My guess is that many of us don’t pay too much attention to the rpm gauge on the dashboard of our car. This dial tells us how many revolutions per minute the engine is making. The more we hit the gas pedal, the higher the rpms.

When the car is revving, the rpm needle climbs higher. Once we’re in the right gear and at a steady speed, the engine hums and the rpm needle relaxes at a comfortable reading. We still have our foot on the gas pedal, the engine is still firing, we may even be gradually accelerating, but it’s a smooth and easy forward movement, not a frenetic high-pitched racing of the engine.

Finding the zone

What an interesting thing it is, to have tiny sparks igniting gasoline and creating repeated miniature explosions inside the engine and having the vehicle quietly and happily cruising forward at the same time. It’s as if the vehicle is in a sweet spot or a certain zone where it’s working hard and expending energy, but in a relaxed and efficient way.

If only we could move our lives forward in a similar way, to have all cylinders firing, but relaxed at the same time. We set out to do a simple meditation exercise and get frustrated because we’re trying too hard to “focus” or “concentrate” on our breathing. So we give up and say “I can’t do this.” It’s tricky to feel the difference between the relaxed “noticing” the breath vs. the tense “concentrating” on the breath.

We want to inspire and motivate our kids and spouses, our students and employees to do their best, to grow and succeed. If we’re too timid about it, we may not get the ball rolling much at all. If we’re too pushy and persistent, we may invite resistance and stall the project.

We all have our external and internal projects and goals. We want to paint the house, start the garden, plan a vacation, pay off debts, save for college. We also want to improve our physical and psychological health, deepen our relationships and develop our career paths. How much time and energy should we devote to these things? How can we work hard on these goals and be relaxed at the same time? Since we don’t have an rpm dial for our minds or bodies, how can we tell if we’re in the right gear?

Learning to tune in

Part of the answer may be that we need to get better at two things—listening and feeling how things are going as we’re moving forward. These are two senses that we may not use enough. Without looking at the rpm gauge, the experienced driver can tell how the car is performing by listening to and feeling, or sensing, the running of the car. The driver knows the sounds of an engine that is sluggish, or revving, or cruising. Sensing the vibrations and the torque, the driver can feel whether the engine needs more gas or less, or if it’s just right.

Perhaps this is what we mean by intuition—to hear, sense or feel what’s going on. This is a skill we can improve if we give it some time and attention. To do so we need to close our eyes, relax our minds and tune in on these levels of hearing and sensing. Are my mind and body trying to tell me that I’m trying too hard, or hardly trying? Are the people in my life echoing back that I need to slow down, or pick up the pace? The sweet spot between the two extremes is not a precise point, but a range where we are rolling forward without dragging or revving, and making pretty good time.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.