Nothing grabs our attention like the behavior of other people, but what about the behavior going on inside ourselves? We accept our reactions as a given, as just who we are. Our feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations are so familiar we do not question their right to take over. They are there, so they must belong there, like a factory installation. They just are, and we just are.
We even think our identity is made up of our feelings. For instance, we say, “I am afraid,” asserting that we have become our emotion of the moment.
But our feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations are temporary inhabitants, not our landlords. Once out of the grip of emotion, we see that our feelings do change and pass. We may look back on needless worry and wish that we had not gotten so upset. We may regret what we did when tired or stressed. In general, we may wish we could have been wiser, calmer people. It is true we cannot go back, but the good news is that we can be wiser, calmer people in the future. In a minute, I am going to tell you how to do it by playing an enlightening and challenging game with yourself for the New Year.
In his book The Untethered Soul, author and Oprah guest Michael Singer describes our three main inner experiences as thought, emotion, and the energy of physical sensations. He points out that when any one of these three becomes agitated, it can activate the other two and send us into a chaotic inner state.
When I read this, I imagined our inner life to be a special kind of mobile, the kind that hangs from the ceiling or above a crib. The top part is stable and anchored to our deepest self, while the three balls of emotion, thought, and physical energy drift and bob below it. Mobiles are an environmentally reactive, dynamic art, designed to register everything. A puff of air or just walking near it will set it into gentle motion. Hard contact by an outside force, such as a hand batting one of the balls, will set it to wildly bouncing and swinging. If left alone for a few moments, the energy that entered the system through the motion of the hand will dissipate, and the mobile will go back to drifting and bobbing peaceably.
So it is with us. Our psyches are as dynamic and reactive as the most sensitive mobile, always turning and moving in response to our environment. External energies hit our system and set off reactive thoughts and feelings. If someone bats the emotion-ball on our inner mobile, our thought-ball and energy-ball will jump around as well. You know how it goes. Your feelings are hurt, then your thinking goes crazy, then you can’t sleep and you physically feel lousy. Now you feel bad physically as well as emotionally, and your susceptibility to further pain and worry is magnified.
Who is batting the balls now? Not the outside world. It is you. Or more exactly, it is the you who reacts impulsively instead of sitting with and observing your experiences. Most of us grow up with the message that if something feels bad, we should try to control it, blame others, or fix it immediately. For example, family members may teach us that when something upsets us, we should react in a big way and then worry about it for a long time. We may even learn to direct all this energy inward and use it to beat up on ourselves. What a lot of energy flying around. No wonder we have so much anxiety and depression.
Zen masters and other calm souls advise us to keep moving our center of consciousness back up into the position of the Witnessing Observer, that stable anchoring place inside us. When upsetting things happen, we can play the game of noting and experiencing them, and then letting them pass, like clouds moving over the sun. We stop trying to control everything by batting around those inner psyche-balls and instead let the unpleasant energy dissipate. Once we are emotionally and mentally calm, we can come up with what really needs to be done, if anything.
It may seem like a do-nothing lifestyle, suitable only to a monk or guru with no stake in the real world. But this is not a game just for spiritual types; it is the game of life. People who play this game well do well in life. People who do not, don’t. It is not an escape or a detachment from the problems of living; it is a productive proactive relationship with the difficulties in life. You can, and should, take action when playing this game, but not until you calm down and can see the bigger picture.
The game is all about how you feel before you take action. Are you taking action from your anchored, calm witness consciousness? Or are you lashing out from the jumbled energy of your inner mobile’s dancing psyche-balls? This game is definitely not a do-nothing approach. Much awareness and energy goes into the practice of stepping back and observing your own reactions. You use your reactions as information passing through your system, then let things calm down before responding from your more stable upper self.
Playing this game is not about suppressing your thoughts and feelings; it is about listening to them without letting their energy run the show. You gain points by not identifying with the problem or your reactions to the problem. You get to move ahead every time you accept the problem, step back, and do the best you can without adding unnecessarily aggressive energy to the system.
How will you be different next year at this time if you play this game with yourself starting right now? If you stop taking those swings at your own reactions, would 2013 be a better year? Maybe it could be your best year yet.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.