Why we need to understand the art of subtlety

The Latin origin of the word subtle and subtlety means ‘finely woven’ and was used to describe fabric. In the realm of communication, subtlety is the quality of being understated, delicate or nuanced. In describing the subtlety of an argument, we make reference to the fine weave of the words and thoughts used to convey […]

The Latin origin of the word subtle and subtlety means ‘finely woven’ and was used to describe fabric. In the realm of communication, subtlety is the quality of being understated, delicate or nuanced. In describing the subtlety of an argument, we make reference to the fine weave of the words and thoughts used to convey a certain meaning or message.

Before I elaborate on this concept of subtlety, I want to bring your attention to the definition and metaphorical reference of the word suspension. Suspension is the act of stopping something from happening or operating. It is a word used across multiple fields. In chemistry, certain substances have a suspension state (chalk in water); in architecture, bridges are built using suspension cables and in employment, you can place an employee on suspension. When something is held in a certain state for a prolonged period of time, we refer to it as being in a state of suspension. On both the physiological and psychological levels, a state of suspension can have incredible benefits, but also potentially disastrous ramifications.

Pranayama is the Vedic practice of breath control, commonly used by yoga practitioners. It is a mindfulness practice that draws one’s attention to the rhythmic cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Prana means breath or life-giving force and yamah refers to the suspension of that breath. Within the practice of pranayama, there is a component called kumbhaka which involves the retention (holding) of breath. Antara kumbhaka is holding your breath with air inside your lungs and Bahya kumbhaka refers to holding your breath without air inside your lungs.

When you practice pranayama, you realise that the power of the practice is not in the inhalation or exhalation of the breath – it is in the suspension state between the cycles of inhalations and exhalations.

Similarly, in healing from emotional pain, our ability to hold an emotion helps determine our ability to understand, acknowledge, appreciate and transition from that pain. If we allow pain to become anger and anger to become resentment, we will not be able to process the core of the pain. Only when we are mindful enough to hold an emotional state will we find the power to heal it.

Breath retention beyond a certain point, of course, will cause asphyxiation. In the same way, holding on to emotional pain for a prolonged period will also have a disastrous impact on your ability to function. Suspension states have incredible power up to a point; beyond that, they can be lifethreatening.

A patient, Bernard, once called me sounding highly stressed. He was in an emotionally abusive relationship and it had reached a breaking point. The situation with his live-in girlfriend was toxic and sensitive, and Bernard was desperate for physical and emotional space. I asked him, ‘How did the situation become so toxic so quickly?’ He replied, ‘It has always been like this but I have reached a point where I cannot keep quiet anymore. I am tired of walking around on eggshells. I have no voice and I am afraid if I say something, it is going to trigger another pattern of rage in her.’

Employees frustrated at work, parents tolerating verbal or emotional abuse from their teenage children, live-in couples silencing their voices to avoid conflict, lovers withholding the resentment of a lack of intimacy in the relationship, are all examples of toxic relationships compounded by a lack of emotional connectivity and communication.

The Art of Subtlety is the solution to preventing such toxicity. I discovered this strategy during a stint with the cricket team Kings XI Punjab, during the Indian Premier League (IPL) season. The IPL is a high-stress sporting environment and rightfully so. Held once a year, this competition is the hallmark event in cricketing circles – it is an opportunity to truly make your mark on a global stage. Anyone who does well over these forty-eight days is guaranteed to have a dramatic life shift after the event.

Every high-stress environment carries its own set of problems. At the IPL, I had to deal with cricketers who were not getting an opportunity to play; those who did get an opportunity but could not perform; coaches who weren’t able to select the teams they wanted and youngsters petrified of letting their team down. Among all of these were a few exceptionally talented cricketers who were just there to make money and contributed nothing to overall team culture. The result of all of this was a proverbial ‘pressure cooker’ environment, which if not managed properly could become highly toxic. Emotional toxicity comes from holding on to emotions for longer than is needed to understand, acknowledge and process them.

 Emotional toxicity can be found in every environment and very often is the result of a given personality type as opposed to a situational trigger. A person who holds on to a negative emotion at work will also do so in their personal relationships. It is a subconscious pattern that they need to become mindfully aware of.

Subtlety is a mindfulness technique to address emotional toxicity at its core. It is a two-fold technique.

 • First, I encourage individuals to understand, acknowledge, process and release the emotions they are feeling in a situation, precisely at that moment. Doing so seems simple, but it can be an enormous challenge. We tend to do anything to avoid, deflect, or delay dealing with powerful emotions. The idea behind this technique is to avoid emotional build-up, either negative or positive. Subtlety is a kind of emotional detoxification.

• Second, the expression of our emotions in the moment must be understated, delicate and nuanced. This is a critical but difficult aspect of the Art of Subtlety. The emotions we feel in a given situation may be intense and powerful. It is possible to overwhelm the other person with the intensity of these emotions. To be understated, delicate, and nuanced is a show of courtesy and consideration for the other person. It is mindfully responding in a way that they can hear and absorb; that doesn’t put them on the defensive and that accounts for their feelings as well.

 Excerpts from the book, ‘Breathe Believe Balance: A Guide to Self-discovery and Healing’, published by Pan Macmillan India.