Present Tense, Present Relaxed

It’s likely that the brain developed for a simple purpose—survival. Compared to a tiger or crocodile, we’re not very fast or strong. Perhaps our forebears sat around wondering if they could afford a new cave, or if inventing the wheel might be profitable. But what the hell is that growling? or, am I about to die? would suspend the conversation. Fear triggers a whole different kind of thinking, powered by tension. I call it present tense.

In the present tense, we shift into emergency overdrive, affectionately called lizard logic. Fear fuels this, aided by chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol.  At times like these, we disconnect from our best thinking. Lizard logic is exciting but it’s pretty useless, except for dodging charging carnivores. We’ve been using our brains for survival for much longer than we’ve been doing things like writing computer code and designing leadership programs. Much, much longer. So present tense may be our habitual setting. Even when it’s not useful.

The opposite of present tense is present relaxed. We don’t practice it much. We’ve come to view present relaxed as boring.  Without the gut-wrenching tension of lizard logic, thinking can feel weak or passive. So we distract ourselves by imagining disasters, worrying, planning for imagined outcomes, and rehearsing conversations that will never unfold like we rehearsed them. In the absence of a charging tiger, we manufacture one to get the juices flowing.

As leaders and learners, we might start getting in the habit of present relaxed.  If we come to work loaded for bear, we should not be surprised if bears show up. Stressed thinking generates stressed results.

Creative thinking needs a certain amount of space to blossom. The trick is to stay out of present tense because when we’re anxious, we don’t generate options. Options need room—present relaxed.

Here are a couple of habits to help present relaxed become our default.

First, practice being in the right now. Remove distractions. When you jog, leave your headphones behind. Find opportunities to do one physical activity at a time. Paint, play the guitar, ride a horse, sail, dance, check your messages. But not at the same time. When you immerse in a single action, the body and the brain work effectively together. It’s called proprioception— being aware of our physical presence and effort. We can anchor our focus in the action and what’s happening around us rather than what hasn’t, and may not, happen.

Second, practice taking things lightly. Present tense requires a strong dose of seriousness to take hold. Try smiling more. Laughing more. Ask yourself, Where’s the tiger? Even if you view yourself as a Serious Person and value Efficiency, the data are clear that taking things lightly gives us access to clear and creative thinking. White knuckles get in the way of exploring options.

Third, listen neutrally to what others have to say. Try these responses: “Tell me more,” and, “I think we may see this differently.” When we push back at unfamiliar ideas, we feed the flames of present tense. (For more on this, take a relaxed look at a companion blog).

Fourth, break the tension chain. Take a moment to brainstorm; move the conversation by taking a walk and talking about a different topic; make a quick sketch that captures the problem; change the ground rules. Present tense usually moves in a linear progression. Like turning up a microphone too loud, it produces feedback: noise replacing meaningful sound.

Wernher van Braun liked to say, “there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of the chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor.”

Present Relaxed gives our chemical analog computer a much more useful operating environment. Breathe. Laugh. Listen neutrally. When you start to hear the feedback, turn it down.

For a quick auditory exploration (with wonderful music from Fred Bogert), click on this link to access the Learning Chaos Podcast.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Although relaxation is very important for wellness, few people spend enough time on it. Instead, you should spend some time every day because relaxation brings different benefits and tends to affect the general state of health in the long term.

    • Hi, Aldo.
      I think we Americans have trouble seeing relaxation – I mean really relaxing, say meditating, actually walking quietly (no headphones!) as acceptable. We’re supposed to be busy and pushing all the time.