
[00:30:28] Michael Ashcroft: The same thing with active listening, like mm hmm. Yeah, keep, looking. what are you gonna say? Mm hmm. Yeah, all, of that stuff. Doesn't actually help with my listening. In fact, it just kind of gets in the way because I'm doing all this stuff that isn't listening. All I have to do to listen to you is just nothing, ultimately. If you speak English fluently, you don't have to try it on to sound what I'm saying right now. Like, your brain just does it, right? So why do we then layer this extra stuff? So that's one thing of like, intention is a separate thing from effort.
[00:30:55] Michael Ashcroft: The fixation point is interesting because that's where the, the grooves of habit come in. So let's use the example of, I want to say something. I want to make a point in this, in this recording. And I keep trying to like come back to it and like insert it in somewhere and like I might end up interrupting you and like it just goes a different direction. because I'm fixated on saying this thing, whereas if it's just in my awareness as a thing, I could say it's like, oh yeah, there's that, there's that point I could make. It's kind of over here somewhere. If it doesn't like have the right moment, I just won't say it. But if I'm fixated on it, then I'm like constantly being pulled towards it.
[00:31:31] Michael Ashcroft: So the non fixation thing here is, my awareness has expanded, I have an intention to speak clearly to you about interesting things, and I'm noticing all the things that I could say. All the thoughts are coming up, but none of them are like gripping me, none of them are like controlling me in any way. The opposite of the must say this, is must not say this, it's the same kind of fixation. It's like, don't go there, don't go there, don't go there, don't make that joke, all that kind of thing. But being able to kind of like notice the attachment, the tension of like, oh, this thing has gripped me in some way and then go, no, like it's still where it is. I could still say if I wanted to, but I don't have this need to go there or not.
[00:32:07] Michael Ashcroft: So all of these things mean that you can still involve yourself very strongly in life. I would say even more so, like I can be really present with you without having to add all this other stuff around the edges. The fact that I'm non fixated or my awareness has expanded doesn't diminish the fact that I'm still choosing to attend to you.
[00:32:27] Michael Ashcroft: And one more thing they said from the beginning was, when you're when it's expanded your like attentions and all of that those things, that's not the case. I think attention is still a serial, like one after the other one thing. The fact that I can be aware of the temperature of the room doesn't mean I'm putting my attention on it, right? Doesn't mean that I'm attending to everything possible. It just means that I could notice more things and my attention could go to them if it were important for them to do so, right?
[00:32:52] David Elikwu-1: Okay. Interesting. Is there a way we can train our attention or expanded awareness to tap into that state more often? Is it something that by and again, we're coming back to this idea of trying, is it something that you can try intentionally to do enough that you start to do it automatically? Or is it something that you, yeah. Like do you have to cultivate a practice of doing it, or is it something that can only happen if you tap into it unintentionally?
[00:33:19] Michael Ashcroft: It's a fun paradox because trying for it makes it go away. Like trying to be aware is effort and strain and you'll just contract. So the thing that you have to learn, and again, this, this is, I think it takes time because it is very counterintuitive, is that you get the thing as soon as you stop trying for it. And the way that I encourage people to actually do this in life is, yeah, guided like lessons of like, okay, notice these things. I my voice will be there. Let's say, saying, okay, notice the face behind you and that kind of thing. But in your own life, the best advice I can give is, first go for those walks in nature and just notice what it's like to have the expansiveness. But importantly, notice once you had a contraction of awareness, so it's very common to have the experience of like, coming back to yourself. Like, you know, you catch yourself doing something, you catch yourself thinking about something, and then you realize that you weren't really fully there. You were kind of in a simulation for the whole time. Like, oh, the last five minutes I've just been like, in my head worried about X. Oh look, I'm in a room. Oh, I'm hungry. Oh, I can go and do this thing. At that moment, get curious about what the experience was like that you weren't in the world, and what it was like to come back. Because that coming back, well, first of all, you can only come back once you've noticed that you're not there. And then the coming back is a skill that you can cultivate with practice as well.
[00:34:34] Michael Ashcroft: But again, it's not a thing that you can effort your way towards because effort is a contraction normally.
[00:34:39] David Elikwu-1: Do you think of this as distinct from meditation or being in a meditative state?
[00:34:44] Michael Ashcroft: Depends what kind of meditation, honestly. So the differences between what I'm teaching and meditation are there's no cushion. I don't want to be unfair to meditation, it's a very good thing. But one of the traps in meditation is that you can sit on the cushion for an hour a day, be like very present, and then get up and completely forget about the practice that you were just doing.
[00:35:02] Michael Ashcroft: And the whole point is to take it into your life, right? So that's one thing. The other thing is that there are different kinds of meditation. So this is not concentration, this is not loving kindness. You can layer those things on as well, but the idea is it's more of an open awareness meditation. So you are, you can notice all things, more like the Sam Harris waking up stuff is much closer to this than the headspace stuff, shall we say, which is, you know, notice clouds and stuff and let them pass. But you'll come back to the breath. It's not come back to the breath. It's come back to all of what is happening right now without getting stuck on it, if you like. Just letting it, just the spaciousness of the experience rather than the narrow focus of the experience.
[00:35:39] David Elikwu-1: Yeah. I think going off of that, this came up in my conversation with Jonny as well, is this idea that the strength of the meditation and this can apply to a lot of practices. It's not how zen you are in your most zen like state. So when you are practicing your one hour meditation, you know, how high into the clouds can you go, but it's more how quickly can you return to that state throughout the day. And so there is a sense to the hour of meditation is only as useful as that training can enable you in every other moment of the day to return to that state. If you spend that hour every day and during the rest of the day, you're unable to like it doesn't affect the distance or the time in which you can get back into that state, then it's almost useless, it's a waste of time. It's a bit like, you train shooting some jump shots to play basketball and you shoot a hundred shots every morning and it doesn't actually help you get better in any game. Then what was the point of doing that training? You should only do the training to the extent that enables you when you're trying to shoot, to shoot.
[00:36:37] David Elikwu-1: But I guess maybe there's a, it's not even necessarily the same as that, because at least from what I've heard Sam Harris say, I think part of the intention is that, the meditation is life. Like the act is only practicing for the rest of your life. The life that you live meant to be the activity of the meditation. And so learning, I guess in the same way as what you're saying cultivating this, is it a habit of expanded awareness or you know, cultivating a life of expanded awareness allows you to live the life of expanded awareness as opposed to having the habit of expanded awareness.
[00:37:09] Michael Ashcroft: Yeah, to me, it's not so much that you want to be expanded all the time because there's a reason why it does the expansion and contraction thing. It's to bring that mechanism under conscious control. So that you don't end up having a day where you've been completely in your head, unconscious, not really in the world the whole time. And then you get home going like, well, what just happened that day? Where did that go? Sam Harris is saying like, your life is your life. This is not a dress rehearsal. This moment right now is your life, right? And the next one is going to be your life as well. And then they'll be done at some point.
[00:37:38] Michael Ashcroft: So the purpose of these practices is to be fully alive in every moment. And when you encounter something that wants to send you off into your head or off, kind of turn the volume down experience down. Let's say a bad emotion or a habitual response or whatever it might be, that you can go like, oh, I noticed this. I see that it's about to push me off somewhere else and I'm going to stay here actually and meet it, right? That's what this is about, It's staying fully alive and letting all that stuff just be, rather than stepping back and kind of checking out for however long because you don't like it or because it's a pattern you have.
[00:38:14] David Elikwu: Thank you so much for tuning in. Please do stay tuned for more. Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe. It really helps the podcast and follow me on Twitter feel free to shoot me any thoughts. See you next time.