‘4×4’ For New Personal Traction

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By Mark Lundegren

Usually, when someone recommends that we go four-by-four, they mean we should drive or ride in a four-wheel drive or sport utility vehicle. 

Going four-by-four in this way can be safer and more flexible, if more resource-intensive, than traveling in a traditional two-wheel drive vehicle, especially when we need or want the option of extra traction along our way.

When I introduce the idea of “four-by-four” in my health advocacy work, I mean something very different than this, though my suggestion still involves increasing traction.  I use the metaphor of four-by-four movement to suggest an important change, not in our choice of vehicles, but in our approach to life – a subtle adjustment in the way we live in and move through the day, every day, and even each moment of our days.

In the next few minutes, I will explain this alternative approach and encourage you to go four-by-four yourself, exploring your own life in a new, distinct, and even liberating way.  As I suggested, this change involves centering yourself in two important aspects of your lived, or moment-to-moment, experience.  This centering of ourselves does take a little practice, but can lead to an extraordinary new outlook, and new insights and opportunities in our lives, and is well worth the effort.

If you have tried meditation, or practice it now, this mention of centering ourselves may seem familiar.  But going four-by-four in the way I will describe is missed in many approaches to meditation, even as it is perhaps the most important thing one can do when meditating.

This idea of four-by-four is thus similar to some but not all forms of meditation. It is a way of cultivating ourselves and our awareness, but a way that does not require us to sit cross-legged.  Going four-by-four, in fact, encourages us to open our eyes and stretch our legs, to move about our lives and engage in the world, though in an important and quite specific new way.

In the four-by-four approach, you can and should go about your life as you normally would – bringing the technique to your life and not your life to the technique.

Two Critical Dimensions of Experience

I mentioned already that the technique of going four-by-four involves focusing on two aspects or dimensions of our daily experience. When I use the word, experience, I mean the moment-by-moment flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and events in and around us each day. 

The two dimensions of experience focused on are:  1) our Activation Level, and 2) our Time Orientation. In both cases, our goal is to become more optimally positioned, or four-by-four, in these two critical and interactive dimensions of experience. In doing this, we are often able to achieve greater quality of life, through the new perspective and control that can come from this re-positioning of ourselves in our daily experience.

The term, Activation Level, simply refers to our mix or relative degree of activity and passivity in any moment.  The term, Time Orientation, refers to our mix or degree of retrospective (past), circumspective (present), and prospective (future) elements in our minds or experience at any moment. 

Together, new attention to these important aspects of our personal experience can help us to do two things. First is to better sense and understand the different states of awareness that can and do occur in our moment-to-moment experience. From there, we then can work at a second task: to find and maintain optimal positioning within experience, immediately enhancing our awareness and increasing our longer-term potential for superior choices and actions, or new traction, in our lives. 

At this point, you may be wondering how the “four-by-four” part fits in to our discussion.  Compared with the perhaps unfamiliar idea of examining your experience, it is really very simple. While simple, though, the idea of four-by four is a very powerful way of thinking about experience, one that can help us to make our experience more tangible and accessible to us, and more subject to our conscious control. 

The simple idea of four-by-four is that, for each of the two dimensions of experience I have introduced – Activation Level and Time Orientation – we can place our range of possible personal states onto two 1-7 scales.  On these scales, the numbers one and seven represent extreme conditions or positions, while the number four implies a midpoint, or centering or balancing, between these extremes states of mind. 

So, when we are personally centered on imagined 1-7 scales for Activation Level and Time Orientation, we become “four-by-four,” at or near the midpoint of these critical dimensions of our experience. In achieving this state, we gain an ability to see other experiential states and personal patterns of consciousness more plainly. We also very often are placed in our most optimal experiential position, relative to the world and our lives, as we plan, choose, and act amidst our momentary and ever-changing experience.

Our Potential for “Four” States

With this introduction to the four-by-four approach, let’s now talk in more depth about the 1-7 scales for Activation Level, and then our Time Orientation.

For the dimension of experience I have called our Activation Level, a value of one on our 1-7 scale is used to represent times when we are passive and inactive.  When we are in a one-state on this scale, this is a time of disengagement and inattention to the world and even to ourselves, a time when we are not focusing on anything in particular and are perhaps beginning to sleep.  This ability of ours to be inactive or inattentive can be quite important – for example, when we need to get some rest at the end of the day.

As we begin to pay attention to our circumstances or experience more definitively, our level of activation of course increases.  We might move from a sleepy or distant one-state on our Activation scale to a three or four, or even higher, as we more actively engage in experience and attend to things in our consciousness or to events in our surroundings.

At the other end of our 1-7 Activation Level scale, representing a value of seven, are times when we are exceptionally active and engaged in the world.  Such seven-states on our scale might include responding to a crisis or threat, working on an impending deadline or commitment, reacting to a surprise (good or bad), or otherwise becoming highly engaged in something and hyperactive. 

While the personal states that correspond to a seven can be times of high activity and task engagement, they are almost always also times of greatly narrowed perspective. Seven-states are frequently times when we fail to attend sufficiently to our surroundings and to the people and facts in them.  Activation Levels at or near a seven on our scale usually involve periods when we lack optimal awareness of context, times when we are caught up in impulsive,instinctive, or reactive action – acts that are often unconscious and that we may later regret (and see in hindsight as insufficiently thoughtful, deliberative, or considerate). 

An Activation Level of four lies between our potential for these two extreme states of activation.  These are generally times when we are acting purposefully and attentively, moments when we are both engaged in and reflective about our actions and our surroundings. Four-state moments are times when we act, and actively consider the context of our actions as we act. When we are activated in this way, we are usually, and even unusually, deliberative and attentive. We are neither on the verge of sleep nor in the throes of all-consuming action.

As you might guess, such four-states of activation are often a far more desirable way to be in our experience, more ideal states of mind with which to move through and act in the world.  A way to describe an Activation Level of four is that we are “acting in our life and not living in action.”  When we are at or near an activation of four, we are usually in a special state of self-control. We achieve a special integration and appreciation of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And we are less apt to let natural personal biases toward either excessive or inadequate situational activation take unconscious or automatic control of us.

In a similar way, our Time Orientation can move toward extreme states, or become (or be consciously made) more centered and optimal. 

On our 1-7 scale, a Time Orientation of one means that we are primarily backward-looking and retrospective in that moment. A one-state means we are oriented to the past, or to what is familiar, known, and (actually or seemingly) certain to us.  In this orientation, we are focused on what once was, perhaps, or on what once might have been. Because of this position, we are often also invoking quite strong positive or negative thoughts and feelings, and thus perhaps unconsciously increasing or potentiating our Activation Level. 

Familiar ideas and positive personal narratives, and the facility of memory itself, are of course very useful tools in our lives, but they also can constrain us too, especially when left unconscious, unexamined, or unchecked. An overly strong one-state focus on the past can keep us from our lives as they are, and from new experiences contained in the present. A retrospective bias can suppress or keep us from mastering the many important but unfamiliar thoughts, feelings, and occurrences we have constantly in our real-time experience (and that are often quite pregnant with possibilities for new awareness and greater quality of life).

At the other end of our Time Orientation scale, with a value of seven, is our potential to become highly future-oriented.  A seven-statesignifies those times when we are primarily prospective in our Time Orientation and principally focused on possibilities and goals, on eventual or possible outcomes, or on the content of our imagination – just as with memory and retrospection, with things not immediately before us in the present. 

When we are in a Time Orientation of seven, we are oriented toward what will be, or what might be, rather than what is.  While our natural faculties of prospection and imagination are equally valuable to the mastery of our lives as memory and narrative, they also share the same tendency to pull us from the moments of our lives and the world as it actually is. By this, I mean the immediate present, where our lives are lived, and where all our past learnings and future plans are accessed and considered.

Like a strong retrospective outlook, an extreme future focus can cause us to neglect the present or allow our imagination to keep us from the full reality of what is occurring in and around us.  When this happens, we can become less aware of and effective in the moments of our lives. As with a strong retrospective orientation, a marked future orientation distorts or removes us from present experience. This can cause us to miss important opportunities to work more optimally or directly toward what we want in the future.

Just as important as reducing our effectiveness over time, an excessive future focus can prevent us from simply enjoying the moment – taking in the natural unfolding of our lives and the world around us as they are, and the many intrinsic rewards and pleasures of life present in our lives and surroundings as they are each moment. We miss experiencing the world apart from our goals and prospects, and unalloyed with unchecked and often unconscious wanting.

Combining Fours to Transform Experience

In a Time Orientation of four, we find ourselves between the past and future in our experience, in present-time and oriented toward the internal and external world immediate before us.

As with the other time orientations we discussed, there are practical advantages and disadvantages to being present-oriented. The prime advantages include being able to enjoy life more fully and spontaneously, without the filter of retrospection or prospection. The disadvantages include being less able to tap useful memories and to organize present activities toward future aims that can improve our quality of life. This can be especially true when our Activation Level is either very high or low (when we are in the present, but either overly caught up in or inattentive to it).

Exploring the present can be very useful in developing our awareness of the relative ease or difficulty with which we can be oriented toward our immediate experience, and in cultivating new perspective on our overall patterns of past, present and future orientation during our days. Importantly, exploring the present is also important in that it can allow us to examine how conscious attention to the present works to subtly alter and provide us with new control over our Activation Level.

It is, in fact, here – in the present and with a Time Orientation at or near four on our 1-7 scale – that an important interaction with our Activation Level can occur, leading both to deeper insights into the different ways that our Time orientation and Activation Level vary to create different states of personal experience, and how they can combine when both are in “four” states to form a new and heightened state of personal awareness. This special four-by-four state of experience allows us to attend to the present consciously and make the most of the advantages of a present orientation, while minimizing the disadvantages of forgetting past lessons and future goals, or of being insufficiently or inadequately activated in our personal experience.

As the title of our discussion suggests, a critical insight is waiting in the four-by-four state: when we are oriented to the present with either a high or low level of activation, we lack either sufficient engagement in or adequate control of our momentary experience.  When we overlay an Activation Level of four (attentive action) over a Time Orientation of four (present focus), however, these two aspects of experience are brought together and a transformative new perspective is created in this combination. 

Underlying and enabling this combined “four-by-four” state of awareness is the fact that the act of attending to our Activation Level, in itself, often begins a shift to a present Time Orientation, just as the conscious attention to our Time Orientation naturally moves our Activation level toward a four-state. As mentioned before, these two important dimensions of experience are related and influence one another (which should not be surprising, since they are aspects of the single phenomenon that is our experience). Importantly, each dimension of experience can potentiate one another, not just to provide added perspective on our lives, but to create a wholly new and transformed state of consciousness as well.

When we are genuinely four-by-four” on each of our two dimensions of experience – Activation Level and Time Orientation – we move from being “present oriented” to being “present situated.” Four-by-four awareness involves a special attentiveness to the moment, a state that is neither excessively nor inadequately active, where we immerse ourselves in the moment, but remain aware that we are in the moment and do not hand over control of our attention to it.

If this seems esoteric, I can assure you this is not the case. The heightened personal experience of four-by-four states can be consciously, systematically, and reliably achieved with just a bit of practice (and it can be arrived at accidently too – for example, through athletics and other skilled activities requiring attention and immersion). Going four-by-four is a practical matter of patiently and consciously adjusting our Activation Level and Time Orientation until we are near a four in each dimension, and then letting the combined effect naturally happen.

When the four-by-four state does happen, the quality of our experience suddenly shifts and lifts into a special and highly attentive state. It is a change that is distinct and unmistakable in practice, and readily arrived at with practice. The shift is analogous to the way that gradual temperature and pressure adjustments can suddenly a pull a dissolved substance out of a chemical solution, or the way that two optical lens can be brought together to create a new view that is sharper and more penetrating than is possible alone.

Combined four-states in our Activation Level and Time Orientation are a highly attentive and consciously time-situated form of experience, allowing us to think and act in more balanced, adroit, and creative ways, and to bring the past, present, and future to our moment-to-moment experience. When we are four-by-four, we are aware of our immediate experience, but balanced and fluid in it – able to both participate in and attend to lived experience as it unfolds.

This special value of four for Time Orientation need not mean losing ourselves in our experience, unable to bring memory and imagination to our choices and actions, as long as we consciously and simultaneously manage and attend to our Activation Level.  As you can discover for yourself, it is very much possible to be present in our lives, while keeping ready and creative access to and perspective on our memories, values, and hopes.

It is possible to be present situated, rather than simply present oriented, in other words, creating important new awareness and possibilities in our lives. 

Examining Our Activation & Orientation

I have summarized our discussion so far below, and would encourage you to consider and become comfortable with the two 1-7 scales I have introduced, exploring and relating them to your recent, current, and approaching experience, before we turn to using the four-by-four technique in your life:

Activation Level

1 = passive & disengaged

4 = improvising & attentive

7 = hyperactive & narrowed

Time Orientation

1 = past focused

4 = present oriented…or present situated

7 = future focused

Seven Ways of Being in the World

At this point, you may simply want to begin to explore the four-by-four state yourself. If so, you can skip ahead and pick up our discussion in the section. If you would like to become more familiar with the two dimensions of experience I have introduced, and better understand the ways they can interact and the range of experience they can produce, you can continue with our discussion here.

To explore our natural range or patterns of experience as people, we can consider the various combinations of 1-7 states along the two dimensions we have discussed. Doing a bit of math based on our discussion, however, we quickly find there are many possible states of personal experience that can be described or mapped using our two scales. 

Assuming whole numeric values only, for example, there would be 49 states of experience possible in our framework (seven Activation Levels x seven Time Orientations = 49). These states of experience range from a quite passive, backward-looking state of 1-1 to a fairly frantic,future-oriented state of 7-7.  

All of us naturally move through many of these experiential states throughout our lives, and even throughout many of our days, and it is worth spending time personally on the lookout for your own movements into and through these states of experience. In doing this, as you might have guessed already, we soon find that we generally return to ourselves to the four-by-four state whenever we begin examining experience – especially when we examine the quite tangible dimensions of experience that are our Activation Level and Time Orientation.

Given the goals of our discussion, let’sgeneralize a bit and cluster this high number and wide range of potential experiential states into a few general groupings.  Perhaps one or more of the following sevengroupings will aptly describe your general personal orientation, or the overall behavior patterns of someone you know:

Romantic (passive & retrospective) – an overall personal state where we are focused on the past or the familiar, and are not acting in a deliberate way toward new outcomes.

  • Historian (highly active & retrospective) – personal states where we are focused on the past or the familiar, and are acting forcefully, but often in narrow, exacting, or unexamined ways.
  • Fatalist (passive & present-oriented) – an overall personal state where we are focused on the present, but in indifferent or inattentive ways.
  • Playmate (highly active & present-oriented) – personal states where we are highly focused on the present or the familiar, but often in reactive rather than reflective ways,
  • Dreamer (passive and prospective) – personal states where we are focused on the future or our goals, but are not acting in a deliberate way toward new outcomes.
  • Futurist (highly active & prospective) – personal states where we are focused on the future or our goals, and are acting forcefully, but often in narrow, exacting, or unexamined ways.
  • Four-By-Four (acting and present) – personal states where we are attentive and actively time situated, drawing on memory and imagination to inform our present, and especially states where we are conscious of both our activity and time frames.

If you want, you can draw out these seven generalized groupings to create a simple visual model of our experience potential. 

To do this, draw a square about half the size of a page or screen, put a small “1” just outside the lower-left corner of the square, and then put a small “7” just outside both the upper-left and lower-right corners of the square.  Next, label the left side of the square “Activation Level” and the bottom side “Time Orientation.”  Finally, put the above seven category names in the appropriate sections of the square, leaving room in the middle for the “Four-By-Four” category.

If this categorization exercise is interesting to you, let me encourage you to spend time considering these seven Activation-Orientation groupings in more depth.  To develop fluency with them, it is helpful to find examples of each of these states, first in yourself and then perhaps in the people around you (while always keeping such insights to yourself or sharing them caringly and with openness, since our assessments may be unwelcomed or incorrect). 

As specific examples of the seven groupings accumulate for you, and as you become more familiar with our natural variations in Activation Level and Time Orientation, you next can formally assess your own general range of experience (your most frequent states of momentary life). You can do this fairly easily by using a mechanical or electronic timer to randomly “catch” yourself in your experience at different times.  As you will likely soon find, most of us are naturally biased toward one general area of the experiential map we introduced, even as the quality of our experience can range to many other areas of the map as well. 

Through the force of both nature and nurture, we are each generally more or less activated as people, and more or less oriented to the past, present, and future.  As you might have guessed, few, if any, of us naturally spend our lives in the four-by-four state. Indeed, the point of our discussion is to highlight both our potential to achieve this more optimal state of experience and our need to consciously explore and create this state for ourselves. 

Going Four-By-Four Yourself

As suggested already, you can explore and reliably achieve four-by-four states for yourself. In doing this you will cultivate new perspective in at least three areas: 1) your regular range of personal activations and orientations, 2) how these various states combined to shape and color your experience and quality of life, and 3) your ability to increase the time you spend in and act from the heightened four-by-four state itself.

The work (and, in time, play) of going four-by-four begins quite simply, by becoming more conscious of your varying experiential states or stances. Included in this effort is seeking to see our general personal experiential bias (the combinations of Activation Level and Time Orientation that we principally operate from), and how our states of experience naturally varies over time and in different circumstances. 

As our knowledge and comfort examining our experience increases, we then can begin to actively and practically work to be more conscious and in control of our Activation Level and Time Orientation each day, or rather, each moment. As we have discussed, this process in itself naturally moves us toward the four-by-four state, taking advantage of the tendency of our conscious control of one dimension of experience to increase our control of the other. 

By raising attention to and control of our experience, we soon achieve moments and then extended periods of four-by-four experience. We gradually build enough practice to understand when we are out of the four-by-four state, and how to quickly return to it. And we increasingly appreciate that we are often far more optimally situated in and aware of our lives and the workings of our selves, whenever we create or enter into the four-by-four state. With this important knowledge, our motivation and ability to go into the four-by-four state in turn increases – and we realize many practical benefits from this over time.

In seeking this progression, it is important to keep in mind that there is really no secret to the conscious centering or intentional balancing of our Activation Level and Time Orientation.  Simply by being more aware of our natural experiential biases, we immediately gain new control over them. With sustained practice, both our confidence and awareness increase, improving our control of our experience and reducing personal biases that limit the richness of our experience and the quality of our life. We move to the four-by-four state mostly by being aware of it, and by willing or seeking ourselves into it.

With new awareness and control of experience, and with more time experiencing life with our personal Activation Level and Time Orientation centered in four-states, the moments of our lives soon become more consciously lived and more optimally directed.  At the same time, by catching ourselves out of the four-by-four state, we gain intimate self-awareness that our Activation Level and Time Orientation are variable and often personally biased in a particular direction.

In this pursuit of four-by-four life, we can begin to overcome unconscious and often far from optimal tendencies all of us have, tendencies that may greatly reduce our self-mastery and limit both our richness and progressivity in our lives.  In doing this, we build a new personal pattern of redirecting ourselves back to the heightened self-awareness and greater personal control of the four-by-four state.

Meet Karen & Jeff

Two true but disguised examples will make clearer this process of exploring our personal Activation Level and Time Orientation.

  • Karen – is a young woman I worked with several years ago and still keep in touch with.  A caring and sensitive person, Karen was a classic “romantic” in many senses of this word.  Karen spent a great deal of time and energy focused on her childhood, which had been turbulent and painful at times, and perhaps ironically, often lamented the fact that she no longer lived in the area where she grew up.  At the same time, Karen had a pattern of moving between jobs, never committing to one avocation and performing each successive job passively and without dedication – in a few words, she really was not committed to her new location and even her adult life.  As Karen better saw her own bias toward illogical nostalgia and unconscious passivity or resistance to the course of life, and the possibilities of very different Time Orientations and Activation Levels for her life, she was able to mobilize and move her personal stance toward a more active and present-situated state, and gain new and unexpected perspective on her past and future.  Once Karen was able to begin to go “four-by-four,” she awakened in an important new way within her life.  In Karen’s case, she soon committed to a profession that is very compelling to her personally and began to establish new and much needed friendships in her new locale.  Karen went from being stuck in her past to being present in her life. In addition to uncovering her biases, Karen was also able to use the four-by-four perspective itself to be more reflective and insightful throughout the day, making better choices and improving her quality of life through approaches though brought new friends and estranged family members into her life.
  • Jeff – is a middle-aged man I worked with recently, whose situation was very different. Jeff is a dynamic “futurist” who kept a very busy schedule, including extensive work-related socializing and partying, and juggling enormous and really quite grandiose life plans.  Unfortunately, Jeff struggled to practically connect his present life and activities to his future visions, or to carefully examine his vision and its enormous scope, working at times on various aspects of his vision but rarely with sufficient realism or pragmatism.  In truth, Jeff did not have a specific pathway or clear plan in mind to achieve his many and quite varied personal goals, and this lead to stress and then the frequent allocation of his present time impulsively and episodically, in stress-reducing ways to counter his pervasive but generally unexamined frustrations.  In our discussions, Jeff quickly saw and understood his natural bias toward high activity and the future, and went through a period of several months of evaluating his future vision and present state, and working toward more pragmatic and focused goals and uses of his time. One change that Jeff made was to limit socializing and to make his relationships more health-oriented and supportive of his re-cast future plans.  As Jeff’s perspective or stance became more four-by-four, he was able to uncover the essential or core elements of his goals and then craft more concrete steps toward achieving them.  Jeff’s future vision has become clearer and a bit smaller and more focused, more aligned to what he most values and what is motivating to him, and is now taking shape in his life today. Once quite impulsive, Jeff is viewed today by his new friends as a trusted source of advice and perspective. He is able to move to the four-by-four state as needed, for example when he or others are under stress or facing uncertainty, and bring clearer thinking and situational analysis to his work and personal relationships. 

Balanced Life Beginning Today

I hope these quite personal examples inform and inspire you to begin to consider your own life and experience, and unconscious patterns of activation and orientation, as they are right now and as they will vary in your life each day.  I also hope they motivate you to seek and practice entering the four-by-four state of experience for yourself.

In exploring and creating the four-by-four state, you might start by looking for what unconscious natural biases and personal tendencies are at work within you – unintentionally pulling you from a more optimal four-by-four approach to life – with the knowledge that this is a personal fact of life for almost all of us. 

In practice, as we gain new perspective on the biases and movements of our Activation Level and Time Orientation, our needed steps to move to a more four-by-four life approach become quite clear and even can happen effortlessly with a bit of practice and through the work of controlling our experience.  As we spend more time in the four-by-four sate, we gradually increase our understanding of (and sometimes even startle ourselves with) the power that more a focused and attentive state of mind can create for us – as we unexpectedly enter and increasingly live from the four-by-four state.

Perhaps you have found already that you are an unintentional romantic, or a futurist, or an historian or dreamer, or that you regularly move through some combination of these general categories each day, or in response to different circumstances.  Perhaps though, you will remain unsure for a time of your natural experiential posture and personal variations, and might want to seek the advice of others or new ways of looking at your experience. 

As mentioned before, a great technique to build new awareness of our momentary experience and general experiential biases is to “catch ourselves” in our experience. This can be done with a timer as I suggested, or with a trusted friend, or simply by committing yourself to become more attentive to your experience. Whatever approach you use, be prepared for and receptive to unexpected insights into your experience and the unconscious ways you approach the many moments of your life – especially as you live with the idea that there is a unique and elevated midpoint of higher awareness and greater effectiveness waiting within us all.

However you decide to begin to explore the four-by-four state, I hope you will begin. It is a path to understand the subtle power of balancing activity and passivity, and of stretching our natural attentiveness to span the past, present, and future in a more integrated way.  Very likely, you will soon see remarkable opportunities for more thoughtful choices and actions, and for more compelling and satisfying life, within and amidst your life as it is already. This can occur simply by more consciously situating yourself in your life and experience, and by watching for the things that pull you from this more conscious and controlled form of personal awareness.

The result can be a rich new appreciation of your present and new personal traction, taking you from your past into your future, moving you more confidently and consciously along the journey that is your life, and allowing you to enjoy life’s many remarkable vistas along the way.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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