If you’re like me, you have almost no control over what goes on in your head. It’s a never ending cycle of thoughts, fears, fantasies and emotions. Not to mention, my mind has a comment about almost everyone and everything. It’s incredibly difficult to be still, inwardly or outwardly.
The best way I’ve heard it put is, when I’m overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions, I’m going back to an object. Each time I go back, I’m reinforcing an obsession. Jud Brewer calls this a habit loop. Ethan Kross calls it chatter. Lisa Feldman Barrett calls it affect.
None of these people seem to agree on it’s true nature, or even about how our brains work. For example, Jud Brewer believes in the triune brain, Lisa Barrett does not. Ethan Kross recommends distanced self-talk to deal with it, Jud Brewer recommends looking at the cycle of stimulus, behavior and reward. What these psychologists have in common is an interest in mindfulness and meditation, and an awareness that the mind is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.
The truth is, I am not my thoughts. Unhappiness comes from my mental commentary about situations, not the situations themselves. The absence of thought can be thought of as emptiness or spaciousness. I can’t turn my brain off, but a state of not thinking can be arrived at in various ways. One way is to look at the nature of consciousness. Another is to become more aware of the present moment and accept it as it is. Yet another way is to simply get out of my head.
To get out of my head, I count backwards from five and drop into my lower belly. I breathe from my lower belly, taking full, conscious breaths.
I form a direct relationship with myself and the present moment by clearing away whatever is blocking me from these relationships. Eckhart Tolle says, “allow so completely that, through the act of allowing, spaciousness arises around what is.” Through acceptance I become open, and through openness I become aware. This is where inner work and mindfulness begin.
Some people visualize thoughts as clouds floating across the sky. Others as waves in the ocean, or projections on a screen. Sometimes they’re people walking down the street, with their own personalities. They shout, throw things, and very rarely behave. None of the voices in my head are me.
Mindfulness is the practice of creating an inner freedom from overwhelming thoughts and emotions. Over time, it becomes an ability to quietly observe phenomena, including my own behavior. Through practice, something beyond thought emerges. Through reflection, I become more conscious of my habitual patterns.
Think of the worst things have ever seemed, or the angriest you’ve ever been. That was real. Then think of the day everything was terrific, or when you were elated. That was also real. What is the thread that ties these states together? The only thing that changes is the situations presented to me and how I react.
Anthony de Mello says every time I’m unhappy, I’ve added something to reality. Reality provides the stimulus, I provide the reaction. I have added something with my reaction. If I examine what I have added, there is always an illusion there — a demand, an expectation, a craving. I become at ease by accepting things as they are, no matter what I’m presented with. When I stop resisting and allow what is, I am in presence. I practicing the letting go muscle — things arise, I let go, I come back to the present moment.
Presence is the idea that, behind every thought, there is awareness. This is what spiritual teachers call the Watcher, the Witness, or formless presence. Jack Kornfield calls it mindful, loving awareness. Eckhart Tolle calls it alert attention. It is what is not the Narrator or Storyteller or Problem Creator.
Some teachers refer to presence as a lack of resistance. It’s related to things like surrender and acceptance. I don’t surrender through efforting or trying. I embrace. I get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s the absence of the mind arguing with reality. It’s an open acceptance of whatever arises. It’s turning towards what you don’t want to turn towards.
Most people start this process with a meditation practice. The basis of meditation is to acknowledge whatever is happening and welcoming it. I unconditionally welcome felt experience moment by moment. I make friends with any thought, feeling and emotion, no matter how difficult. I am resting in the consciousness, rather than the content of experience.
When I meditate, the first thing I’m met with is not quiet or calm. I am confronted with mixed messages, fear and anxiety. If I recognize these things with the attitude of wanting them to go away, they will remain. When I accept what is uncomfortable, I realize these feelings are passing states. They will go away if I don’t resist them. Through openness, I’m more comfortable with uncertainty and more flexible with life.
A lot of what comes up is projections into the future. When I get caught in positive or negative thinking, I’m getting hooked on stories I’m telling myself. All these stories are fictional. A lot of inner work is about unhooking myself from these stories. When I’m up in my head thinking, I smile and soften. I go back to my belly.
I realize I don’t have to identify with my mental habits and conditioning. When I buy into or admonish thoughts, I can catch myself and make better decisions. I become less identified with neuroses and desires. The intensity of rumination and self-absorbed storytelling recedes. I become more caring about how I express myself. I take a more reasoned, reflective, and calmer approach. I use the intensity of emotions as a cue to interrogate what’s going on.
Another thing that comes up is judgement. Esther Perel says we want people to see the complexity in us, while we simplify them. I put my pain and insecurity on other people. I project my own inadequacies and dissatisfaction into the world. When possible, it helps to drop and see, who I really am, is not the momentary comings and goings of my mind.
Mindfulness is warm and open. It doesn’t evaluate. I step back from all forms of judgment. I discover that, if I condemn a behavior in someone else, I probably exhibit that behavior myself. The first thing that feeds the judging mind is my belief in thoughts. The second thing is my condemnation of them. The pattern only weakens through awareness.
If there is a goal, I’m looking for a place within myself where I can be at ease. I do this by learning to dwell in my body. What follows is a feeling of groundedness, a basic sense of being OK. From here, I can sincerely interact and relate to other people.
The counterintuitive thing is, as I become more aware, I start seeing things I’m unhappy about. I notice the same patterns over and over again — things like anger, frustration, annoyance, and impatience. It can actually seem like these things worsen. It’s more likely these feelings were there all along. I just didn’t notice them.
This awareness is actually a good thing. It’s through seeing these things again and again that the sense of it meaning anything about me lessens. I become more familiar with the nuances and intensity of these emotions. Over time, my perspective shifts. The stuff that justified my existence, and the desire for achievement, start to diminish.
Matthieu Ricard says that everyone on Earth is motivated by a desire for peace and tranquility. This makes sense right? Peace is more than fleeting happiness or pleasure. It’s a sense of serenity, fulfillment and purpose. It’s a state that pervades all other states. But a lot of my actions suggest that peace is not really the thing I value most.
I once heard about a woman who had an aneurysm. It annihilated the language center of her brain, which meant that she could no longer form thoughts (which shows you how much language and thought are connected). During this time, she was in a state of bliss. She was experiencing nirvana, the thing everyone is supposedly after. She was perfectly at ease because there was no egoic, memory based mental chatter humming along at 100 miles per hour commenting on everything. When the sun hit her face she didn’t say, “Oh that’s nice, the sun’s hitting my face” — she just experienced it.
Eventually, she started the process of rehabilitation. Over time, she regained her memory, as well as her ability to form thoughts and words. After a while she came to a realization — if she continued therapy, she would regain her old life but lose the peace she had found. What did she do? Inevitably, she chose her old life. Her ego won that battle. Even more than peace, humans have a profound need to feel accepted, respected and connected.
Serene Jones points out that, on one hand, humans are capable of extraordinary things. On the other, we have this propensity to choose what is not good for us. We exhibit harmful and self-destructive behavior. Life often appears to be the struggle between these two realities, and that tension never goes away.
Everything I think I know is from my perspective. My ego, my life and my ideas make up my kingdom or bubble. The hardest thing to do is give these things up.
We’d like to believe selflessness is what’s really valued, but selfishness and narcissism are so often rewarded. Letting go of a conceptual self sounds nice. The prayer that says, “relieve me of the bondage of self,” sounds nice. But this is not a one and done process. I have to let go of things and they have to be individually questioned for the rest of my life.
There’s a woman in the movie Waking Life who says, when she was young, she thought that everything would gel and settle at some point, just end. She says, “It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop. Even exhilaration. But that hasn’t happened like that, thank goodness. I think that what we don’t take into account when we’re young is our endless curiosity. That’s what’s so great about being human.” But all this caring, all this inquiry and curiosity— it’s exhausting.
Much of psychology is concerned about mindsets that will put us on the path to success i.e. making my life nice. Some of these ideas include grit, self-efficacy, growth mindset and locus of control.
Growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with effort. Locus of control has more to do with outcomes — is the actual outcome that I want going to be my doing or not? If you have an internal locus of control you think you affect outcomes, probably more than you actually do. If you have an external locus of control, you’re more likely to see yourself as the victim of external forces. Self-efficacy is more interested in saying we have agency over behavior and performance, but you’re letting go of the outcome. That’s a very important nuance — we do have agency, and it’s more productive to pay attention to the things we can control. Moreover, this is a spiritual idea — the idea that we can’t change circumstances, but we can always change how we react to circumstances. And we’re responsible for how we react.
The spectrum of opportunity people have is wide. Life has possibilities for everyone. Yet, most philosophers, psychologists and spiritual teachers come to the same realization, which is — I don’t have the power to make my life go the way I want it to. “Fixing” my life won’t make me happy. I will never get to a point where I figure out the world and manipulate things to get what I want. In part, because I don’t know what I want, and even if I got it, it wouldn’t make me happy. I can spend time trying to rearrange the world to suit my tastes, but there is always tension because the world is always changing.
The idea that we’re responsible for how we react is also a huge part of emotional intelligence, which is a repackaged version of Arlie Hochshild’s concept, emotional labor. Daniel Goleman watered down her concept in the same way articles like “Burnout and How To Avoid It So You Can Work Harder” water down a system wherein most people are overworked and underpaid. Merve Emre points out that emotional intelligence is, “a vision of personal freedom achieved, paradoxically, through constant self-regulation.” And it places the onus of emotional labor almost entirely on the individual.
People think of inner work as mind training to be able to overcome something in the moment. But it’s also architecting my environment in such a way as to not let certain behaviors run riot.
According to Lisa Barrett, things that help “put us on the path to success” (a phrase Angela Duckworth also likes to use) are things that are easy for people who are privileged enough to have control over their environment. Getting enough sleep, eating well, making positive social connections, having access to mentors — these things matter. Research by Dan Lieberman and experiments like rat park would suggest the environments we inhabit play a major role in our well-being. Even looking at more benign circumstances tell us much about how our environments affect us.
A lot of what spirituality and psychology have to do with is reactivity. One definition of emotional intelligence is responding to stimuli from a less reactive space. So this idea — that you can’t control circumstances, but you can control your reaction — is that true?
Where you end up in life has a lot to do with where you begin. People born poor die poor. Growing up in poverty correlates with disparities in education, health and employment. Aspects of poverty (subpar nutrition, elevated stress levels, low-quality education) can influence cognitive development, as well as actual brain development (the surface area of the brain, the volume of certain brain structures). Deprive someone of sleep, they become more reactive. Add testosterone to someone’s bloodstream, they become more reactive. There’s even research that indicates economic insecurity reduces pain tolerance. So is it unfair and unwise to focus so much attention on what individual people can do to deal with their environment? Lisa Barrett provides this example:
Does a virus cause the common cold?
Scientists sequester human subjects in hotel rooms and give them all the same does of a virus (the common cold). Only 20–40% of people get sick with symptoms. This means that exposure to a virus is not the same as infection. A virus is not the cause of illness — it’s a necessary factor — but it’s not the cause.
What are the other predictors of who gets sick? Things like poverty, childhood adversity, chronic stress and the state of your immune symptom determine if you get sick. People living with chronic stress and who are living in adverse circumstances are not only more likely to be exposed, they are also more likely to get sick from exposure. Sickness is partially a matter of your personal history, which is based on where you live, your access to medical care, and your ability to get fresh food and air.
The focus on our response to the pandemic has been individual, but has not included the collaborating factors that create infection — systemic causes. Illness doesn’t have a single, simple cause, there’s a network of causes all working together.
“I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell. But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree.” — Stephen Fry
According to Brené Brown, when I feel like I truly belong, not just in a social sense, but in a spiritual sense, it’s probably because I am being my authentic self. The paradox of belonging is that true belonging demands t we be who we are even when we jeopardize connection with other people. It entails being able to stand alone when called to do so. One element of that is speaking truth to power.
Outer work is how you respond to the world. It can take the form of activism. It can take the form of teaching. It’s my relationships with other people. It’s making available what I’ve learned in the most transparent way possible. It’s a commitment against ambivalence.
Our inner life is often as uncontrollable as our external environment. And spending all my time regulating my responses to situations isn’t really freeing at all. Prior to our spiritual journey, the lie we tell ourselves is, by changing the world, we change ourselves. When we embark on a spiritual journey, the lie we tell ourselves (and more importantly, other people) is that external conditions don’t really matter.
Part of presence is the idea that everything will be okay no matter what. In the present, there is no past or future, so there are no problems. The point of presence is to accept the “isness” of things, but what if “what is” is not working for you?
Because inner work is aligned so much with personal responsibility and controlling the controllables, it can have some adverse effects. One of these effects is the abdication of social responsibility. In other words, having a penchant for turning inward can make you oblivious to your social roles. This is because spirituality imitates the cultural individualism of Western society in other forms. Ram Dass referred to this is as spiritual materialism.
The way most spiritual teachers approach structural problems mirrors free market thinking. They will tell you that systems regulate themselves. They will tell you the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Revolutions come and go, difficulties arise and pass etc…
This thinking can result in insensitivity to circumstances that are beyond someone’s control. It can result in shifting the burden of emotional labor onto other people. It can result in living by a code of ethics that don’t have much to do with genuine responses to situations. It can result in people taking the view that, if something doesn’t have to do with them, it’s not their problem.
There are real structural problems in the world. If we’re not careful about how we encourage people to think about their agency, and their ability to make a difference, it can…well it’s probably not very good.
I am doing this work because my actions affect other people, and external conditions influence me. They affect other people too. If things didn’t bother me or you, I wouldn’t need to be doing this at all.
I think a common Western view of spirituality is that we’re individual moral agents. It’s our duty to think about our values and be the best individual embodiment of these values. But all the values we’re cultivating are the by-product of whatever culture we’re born into. We internalize what the values and norms of our society are — even while we’re actively trying to do away with them.
We are born into a certain culture at a certain time. We inherit our genes and temperament. None of us escape childhood conditioning or the pressure to conform to socially designed modes of living.
While everyone’s been busy working on themselves, income disparity has increased dramatically. Capitalism facilitates the illusion that spirituality is simply a process of turning inward. In reality, you turn inward to turn outward (something I learned from Howard Thurman and Eric Butterworth). Many Buddhists value friendship and community above all else, and the spiritual process is one that requires immense cooperation.
On its face, a lack of resistance implies being totally okay with the status quo. The powers that be want you to be passive observers. They want you to accept the evils of the world and get used to living with them. They want the minimal amount of volatility and uncertainty.
Marx said morality is a mechanism for the people in power to keep things the way they are. To him, individual moral progress didn’t really matter that much. Morality is an illusion fed to us coercively. Everything in our society, including spirituality, has a capitalist (selfish) orientation in how it’s packaged, presented and practiced.
But one of the paradoxes is, the more desperate the situation, the more helpful inner work becomes.
To be clear, presence doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with progress or morals or even spirituality. But the impetus for seeking presence has to do with taking responsibility for our actions, which has to do with a feeling that there is a way we “should” act in the world.
There is no doubt the seat of my experience is within me. If I don’t take care of that, then I try to change the world to suit my tastes. This causes conflict because I want it one way, you want it another way, and all we do is fight.
So what is the relationship between inner and outer work? What is my responsibility to myself and other people? The priority is the inward journey, but without outer there is no inner.
Presence is not about right or wrong — it’s about what’s appropriate in the moment— just as long as I’m prepared to deal with the consequences of what I say or do. For example, even though it’s my responsibility to cultivate empathy, it’s not something I owe to other people. Empathy is not always possible, nor is it always the response that’s called for. According to Jamil Zaki, “Empathy can run counter to justice and can sometimes give us tunnel vision, in wanting to help some people over others.”
The human condition is universal, and my mind can make anything a problem. Having too much money can be as problematic as not having enough. Rich people obviously go through the same psychological and spiritual trauma less wealthy people endure.
One of the biggest threats to the well-being of everyone is the pressure to achieve. Research comparing upper-middle-class students (whose parents are high-achieving professionals who emphasize the value of status and achievement) with students living in poverty finds that wealthier suburban children suffer from higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. They also have higher rates of anxiety and depression. But to conclude that people living with more resources are unhappier would be misleading — everyone wants resources. The problem is living in a culture that values success and achievement above all else. At the same time, if I walk up to a homeless person and say, “external conditions don’t really matter; the problem is how you perceive things,” that doesn’t seem right does it?
Recognizing that all my troubles are essentially of my own making is a somewhat privileged place to be in. Recognizing that separateness is an illusion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It’s usually only after a certain level of comfort and convenience is attained we realize well-being isn’t created externally.
And even though inner conflict may subside, there is always outer conflict. Relationships are an endless cycle of harmony, disharmony and repair. It’s unavoidable. To be okay by myself, to mind my business and not be touched by anything, is making sure I don’t experience life. When I choose to engage with life; when I choose to be in the midst of experience, I open myself up to conflict and disagreement and pain.
“Without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change no change matters.” — angel Kyodo williams
It’s important to acknowledge my control of the outer world is limited and temporary. And life is only real for as long as it lasts. But this doesn’t mean I write myself off and see myself as the victim of external forces. A spiritual idea is that there is no separation between inner and outer. To emphasize separateness is a narrow view of reality. Instead, I focus on the unitive nature of all things.
Sadghuru says that the air I breathe doesn’t belong to me. What I exhale, the trees inhale. What the trees exhale, I inhale. The body I carry is just a piece of the universe. My cells, atoms and molecules are borrowed from the planet. My psychological structure is a heap of impressions I’ve collected. The language that forms in my mind doesn’t belong to me, it’s the language of my community. Hopefully, the thing I’m called upon to say or to do will make a positive difference, but it may not. There is no separation because nothing is really ours. We are embedded in life. It’s not a question of what I want for myself as a separate entity, but how I can be open to what the universe wants. Inwardness and outwardness are two parts of the same experience. They are always simultaneously happening. One does not exist without the other. Whatever I do will feed back into my reflective life, to better understand the consequences of my actions. What I learn from there I take with me into the world.
Ram Dass liked to highlight the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. For Theravadin Buddhists, to become free all you have to do is work on yourself. The job is to get enlightened, and it doesn’t quite matter what happens to anyone else because if you get enlightened nothing exists anyway. This is a classic example of turning inward, which can be rationalized because you want to make sure you’re not creating suffering for anyone else through the attachments of your own mind.
For Mahayanan Buddhists, we all have to become free together. Nobody gets enlightened until everybody does. Therefore, it’s your purpose to help everybody because you can’t go anywhere alone.
But this is not an issue of choosing one or the other. These are not problems we have to solve, but paradoxes we live with. angel Kyodo williams says that neither the path of solely inward-looking liberation, nor the pursuit of an externalized social liberation prevails; rather a third space, as-yet-unknown, emerges. This third space is where inner and outer work exist together.
“Just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” — Toni Morrison
In the absolute worst case, inner work is weaponized by spiritual teachers with agendas (nxivm, neo-sannyasins, Bikram Choudhury, violent Buddhists, and some 12-Step programs). This is usually the result of bad leadership and a misguided idea that spirituality has something to do with opinions and beliefs. Spirituality has nothing to do with ideology. And presence has nothing to do with spirituality.
Sometimes spirituality goes awry due to sick people preying on the vulnerable. The most dangerous people are emotionally intelligent people with an agenda because they’re very good at manipulating you for their gain, but good at convincing you that it’s for your benefit. Emotional intelligence is a set of abilities (often used as a tool with certain aims and intentions), not a set of motivations or values. How good you are at recognizing and managing emotions in yourself and others is completely independent of your intentions.
Suffering tends to be glorified by these people. Pain is the result of attachment anyway, right? But Parker Palmer says there are false forms of suffering imposed on us — sometimes by others, via injustice and external cruelty, and sometimes from within. Pain has it’s utility because it opens me up to the pain of other people. But sometimes pain is just pain. Not everything is useful, not everything has a productive outcome. Living life fully is going to take me places where I suffer because I’m standing for something. I’m committed and passionate about something. If it’s my truth, I can’t not do it. Utopian thinkers tend to not be pragmatic actors, but there may be room for both.
Some Buddhists will tell you the project of wisdom is something you do for yourself. Personal meaning is acquired through inner work. Outer work is how you embody wisdom in your words and actions. The outward expression of that wisdom is compassion. Compassion is supposed to be put into action.
In reality, you work on yourself spiritually as an offering to others. But you can’t wait to become enlightened to act, so you use your acts as way of working on yourself. In other words, I help other people to help myself. Anything I do for myself I do for others. And anything I do for others I do for myself.
When we focus our attention on ourselves and purely on our own happiness, our worldview narrows. When we want happiness for others, we begin to feel happiness for ourselves. As we start looking outward, the mind becomes more open. You work inward to work outward.
Jack Kornfield says meditation and mindfulness are not actually passive. The traditional language for mindfulness in Sanskrit (satipațțhānas) is a compound word. The first part means mindful presence — to feel and be present for life as it really is with an open heart. The second half means mindful response — once we become mindfully present, how do we get up from that stillness and place of peace and tend to what we can in the world?
Of course, the ultimate lie is that, just being, just existing, isn’t enough. The idea is to enjoy being here, instead of constantly trying to prove we have a right to be here.