Six Lessons of a Spinning Top

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By Mark Lundegren

When I was a small child, perhaps like you, one of my favorite toys was a spinning top.

There are elaborate tops, but mine was more modest: a small spindle of wood supporting a round disc. With a practiced flick of my thumb and finger, I could bring the top to life and would watch its gyrations with quiet fascination.

I soon learned that other children shared my interest in tops, and was eventually introduced to many varieties. I remember larger tops that were spun between the palms, and more exotic ones spun with a string. One of my friends had a small collection of tops, many egg-like in shape and painted with bold stripes.

It had been years since I played with a spinning top, or even thought much about them. But recently and unexpected, I began to take a new interest in tops. In fact, for the last few weeks, I have been thinking about tops more, and more deeply, than I ever would have imagined.

In this new interest, I have found that tops offer important lessons about human balance and proportion, and the steps we must take to master essential domains of our lives.

Our Natural Center

To be honest, I don’t remember how or when the image of a spinning top first came to mind, after all this time, but I do recall the general circumstances.

I was traveling with a friend last summer in the western United States. Our journey took us through many austere and beautiful landscapes, and had as its midpoint an artistic festival in the Mojave Desert, an event that is intentionally surreal and far from ordinary life.

Immediately after the festival, and for the second time in my life, I had a startling and quite poignant experience – a lasting feeling of being less than optimally centered as a person, and of being imbalanced and missing out on important positive aspects of my life potential.

As I said, this was not the first time this had happened to me. The first time was several years ago, when I was in the midst of an executive leadership program and in the hands of two very capable psychologists. This time, however, I was returning home through the wilds of Nevada and on my own.

When I say that I sensed I was not optimally centered, I mean a feeling that I was not positioned as well as I could be in my personal possibilities and daily approach to life. Both times, I had a strong new sense that I was not at my ideal point of poise or equilibrium, or state of engagement with the world, with certain attributes overemphasized and others overlooked.

In becoming aware of this new sense of my personal center, I almost immediately saw new paths to a more optimal personal state, and then quickly and quite naturally began to move myself along these paths. As suggested, this movement was to a new midpoint or center of personal gravity, one offering altered perspectives and priorities. It even engendered in me the noticeable change of voice that counselors and coaches often look for as an outer sign of inner change.

If this has re-centering happened to you – perhaps from your own out of the ordinary experiences or encounters with teachers – you know that it is a fairly profound experience and hard to describe. In its happening to me for a second time, however, I had much more awareness of what was going on, of “process” in the words of psychologists. This time, in addition to seeing specific new “content” I needed to work on and assimilate, I was able to take away two important general learnings from the experience.

One learning was that, with openness, most of us probably can achieve this new awareness and move to more optimal states of balance, and perhaps again and again. I say this because the change occurs through a remarkably clear and simple process of increasing awareness in specific ways. My second learning, coming after spending a week in a setting very different from normal life, was that so much around us in society, intentionally or unintentionally, works to keep us from this opportunity of new balance (which I’ll call our natural center). Instead, much that is around us, and even within us, encourages us to live in distorted or “eccentric” ways.

Neither of these ideas is new of course. For centuries, a variety of life philosophies have underscored the ways that unexamined social roles and ambitions can have distorting and undesirable effects on us, pulling us from the more attentive and universal states we are capable. But prescriptions for more balanced life have often lagged these descriptions, leading to imprecise and often either meager or grandiose recommendations for fuller life. Most have proved either inadequately or excessively forceful, and in any case increasing fail to resonate with and prove helpful to people in modern life.

More recently, psychologists have investigated the strong and often counterintuitive power of situational and systemic influences on us. They have demonstrated the propensity of these influences to cause life-limiting imbalance and eccentricity in us. Psychologists have also begun to uncover important strategies to mitigate limitation and imbalance, and more intentionally and universally center and align us in our lives. In practice, these strategies take the form of techniques intended to foster new awareness of ourselves and freedom to chose, leading to more effective, satisfying, and beneficial modes of living.

I have written about these science-based strategies and techniques elsewhere and will again today, but now from a new perspective and offering a simple and elegant way of thinking how they fit together. This perspective comes on the heels of the two newly-heartfelt lessons I mentioned: 1) we can become more balanced and poised through a process of centering ourselves in the fullness of our lives and possibilities, and 2) important influences around and within us work to prevent this universal or natural centering, and must be countered with intentional and creative effort.

Six Lessons to Consider

In considering these two learnings, in the poignant few days after my second “natural centering” experience, one morning the image of a spinning top unexpectedly came to mind.

I saw immediately that at least some of the steps to construct a top, and then to make it spin, are metaphors for measures we must take to better see and pursue more centered life ourselves. After reflecting for a time on the metaphor of a top, I found six key lessons for fuller and more balanced life in the simple allegory of a spinning top.

While I cannot say that there is definitive science underneath each of the six lessons just yet, all do find a place in modern psychological literature. But I fully expect that, together and as applied science, the six lessons for a reliable and even elegant process for helping ordinary people to achieve the new self-awareness that modern science suggests is waiting and the foundation of extraordinary life.

In practice, I have found that the lessons of a top can allow us to see more clearly and then move past unconscious and life-limiting distortion and eccentricity. They can lead us toward new, more desirable, and more powerful states of personal balance, attentiveness, and grace.

With this introduction, here are six lessons of a spinning top for you to consider, perhaps as you seek a fuller experience of your natural center of possibilities and the new awareness this life-changing experience can create. As you will see, the first three lessons involve optimizing a top’s structure, the second three its operation:

1.      Balance – if you picture a simple spinning top, you can see that it has two basic parts. One is its vertical spindle or axis (or a tip and crown in case of a monolithic top) that enables its spinning motion. The second part of a top is a horizontal disc (or body) that provides sustaining mass. The idea or principle of balance primarily involves the top’s horizontal disc. It refers to the need to have a top’s disc or body mass centered equally on its spindle or vertical axis. Without this balancing of a top’s mass, the top will be eccentric and wobble to some degree. An unbalanced top will spin less optimally and for a shorter time than if its horizontal mass is balanced over its vertical axis (even as its wobbled and shorter-lived spinning may prove entertaining to onlookers). The first lesson of a top for us is then that we would do well to balance ourselves and our own mass as a top’s disc or body is balanced, reducing or mitigating extremes in our behaviors and outlooks, and placing ourselves more optimally between our full set of potentials. If you question whether this idea of balancing is right for you, consider three close friends, and whether any extremes in their behaviors and attitudes work to help or hinder them in their lives. Likely, you will see the power of avoiding extremes. Balancing of course embodies the perennial human wisdom of moderation in our conduct and outlooks. And while this perennial quality does not make it a scientific truth, considerable research has shown that moderated behavior does tend to make us more admired by ourselves and others, less stressed and more attentive, and more effective and beneficial in the world. Balance helps both tops and people spin more elegantly, more capably, and far longer.

2.      Alignment – a top’s second lesson involves its vertical axis, whether the axis is a separate spindle or implicit in the line running between the top’s tip and crown. Alignment requires that there be a straightness or congruency in the top’s central axis. Without this alignment or continuity, the top will be hard to set in motion and then will spin erratically and soon falter. In a very similar way, our natural centering requires a specific upward alignment or conscious positioning of ourselves in time. As with a top, this alignment involves maintaining a clear and direct connection between our tip and crown – between our present state on the ground (since we physically cannot go back to our past) and our potential states in the future (knowing that we cannot see ahead perfectly in time). When we begin to observe our present life carefully, and see the potential it always contains for change and progression, important new self-awareness, an essential creative tension, and new personal alignment with the future are engendered in our lives. This new awareness and upward posture allow us to appreciate our present more deeply and the different ways our future might grow from it, affording us new freedom of movement. In seeing ourselves as we are, and as we might be, we straighten and align in time in an important and experientially powerful new way. This alignment fosters increased attentiveness of our present and brings added perspective and movement to daily life, framing our actions and encounters against a larger potential or quest for progression toward more optimal and self-chosen states. The idea of ensuring alignment in this way is at the heart of the psychologist Carl Rogers’ goal of helping people develop new “congruency” between their actual and potential self, clearing the way for more vital life and self-actualization. It is also contained in Philip Zimbardo’s recommendation of conscious holism in our time orientation – for intentionally centering ourselves between past-positive, present-pleasure, and future-constructive modes of orienting and situating in the world. The idea of promoting alignment between our present and potential is equally supported by research showing the important psychological and practical benefits of realistic self-assessment, regular goal-setting, and some amount of goal-directed action.

3.      Mediation – in addition to balance and alignment, there is a third lesson in the essential structure of a top, this one involving its vertical and horizontal dimensions in concert. This lesson is the need to center a top’s body or central mass at the middle point along its vertical axis or spindle – a process I will call mediation, meaning middle-finding. Too low a position of the top’s horizontal disc or mass and the crown will go wayward and the top soon topple. Too high a body position on the top’s vertical axis and the tip will grow out of control and skid out from the precarious mass above it. Mediation is an important lesson for us all and a recurring theme in both traditional philosophy and modern psychology. Without mediation or middle-finding between our specific potential for meekness and arrogance, or self-denial and self-importance, we risk carrying our mass either too low or too high, and may not take advantage of this relatively easy and quite powerful form of natural centering in daily life. The psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about this necessity, describing it as a need for present and self-affirming “being” and definitiveness – apart from important but essentially present and self-negating “becoming” (and which can take ascending, descending, or circular forms).  Carl Rogers also picked up on this idea in his work and looked for examples of people with both elevated and depressed circles of concern. Rogers called attention to our potential for seeking to be “more” than we are or “less” than we are. He viewed both extremes as departures from having a realistic and healthy sense of self. Rogers suggested that when we seek to be more than we really are, it betrays an underlying unhappiness, leading us to harbor illusions of grandiosity, experience regular feelings of insecurity, and behave defensively. When we seek to be less than we are, by contrast, Rogers believed we open ourselves to unhealthy passivity, self-depreciation, and guilt. Each of these potential eccentric self-images can then fuel their own compounding cycles of less optimal life. They underscore the top’s lesson of mediation and our need to be ourselves – both in pursuing our natural aims and in envisioning and seeking these aims. In practice, the techniques of mediation and alignment work hand in hand, centering us in healthy and life-affirming growth, between extreme bottom or top heaviness, and encouraging us to courageously but humbly sense and seek our futures and possibilities. Alignment and mediation help us achieve an accurate, measured, and motivating sense of: a) what is less than us, b) what we are today, c) what we might become, and d) what is more than us.

4.      Spin – what would a top be without a good spin, without movement? Plain or fancy, large or small, any top will simply fall to one side when not turning and wait for action. So it is with us. Like tops, we are naturally evolved for action, movement, and becoming in the world. This is the underlying reason why growth – creative, goal-directed, and beneficent action and change – so reliably increases our sense of happiness and well-being. It is also why a lack of growth, a lack of forward spin, just as reliably leads to a reduced sense of well-being and even compounding stagnation in our lives. But how is proper spin achieved? A common misconception is that change for change’s sake or action for itself is all that is needed to ensure essential forward movement. While it is true that novelty can give us short-term relief from feelings of stagnation, and can teach us about more directed forms of change, healthy long-term movement is a far more attentive and progressive process. A top teaches us that spinning requires a steady hand and a precise application of energy. In our lives, this means seeking change that is aligned with and steered toward an emerging vision of our potential. It includes setting measurable and achievable goals for the short and long term. And it involves the precise use of our energy – working toward our vision and goals in a centering between commitment and patience. A top also teaches us that its movements are best aimed at its essence, toward having the top do what it does best. A considerable body of research suggests this is an important lesson for us too. In addition to various findings that promote the idea of future directed visioning (alignment) and goal-setting, researchers at Gallup and elsewhere have found that directing this effort toward essential qualities and strengths produces action that is on average both more satisfying and more impactful. Acting in these more essential ways for us involves cultivating a clear sense of personal attributes and proportion (balance), and focusing effort at developing our natural strengths and circumstances (mediation). Downplaying weaknesses and avoiding mistakes in our actions and application of our energy can be helpful, and perhaps critical in certain situations, but on average are not substitutes for effort aimed at leveraging our strengths. We must spin therefore, pursuing specific goals and moving as we must and should, in ways that express our essence and take advantage of our unique strengths.

5.      Reach – though a top must be internally balanced, aligned, and mediated if it is to spin properly, it’s important to see that the ultimate thrust or power of a spinning top is directed outward, not inside itself. This fifth lesson of tops proves essential for us, and is often at the root of why otherwise careful work at consciously-structuring our lives can fail to realize its full promise. For centuries and even today, in a variety of life philosophies, we have been encouraged to have a preoccupation with the thinking self – whether to keep it from sin, to examine it exhaustively, or to negate it. But the prolonged self-reflection that mark these dominating philosophies encourage, in word or result, human life that is inherently unnatural and pointed away from the sources of our fulfillment. As you may know, science teaches us that our long time in nature was a collective one, where our individual attention was primarily focused on others and the many the demands of life in wild nature. We are thus right to suspect that extroversion, attentiveness to relationships, and skilled engagement in our surroundings, and not isolation and self-focus, are essential and natural human attributes (and critical to our proper spinning). Though this idea often proves counterintuitive to people in modern individualistic societies, a growing body of evidence suggests it deserves far greater attention and is more accurate than many traditional description of our basic nature and needed orientation. Here, the lesson of the spinning top is to move, to live, and to become in the world. But it is also to do this in an outward reach. The top, and a great deal of research, caution us to take new care with ideas and preoccupations that turn us inside ourselves, and that we must never to confuse self-awareness with self-absorption. The centered but essential outward quality of a spinning top reminds us to check our alignment and spin – our life vision and plans – to ensure they are sufficiently externally-oriented and world-aimed. Both must recognize that a centered but “lively life” of outward focus is the route of our well-being and flourishing. They must help us steer a personal course toward a life of attentive engagementskilled and progressive endeavor, and supportive relationships, themes I have written about elsewhere.

6.   Placement – a sixth lesson that spinning tops teach us is the imperative of reasonably level ground upon which to stand. Spin a top on an incline, or on rough surface or on sand, and it will not spin well or long.  For us, I believe this lesson of placement is not that our environments must be perfect – since we are evolved for a certain amount of overcoming and reliably languish when our lives are freed of struggle and prospect, Rather, it is that we should seek and create settings that are just, supportive, and humane, ones where we can act on our plans and make use of the lessons of tops (and other teachers). Our essential human surface must support our needs for progression and growth, for reciprocating society, and the active and fair balance of competing visions and actions in society. Researchers have demonstrated that open and democratic societies not only better achieve these goals, but also more reliably foster happiness and long life. With ideas in mind, finding placement means seeking, creating, and protecting human environments that foster understanding, freedom, growth, learning, reciprocity, and security. All are essential ingredients of fulfilling life and conditions that favor our human flourishing – our outward spinning and our becoming the marvelous things we can be.

Exploring Your Natural Center

I offer these six lessons of self-transformation on the heels of an extraordinary personal experience – for the second time in my life, first sensing and then moving closer to my “natural center” of possibilities. My hope is that these simple lessons will help you experience and act on your ongoing potential for new centering, and the richer sense of life and new opportunities it can create.

Both times I achieved new awareness of my center, my feelings began as a mild unease and then changed to curiosity, and then to happiness and finally gratitude. It might be best therefore to describe the experience as challenging but ultimately rewarding and beneficial. My life has certainly been altered and enriched, in subtle and not so subtle ways, each time I better sensed and explored my natural center. The fact I have had the natural centering experience more than once – each time with equal force but in very different contexts and with evolving content – suggests we can have the experience multiple times and progressively during our life.

If you would like to explore your natural center of possibilities for yourself, it is likely essential that you first open yourself to the idea that you may not be, and may never be, perfectly centered and positioned in your life. For some of us, this is an easy premise to accept, since we are aware of our flaws, but perhaps so aware that we are overwhelmed by them and do not take practical steps to alter our present state. For others of us, embracing the idea of not being optimally centered can be unsettling and even threatening, perhaps making us similarly overwhelmed and unable or unwilling to explore the causes of these feelings.

Admitting imperfection or eccentricity certainly runs contrary to popular prescriptions that we accept and live with ourselves as we are, essentially in a strategy of lowering our expectations to increase our self-esteem. But courageously humbling ourselves to our potential for progression and improvement seems a critical precondition, if we are to reliably progress and move to new possibilities. In any case, we can take heart that our eccentricities (our operating points away from our natural center) are generally created by culture and circumstance, and by our biology, rather than our conscious selves. We are not guilty of an infraction in this regard, unless we become aware of and do not use our power to change.

When you feel open to change and ready for the work of exploring your natural center, a next step is to understand that each of the six lessons of the top are dimensions of being naturally centered and important “centering” in themselves:

  • Balance – the center between our potential for extremes of attitude and behavior in daily life
  • Alignment – centering ourselves between our present life and future potential
  • Mediation – the center between being less and being more than we areSpin – a center of coordinated effort between passivity and impulsive action
  • Reach – the center between internal and social life, where attentiveness and action meet
  • Placement– centering our personal environment between limiting extremes

There may be other dimensions of natural centering than these six, but they seem like a good place to start, and perhaps are even inexhaustible sources of personal growth and progression when used regularly and persistently.

You can begin the process of natural centering yourself with the technique of balancing, personally monitoring or taking stock of your daily behavior and attitudes (including looking for unconscious personal attributes). To help in this, you might solicit candid feedback from a few friends, seeking to understand how they view you, at your best and your worst, and what they would most like to change about you. This probing can be challenging for everyone involved, but often provides unexpected insight into our extreme states and simple but unappreciated avenues for growth and progress. Whether through self-examination or feedback, or by taking personality tests or inventories, your goal in balancing should be to identify ineffective or undesirable extremes in your patterns of action and outlook.

The work of balancing often provides a surprising and piquant new awareness of ourselves, including overlooked and near immediate possibilities for progressive change. After balancing, the techniques of alignment and mediation can immediately follow. Using the information obtained in balancing, alignment involves candidly and creatively imagining your possibilities for the future and then taking stock of your life as it is today. This can take the form of lists of attributes describing you and your life as you might want them to be in the future, and you and your life today. Mediation then takes these lists and asks you to divide the items into four ascending categories: 1) items less than you, 2) items that are you today, 3) items that you want in your life, and 4) items that are more than you. The goal of mediation is to find the central or most important items for your future focus, as well as those items that will take a smaller share of your focus in the future.

As I suggested before, these lists can be worked on iteratively and progressively, and likely will change over time as you progress and see your life and the world through new eyes, so don’t worry about perfection. Solid and satisfying lists of alignment and mediation attributes are good enough at any stage, and it will usually be clear when you have achieved this level of completeness. This point is essential to keep in mind throughout all your centering efforts, since the work of centering can be challenging, requiring new effort and candor with yourself.

Accept that this work may be complicated and tentative at times, but expect it to produce unexpected insights and options for a richer place in the world too. Equally recognize that you must maintain your energy and motivation, and thus must center yourself in the right amount of considerations and tasks at any point in time and not let yourself become overwhelmed. If you adopt a strategy of persistency and progressivity, you may be surprised at the way small and cautious but sustained steps can take you to new places.

Balancing, alignment, and mediation create the structure for a more centered and powerful life, but this new structure must of course be set in motion as we have discussed. Here, the technique of spin can be used to create an action plan to bring your new self-awareness to your life. There are a number of ways to do this, but most involve organizing your ideas into intended goals and actions (which should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-specified). Examples might involve a general desire to acquire new skills or to eliminate a recurring behavior. Converting either of these items into a goal means stating them in roughly the following form: “by <date>, <start/stop> <item>.” As you convert your general wishes to specific goals, you may find that wishes often require multiple and sequential goals over time. For example, the objective of acquiring a new skill might be divided in the goals of investigate schools, apply, attend, and graduate, each with their own timeframe.

As you formulate your goals, I recommend that you initially group items into things you want in 1 month, 2-12 months, and 12+ months. This approach allows you to see immediately how balanced your aspirations are between the short and long-term. Also, by pursuing an item or two in the 1-month column right away, the approach can provide both momentum and early feedback and learning about your action plan and use of the centering techniques more generally.

As I said, expect your list of aspirations or objectives to change and evolve, at first and over time, especially if you go through the centering process again. After all, a more centered and powerful life is a creative and ongoing endeavor, not an eventual resting place or final destination. Because of the inevitability of change, I also recommend that you review and reconsider your action plan at least monthly for several months and then at least twice yearly after that.

When your initial and revised action plans take shape, you can bring the techniques of reach and placement to the process of plan refinement. Reach involves checking your plan to ensure that it is primarily externally-oriented and not overly self-preoccupied – aimed primarily at the fulfillment-orientated objectives of engagementendeavor, and relationships I introduced before.

The technique of placement provides a similar check on our planned actions. Placement encourages us to attend to essential sources of support and limitation in our environment and not simply to improve ourselves in isolation. Placement involves ensuring a balance of positive change in ourselves and change in our setting, and ensuring that our environment is not one of chronic and limiting extremes. Placement does not require that we seek or create utopia, but does suggest we should take action on items that are obviously limiting to our growth (and likely, that of others). In a sense, reach and placement are complements, ensuring an outward and engaged personal orientation and then using this orientation to improve our environment so that it encourages more centered and engaged life.

Together, these six lessons of a spinning top – balance, alignment, mediation, spin, reach, and placement – provide a rich, artful, and systematic approach to personal mastery and transformation. They encourage new awareness and perhaps unexpected creativity in us, helping us to sense and then act toward the new and deeper “natural center” always waiting in our lives and environment.

I hope our discussion of tops and centering proves helpful and even life-changing for you. I wish you early and continued success in your own uncovering and pursuit of your natural center, and your use of new awareness of your center of possibilities to create progressively more vital and fulfilling life.

When you have minute, I would also encourage you to make or buy a small top as a touchstone and remembrance of our discussion today. Keep the top somewhere where you will see it regularly and spin it from time to time. Use your spinning top as a reminder that we all can better see and act from our center, and that tops can teach us much about this natural human potential.

As you take your top’s important lessons to heart, you may find that it spins you in return.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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