The bird’s-eye view of myself in the world below came early for me. At age five, I had surgery on both eyes. So, I learned to navigate the hospital without the use of my eyes. I can still remember breathing to calm myself before first venturing out on my own. I also remember in my mind’s eye seeing the hospital floor below me, observing myself leaving the room to visit other kids who weren’t able to get out of their beds.
40+ years later I heard an interview with Dr Lera Boroditsky visiting the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Queensland, Australia.
One day, I was walking along, and I was just staring at the ground. All of a sudden, I noticed that there was a new window that had popped up in my mind, and it was like a little bird’s-eye view of the landscape that I was walking through, and I was a little red dot that was moving across the landscape.
When I turned, this little window stayed locked on the landscape, but it turned in my mind’s eye. And as soon as I saw that happen, I thought, oh, this makes it so much easier. Now I can stay oriented. Sheepishly, I confessed this to someone there. I said, you know, this weird thing happened. I saw this bird’s-eye view, and I was this little red dot. And they said, well, of course. How else would you do it? Of course that’s how you…”
The bird’s-eye view of ourselves in the world below became a recurring theme in my life. Often it’s related to mindful breathing. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be as familiar a perspective to others.
Bird’s-Eye View of a Pool
To qualify as a lifeguard at our community pool, you had to swim a full length without breathing. Being a 12-year-old up for a challenge, I wanted to see if I could go two lengths. This breathwork became another early “out of body experience” though I didn’t hear of that term until decades later.
It was also the beginning of my journey of breathwork. I heard hyperventilating could help hold your breath longer filling your lung with a higher concentration of oxygen. To extract the most oxygen from the air in my lungs I simulated breathing underwater by alternating expanding and contracting my stomach. Yeah, OK, I wasn’t a “normal” kid. Noticing the urge to surface grew the longer I stayed under, I reached the point where my lungs were hurting. I tried to stay calm and not panic. I discovered this odd experience of floating in the air above the pool and looking down at myself swimming. While observing myself wanting and needing air I somehow removed myself to a place of observer. I distanced myself from the pain and consciousness of desperately needing air. Perhaps that was also a side affect of the risky skirting with cerebral hypoxia that can lead to hallucination.
Nonetheless, my consciousness had lifted from the perspective of the fish without gills to a bird’s-eye view.
Bird’s-Eye View and Near Death
30 years later, I noticed that the waves I was riding were getting bigger. Ducking an exceptionally large wave, I rode the next one in. The big wave was coming back to undercut the wave I was on. It slammed me head-first into the sand. The impact broke five vertebrae, one rib, one collarbone, one shoulder and wrangled my neck. The pain was intense as I was being tossed around under water. The Chasing Mavericks movie quote flashed through my head. “Fear is good, panic is bad“. I managed to collect myself and get my head over water long enough to gasp some air. Again I was swept under in the next wave. The churning ripped a shock wave of pain through my injured body.
Pain and lack of air brought about another out of body experience over the waves seeing at myself below. The intense pain shifted to perhaps the most serene moment of my life looking down at my body about to meet its end. I perceived my unaware parents on the beach about to lose their youngest son. An upcoming hike with my future wife flashed by. Deciding I wasn’t ready to go yet. I fought to get to get my head above water and wave. It was seen both by an off-duty EMT and my friend who was holding her newborn. To this day she remembers seeing the pain in my eyes from the beach. Handing her son to a man she hoped she could trust, she rushed in to help pull me out.
The EMT’s colleagues from the local Fire Department slid a board under me and off I went to the ER. When I went back to thank them a year later, they were surprised I was able to walk again. At the hospital, they put me on morphine and Oxycontin and something to keep me from vomiting up the opioids. I lay in bed with little entertainment and too out of it to have conversations or watch TV. Despite the drugs, even breathing hurt. I decided to entertain myself by watching my SpO2 meter, trying to see how low I could get my pulse keeping my oxygen level at 98%. That required calming myself with slow breaths. If my mind ever slipped out of being at peace, the pulse meter would quickly tell me.
With days on end, I could work on this new found way of learning to meditate. I got my pulse down to 40 (later to 36). Again, I felt I’d left my body floating above the bed looking down at my broken, pained and drugged body. I rediscovered the advantages of lifting myself to the perspective of a bird’s-eye view. It was interesting later reading about out of body experiences (OBEs) that they are described similar to that. I hadn’t knowingly heard of them before. After some time, I underwent a very long ambulance ride to Stanford Hospital. After weeks of lying flat there, a physical therapist came to ask me to sit up. That was the last thing I wanted to do. She did eventually get me to sit up, get my feet on the ground. Then she slowly helped me learn how to walk again.
Bird’s-Eye View Meditating
I’d long been a fan of Jack Kornfield after listening to Roots of Buddhist Psychology. Living in Northern California, I decided to visit his Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center. I remember sitting inside among a large group of attendees at the 411 acres retreat . It’s set in a serene oak woodlands in the secluded hills of West Marin County, California. We were given a moment to meditate. I found myself a bit annoyed sitting so closely to other inside, when it was so beautiful outside.
I closed my eyes and began to calm my breathing and letting go of my immediate surroundings. It felt like I lifted out of the building and away from the others. Then it was like going back in time to before when there were building and people there. There was nothing but plants, animals, winds and shadows of clouds passing over the ground. Serenity was achieved and I have found this lifting out of myself, humanity, structures and present time has remained a wonderful way to meditate.
Bird’s-Eye View Whispering
Working with horses also taught me about breathing among flight, herd animals. Having been prey for generations, the whole herd notices when one in the herd becomes apprehensive. Other animals pick up on that to avoid falling prey to a predator. Horse whisperers learn that horses are very much in tune with your own state. Breathing more heavily when you’re nervous makes them nervous. Looking straight at them causes them subconsciously to wonder if they are your target. They can smell when you break a sweat. Horses hear apprehension in your voice, they see it in your gait, and they notice how you hold your hands. They sense your state of being at peace or not. To arrive at a place of harmony, you become one with the horse or the herd. You discover that by simple, slight movements of your shoulders or eyes, you can move the horse.
Riding bare-back, horses seem to know where you want to go. A slight turn of the head, shoulders, torso can lead to a slight increase in pressure in one knee and decrease in the other. You’ve just communicated the way you want to go. A horse is at peace with you tends to be happy going that way. There are books and videos about horse whispering that can teach you all these things, but each horse and each situation is slightly different. If you’re in tune with the animal, these things come as instinct. Being with my horse in an arena, I remember feeling like we had become one mind and one body. Here too I recall seeing us from the bird’s-eve view above the arena in synchronous dance-like movement.
More of the awareness is still present in grown humans than we typically realize; it’s just typically buried in the subconscious. If we learn to access our intuition, we still know whom to trust and when to be wary. Others know that of us as well.
Being at peace and being one with nature seems to have always come easily to me. I’ve noticed that animals and young children seem to recognize that in me. I’ve also noticed a sense of harmony with elderly that have become aware that death is approaching.
Occasionally, I’ll sense that connection with an adult human as was the case during my first year at U.Va., I always remember walking between classes and turning the corner onto the lawn towards Old Cabell Hall and being face to face with this fellow. I will always remember the peace I felt as he looked into my eyes, smiled and nodded. It was as though as we looked into each others eyes, he could see my soul and my entire life and lives I’d lead before just as I could see his. This was very strange to me as I’d never given credence or much thought to reincarnation, and I’d never heard of the Dalai Lama. It wasn’t until I recognized his picture the next day in the student paper that I realize whom I had encountered on that path.
Bird’s-Eye View Coaching
After reading Google’s Project Oxygen report where they list the number one characteristic of a good leader is to be a coach, I decided to get trained as a coach. I did some research, and decided on The Co-Active Training Institute formed in 1992, and perhaps now the largest and most recognized coaching organization. Perhaps what intrigued me most was their notion of Coaching by “listening” (observing) from the third of three levels of listening:
- Internal Listening — Listening to your inner voice,
- Focused Listening — Listening intently to another person,
- Global Listening — Listening to others in the context of their entire surroundings.
Having learned this, I again find myself coaching and seeing it all from a Bird’s-eye view. The dance of the interaction between the coachee and myself and the dance they have with the people and things in their work and life. I had the benefit of some amazing instructors at CTI that helped me learn how to ask open-ended questions, explore, follow my intuition and help the person I’m with see their world, and their potential within it from a new perspective.
As a Talent Whisperer, a higher awareness is achieved when both parties in the dance can see themselves and each other from above. They attain a bird’s eye view as removed from, or at least aware of the biases and baggage each brought to the dance and is hoping to lift away from.
Which Hill to Climb?
Thomas Merton said “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” And, Stephen R. Covey paraphrased: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” Often, when we’re eager to climb a ladder to success or feel the need to know which hill to climb when lost in a metaphorical desert, it isn’t clear which direction, wall or hill is the right one. Here too a bird’s perspective may help us in our choice.
Meta-View in Co-Active Coaching
Get in the imaginary helicopter with the coachee, take it up to about 10,000 feet, and look down on the coachee’s life. This is the coaching skill of meta-view. It is especially useful when the coachee is in a rut and can only see six feet of dirt on each side. Meta-view presents the big picture and opens up room for perspective. The coach might ask: “What do you see from up here? What’s the truth you can see from this vantage point that you couldn’t see down there?” The meta-view reconnects coachees to their vision of themselves and a fulfilling life. When they’re struggling at the foot of the mountain, looking up at the daunting work to be done, meta-view allows them to float above it and get a fresh perspective.
Another way to look at the meta-view is to see it as an elevated platform-a high place where coaches can stand to survey the coachee’s life with all its circumstances and issues. The coach can see more than the coachee can from this vantage point. In fact, that is the coach’s job: to maintain clarity of perspective and hold the big picture. This platform allows the coach to speak from outside the details of the immediate conversation.
Zooming Out in Business
In Jim Collin’s book Great by Choice, he refers to a practice I’ve employed many times in business. That is what Peter Drucker refers to as “zooming out.” Sometimes, when we are in the midst of a storm, it helps to zoom out from the storm to calming, more clearly see the big picture to discover patterns in the chaos.
“We’re continually hit by a blizzard of situations, opportunities, problems, incidents—all of which seem to demand decisions. Yes. No. Go. No-go. Buy. Sell. Attack. Retreat. Accept. Reject. Reply. Ignore. Invest. Harvest. Hire. It can feel like chaos, but the most effective people find the patterns within the chaos. In Drucker’s view, we rarely face truly unique, one-off decisions. And there is an overhead cost to any good decision: it requires argument and debate, time for reflection and concentration, and energy expended to ensure superb execution. So, given this overhead cost, it’s far better to Zoom Out and make a few big generic decisions that can apply to a large number of specific situations, to find a pattern within—in short, to go from chaos to concept.“
Jim Collins, Ten-Lessons-I-Learned-from-Peter-Drucker
Sometimes, where we encounter an immediate obstacle, we may be daunted by how difficult it is to overcome it. Thinking about our ultimate objective can put this obstacle into perspective in our longer journey to success. Zooming out may lead us to discover that though there is one obstacle, there may be many pathways around it. Likewise, there may be many possible actions to overcome that obstacle. We know what they say about trying the same approach twice and expecting a different outcome. There is more than one way to reach a destination.
Zooming out allows us to embrace complexity through systems thinking giving us the bigger picture.
Focused Frogs and Visionary Birds
The metaphor of a bird’s-eye view has been around a while, even in the field of mathematics. In his book Range, David Epstein quote a speech Dyson gave in which he propounded the need for both focused frogs and visionary birds working together on complex problems. Frogs are down in the mud where they “delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time,” he said. Birds soar above and “delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape.” We need both, Dyson insisted. The world is broad and deep, and “we need birds and frogs working together to explore it.” The problem, he said, is that we’re frequently telling everyone to become frogs, and that limits our vision and our ability to adapt quickly in a changing world.
I would argue the idea is to be a frog that can fly – focused in one moment and visionary in another. It helps to both zoom out for the big picture at times, while zooming in at others, to see the nuances.
Videographic Memory, Transcending Samskara
I noticed early on that when I looked back at past experiences, it would seem I could and would step into the memory and not only see images, but fluid visual impressions along with sounds, smells, tastes, tactile impressions as well as emotional impact. It was like a lucid dream perspective into a past experience. As a kid, I’d use it to find things in the room that I had overlooked when I was there without needing to go back to the room. As an adult, I learned to go back and observe the fears, apprehensions, stress, anxiety, longings, graspings that I had also overlooked in the moment . Sometimes those experiences left emotional scars that had become trigger-points for me – Samskara that I’d carry with me.
The bird’s-eye view can serve to lift away from physical pain but also other stressors. Being in the moment is great, but sometimes we’re more impacted by things than we realize. Lifting ourselves to a bird’s eye can help recognize those impacts, what we’ve carried with us, and what triggers those scars we carry.
It can be a great experience to help others process various things impacting them. To jointly detach/untether and lift above/transcend the fog of being too close to the moment is bringing them to that metaview. Helping them process the samskara they carry with them can often be aided by metaphor. Going with them to an imaginary house or cave that represents what’s going on with them, can help them become unattached and recognize things they don’t consciously process in the moment. It feels a bit like a joint, hypnotic journey.
Bird’s-eye view of you and the Grizzly
Imagine a raven soaring overhead as you hike alone at dusk through Yellowstone. Only the raven sees you on a collision course with the Grizzly. Your senses are alert, you feel anxiety about sighting signs of a Grizzly. The raven circles freely above. You come across Grizzly scat – suddenly, you’re not afraid of seeing signs of a Grizzly – that’s already happened. Now you worry you’ll see the bear. The raven knows what lies across the meadow you’re about to reach. You come to the clearing, on the other side is the Grizzly. You’re no longer worried about seeing the Grizzly. You’re worried he’ll see you. He turns and looks right at you. Your fear of being seen is replaced by fear he’ll come towards you. He does. You’re not worried about his coming, you’re now worried what’s next.
As Jack Kornfield illustrated such an example, we fear less what is and more what may be. He refers to this as the The Future Orientation of Fear in his book Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment.
So, what about the raven? The raven clearly isn’t experiencing the same level of anxiety as you are throughout all this. Maybe he’ll get some scraps out of this maybe he won’t. Your level of anxiety and stress in all this once you sighted bear scat allowed you to overlooked the log cabin down a side trail as you reached the meadow. Now the raven wonders if you did take it in and will double back to shelter from the bear or whether your anxiety will get in the way of remembering it and knowing it’s your best option. Alas, achieving that bird’s-eye view can be hard when you’re worried about your life.
The numbing of anxiety avoidance
It can be very similar with chronic physical pain. If you’re apprehensive of the severe pain that is about to come, you may tense up and enter a viscous cycle that will make that tense pain inevitable. I know, I’ve been down that path. On the other hand, if you know you can escape that pain through distancing yourself from it, you can enter a virtuous cycle that allows you to avoid it. If you’re not conscious of that alternative, you may go back to the opioid as the doctor had predicted I would do. Sometimes in life, it can be very tempting to avoid the vicious cycle by numbing ourselves.
In the Zone
I have found myself “in the zone” “or being in flow,” competing in national and world championships for Ultimate in the 80s. There I also found myself benefiting from being conscious of my breath and pushing past pain to persevere. I’ll sometimes find myself seeing the field from above with everything unfolding below. Each pair of offense and defensive player in their own dance of evasion and pursuit unfolding within a larger pattern, and I see plays unfolding before they happen and know how the disc will travel from player to player down the field before the first pass is thrown.
At those times, the game seems to unfold below me where everything appears as a choreographed and predictable dance of 14 competitors all responding to the unfolding movements of everyone and the disc on the field. This bird’s-eye perspective can reveal patterns within group dynamics we’d easily overlook if we’re too attached to what’s unfolding immediately in front of us.
Phil Jackson who, along with George Mumford, introduced Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to Mindfulness and Mediation says he’s had the team practice in silence or near darkness to help them experience the game in a state where they are both somewhat removed from the game and intensely engaged in it.
Another Brush with Death
Years after learning to control my heart rate, I experienced what felt like a heart attack. I drove to urgent care, where they determine it wasn’t a heart attack. They ran a d-dimer test which came back way off the scale. An ambulance took me the ER while the pain in my chest increased, and it became harder to breathe. While waiting in the ER, I decided it best to slow my breath and heart rate. My meditative state didn’t convey a sense of urgency, and it took some time before they did a CT scan. The doctor then arrived with the scan and held it up to the light box. Turning white, he looked at me saying “I can’t believe you’re alive!” They injected me with heparin to help the blood flow in my lungs again.
The doctor explained I had had a “massive, bi-lateral pulmonary embolism” basically a blot clot breaks off into little pieces which move through your heart and into your lungs where they clog the alveoli and inhibit the blood-oxygen exchange. The doctor said people tend to panic when their heart hurts and they can’t breathe. I asked if panicking wouldn’t be a bad idea under those conditions. His response was well yes it would only make matters worse. I had seemed more prudent to me to remain calm and lower my breath and heart rate. While sitting on the precipice of death waiting for the doctor in a deep meditative state, I felt myself looking down on the ER with my brother standing next to me, and doctors and nurses milling about other patients while I was fading to the edge of consciousness and life.
Beyond the Eyes
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
English being my third language and having lived in two countries/cultures integrated into both cultures, the above quote resonates with me. Some might say the difference between the East and West coasts of the U.S. might also qualify as two distinct worlds.
I have always suggested to younger folk that there is much to be learned to live in and immerse themselves in another culture for at least two year. My theory and experience being that in the first year, new-comers question why everything is done differently/wrong. In the second year, they appreciate that the culture new to them may have its advantages. The blessing and curse I ascribe to that experience is that you will have less clarity on what is “wrong” and what is “right.” You will now be freer to form you own perspectives.
I hadn’t thought of it as finding a second soul, though I can see what he means. I’d seen it as enabling you to better be able to find your own true soul.
Above the Birds
One perspective I’m reluctant to write about because it’s hard to explain in a rational, believable manner are my experiences with seeing things from further above. Since early childhood, I’ve had several experiences of seeming to know someone was going to die in the night before they died or waking in the middle of the night believing someone had passed thousands of miles away only to find out the next day that they had passed.
I can rationally explain being an empath and picking up on things in my presence, but I have yet to find a rational explanation why I perceive things about people I haven’t seen or heard of directly or indirectly on the day of their passing. So, I only decided to include this in case others have experienced this and help me find some light through the fog.
A New Perspective
Stanislav Grof, M.D. in The Transpersonal Vision:
Abraham a Sancta Clara, a seventeenth-century Austrian Augustinian monk, is said to have remarked,
”The man who dies before he dies, does not die when he dies.”
And if you can change your attitude toward death, it also changes your way of living in the world.
These experiences have provided me with a greater appreciation of life and being able to walk and breathe and experience each day and each new interaction with living things with an even greater appreciation than I had had before. If you’ve been at death’s door live each day like it were your last or bonus points beyond the original plan, the thought of death is less scary.
Evoking Human Transformation
Evoking Human Transformation in the rapidly evolving age of Digital Transformation also benefits from allowing people to reform their mental maps by seeing things from above in a landscape that transforms while we are in the midst of navigating through it. We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.
Arriving in a time of continuous transformation and navigating according to old paradigms is like trying to find your way through Oz using a map of Kansas.
Above it all
There are now times where it seems I can observe myself from above as being one with nature, not separate from it at the same time as being an observer separate from it all. I do still enjoy meditating above the waves. One of my favorite states is to be observing everything from a bird’s-eye view. Detached from everything while at the same time feeling one with everything.
- Michael A. Singer The Untethered Soul – The Journey Beyond Yourself
- Bob Roth Strength in Stillness – The Power of Transcendental Meditation
- Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
- Anodea Judith Eastern Body, Western MindPsychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self
- Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness
- Stanislav Grof The Transpersonal Vision – The Healing Potential of Nonordinary States of Consciousness
- Teresa Lodato Engaging the Sixth Sense to Produce Lasting Results for Your Coaching Practice
- Encyclopedia of Tibetan Buddhism: Advaita Vedanta – A Bird’s Eye View
- Sustainable Future: How to Zoom Out and Broaden Your Perspective When Solving Problems
- Tim Ferriss: Transcripts: George Mumford, Mindfulness Coach to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, on Awareness, Compassionate Action