On Developing a C.A.L.M. M.O.

How to adopt an inner stance of curiousity, acceptance, and loving compassion.

Posted Feb 20, 2015

What is your normal mode of operating in a stressful situation? Do you feel tense, reactive, and defensive? What about if you start to feel negative thoughts or emotions creeping into your consciousness? Do you try to banish them from the “stage” of your conscious experience and instead try to distract yourself or force yourself to think happy thoughts? If you “battle” with stress or negative emotions, you might benefit from working instead to develop a “C.A.L.M. M.O.”.

This blog is an extension of my previous blog explaining mindfulness from the vantage point of the unified approach. That blog ended by describing how I share my perspective on mindfulness with clients via the acronym C.A.L.M. Several folks found that initial description to be helpful, and asked if I might elaborate more on it.

Let’s start here with the “M.O.”. In everyday language, one’s “m o” is short for “modus operandi” and it refers to one’s mode of operating in a particular situation. The M.O. here is a play on that, but it actually stands for something different. It stands for your “Meta-cognitive Observer”. That might sound like some fancy psychobabble term, but it actually is quite straightforward. Meta-cognition refers to thinking about one’s thinking (and feeling). As I work on this blog I am engaged in straight-forward thinking. I am thinking about what I might write, how it might be heard, and so forth. However, with a little prompting, I can shift my attention and take a step outside of this stream of thought and proceed to consider my thought processes as the object of my attention. In other words, I can consider viewing my thoughts and feelings as if I were viewing them from the position of a separate observer.

The capacity to shift one’s attention from being “inside” the stream of thoughts and feelings to being an outside observer is a natural ability that humans have because we humans have long needed to consider how our thoughts, feelings and actions are viewed and judged by others. This is called the “public self-consciousness” system, and it develops in childhood as we begin to learn that others will judge our actions and even imagine our thoughts and feelings. For example, if a seven year-old craves some cookies and his mother is upstairs, he may well have an image of her scolding him and that will serve an inhibiting function on his impulse to grab one. Because we are constantly required to imagine what others might think of our actions, over time we internalize and consolidate that “audience” such that we are constantly observing our thoughts and feelings, even if we don’t explicitly think of it that way.

An example may help. In the previous blog, I described Jeff, a graduate student in biology who was afraid that he was a bit of an imposter. That is, he feared he was not smart enough to be in graduate school and would be “discovered” and kicked out. I then described how, when he gets the worst grade in his class on a test, he starts freaking out. However, as he starts to freak out, he imagines what others will think of him, so he tries to banish his fears from his consciousness and instead plunged himself into studying for his next test. In other words, his “observer” system kicked in and he used the fear of judgment to try and control his thoughts and feelings from “going there” (i.e., entering into a full-blown panic where he is revealed as a fraud and is kicked out of his grad program and ends up as a failure in life--"going there" involves catastrophic images).

In short, as I hope is clear, we humans have the capacity to adopt both the position of actor and observer in our own minds. We can now ask, “What kind of audience are you for your thoughts and feelings?” That is, as you take the stance of observer on your own inner experience, what is the attitude you take?

If you “battle” with your emotions or dreaded images, if you try to “force” yourself to think happy thoughts, if you “banish” certain things from the stage of your inner experience, then you are adopting the attitude of a harsh, critical, judgmental audience. And, put that way, how do you think folks normally “perform” when they experience themselves as being in front of a harsh, critical, judgmental audience? Usually, not so hot. So we begin to see how the internal attitudes toward one’s experience can create so much inner turmoil.

With these pieces in place, we are now able to understand what a C.A.L.M. M.O. is. The Meta-cognitive observer is the stance of observing all that is happening in your mind. One helpful metaphor that I use for dividing human consciousness is the theater metaphor. What is on "stage" is your immediate conscious experience. You language based interpretation of what is on stage is your "narrator". The audience in the theater is how you imagine folks might react if they saw you. The “back stage” consists of your memories, nonconscious processes, and the stuff you try to keep from getting on stage (feared images, feelings or thoughts). With this metaphor in place, we can now consider your M. O. as being in the position of observing as experiences, narration, imagined public reactions and so forth unfold. 

Now we get to the C. A. L. M. part, which attempts to capture what is a healthy attide of that Meta-cognitive Observer. The “C” stands for curiosity. A curious stance is one that wonders about all the various parts, what drives them, what are their histories, and what do they represent. Returning to Jeff, rather try to banish the thought/feeling that he was an imposter, he would wonder where that feeling came from, what drives it, what associations there were. He would also be curious about how his narrator and imagined inner audience might react.

he “A” stands for acceptance. In contrast to a judgmental audience that needs to see exactly what it wants or else it will punish, an accepting attitude is one that is open to whatever. From this perspective, Jeff would be accepting that indeed a part of him does feel like an imposter. That makes good sense given his own internal narrator and imagined audience. And it would make sense that he would feel scared and want to avoid being discovered. All of this is accepted as a natural flow of human experience, rather than something to be banished from thought.

The “L” stands for loving compassion. In contrast to a critical stance that demands standards to be met or else love will be withheld and harsh evaluations will be doled out, a loving compassionate stance recognizes that we are humans doing the best we can. At a fundamental level, we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of what we achieve or how we compare. Jeff deserves no less fundamental dignity if he is not as good as biology as other graduate students. 

Finally, the “M” stands for motivated toward valued states of being in the short and long term. This means that reflection on one's core values and one desired outcomes is central to guiding one's life. We can note here there is a tension between the acceptance of being that is emphasized in "A" and cultivating an attitude of growth and becoming that is represented by "M". I find the dialectic of acceptance and active change, or of being relative to becoming, a useful frame. 

It is, of course, not always easy to adopt a C.A.L.M. M.O. The immediacy of stress and ego threats and conflicts and traumas will force our hand some times and we will lose this perspective and capacity. That is ok. It is a way of being that takes time to cultivate. Simply observe when you are able to adopt a C.A.L.M. M.O. and when you are not.

For a wonderful recent example of a C.A.L.M. M.O. in the face of one of life’s most fundamental stressors—death—I highly recommend this deeply moving essay from the famed neuropsychologist, Oliver Sacks.