2. Building Your Inner Life
In a previous post, I wrote that your inner life is usually neglected, in contrast to your outer life. I gave some guidelines for identifying and reducing the gaps between your inner and outer life. That’s an important step towards building psychological health and resiliency that works in today’s 21st Century world of heightened interconnection and instability.
Here, I’ll describe some specific steps you can take to strengthen your inner life and make it the driver of your decisions, choices, and actions within your outer life.
Think of your inner life as something you develop through practice, similar to building stronger muscles, or developing skill in a sport or play a musical instrument. Below are some inner life practices most anyone can do. The more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other.
Fill Your “Inner Reservoir”
- Sit quietly, without distraction. Observe your breaths as you breathe slowly, in and out. Count each breath as you exhale, from one to 10; then repeat. Twenty minutes daily is ideal, but if you do only five, that’s a good start.
An “entry-level” meditation-breathing practice, this one builds an emotional shock absorber. It helps maintain centeredness and focus when dealing with your outer life demands and conflicts.
Some forms of meditation are rooted in Eastern and Western religious-philosophical traditions; others in current medical and scientific knowledge about effective stress-reduction. All provide a range of physical and emotional benefits that strengthen your inner life. Ongoing research supported jointly by the Dalai Lama and the U.S.-based Mind And Life Institute shows that meditation produces changes within specific regions of the brain associated with greater internal calm, resilience to stress, and focused concentration.
Amazingly, one study found that the sound of a shotgun going off near an advanced meditator’s head produced virtually no change of brain activity in response to it. Want to test out how steadily you can hold your own concentration? Go to this web site.
Advanced meditators were able to hold their visual focus in this experiment for its entire duration.
Meditation heightens your consciousness and mental control. It also contributes to a stronger immune system and a more robust cardio-vascular system. It helps you awaken to what the real “drivers” are in your outer life — where you may be acting unconsciously or with illusions and rationalizations you’ve acquired from dealing with your outer life demands.
Counting your breaths (you could also focus on an object) not only increases your concentration, but also loosens your entanglement in the “flotsam” and “jetsam” of your outer life. This helps increase your attunement to your inner life; to your true self that lies beneath all the layers of accommodation and adaptation you’re acquired through immersion in the outer world.
This practice shifts your perspective towards just observing the ebb and flow of your emotional states with less knee-jerk reactivity to them. It’s like filling an inner reservoir with clarity and mindfulness that you can carry with you in each moment within your outer life.
A fringe benefit: Reducing your total number of breaths per minute to 10 or less, for 15 minutes twice per day (each inhale/exhale counting as one) has been found to lower blood pressure, according to recent research.
Grow Your Positive Emotions And Human Connection
- Focus your consciousness on emotions of compassion, empathy, and connection towards people around you, especially those who suffer or with whom you’re in conflict. Imagine those emotions occupying the main window on your computer screen. Deal with negative or indifferent emotions by visualizing them within a smaller, background window, or hidden in a file
This practice strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and tolerance for others, especially in the face of external differences, which may dominate your field of vision.
Cultivating positive emotions cultivates your inner life and also heals something most of us suffer from in our outer world-dominated lives: “Empathy Deficit Disorder,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. In a culture in which we define virtually every variation of human emotion and experience as a “disorder,” we’ve overlooked one of the most harmful. It results from being so overdeveloped in your outer life that you lose touch with your own heart; with the reality of your interconnection and interdependence with other humans.
Research shows that you can practice and strengthen positive emotions with practice. People who practice this through meditation show heightened brain activity in regions linked with positive emotions like joy and humor; and with feelings of compassion towards people who suffer. They also show diminished activity in brain regions associated with negative or destructive emotions like anger, resentment, depression, or self-pity. In short, practicing certain emotional states strengthen patterns within the brain associated with them.
This means that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices. As you make efforts to change your feelings and thoughts in ways that build your inner life, you reinforce brain activity in regions associated with it. In effect, you can learn to change your brain activity, which reinforces changes you make in your thoughts, attitudes, and behavior.
The upshot is that you can actually learn to “grow” compassion, tolerance, and cheerfulness. You can physically modify your brain through conscious practice. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.
This practice for growing positive emotions also helps builds awareness of your commonality and connection with other people, through recognizing them as fellow humans who suffer and struggle as you do. You might try picking a particular situation or encounter with a stranger as a target for practicing compassion and empathy. For example, when you’re dealing with the checkout person at the grocery store, try to generate positive emotions towards that person, as an experiment. Try to see that stranger as someone who shares, along with you, a desire for love; who’s experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way; or who has hopes and dreams to fulfill. In other words, a stranger who’s different from you but also like yourself, beneath those differences.
This practice is especially helpful when, say, a particular co-worker makes you want to reach for a blunt object. Or when you find yourself having malevolent fantasies about your kids the third time they start fighting with each other in the same evening.
But probably more challenging is feeling compassion and empathy towards someone you actively dislike, or with whom you’ve had big-time conflicts – perhaps an ex-spouse, or someone at work. Here, try seeing that person through the eyes of your inner self rather than through your outer self. The latter is where you experience your differences. Instead, imagine how and why that person might experience his world as he or she does; why that person might have the negative attitudes or feelings he shows towards you. Try to do that without judging.
Practicing compassion and empathy in these ways strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and recognition for others, even where there are conflicts. You become a more balanced, broadened and tolerant human being. Notice that when empathy and compassion are awakened, you tend to respond with a changed outlook or new action directed towards others, with less concern about your own self. Look at the spontaneous outpouring of help that usually occurs to the victims of natural disasters like earthquakes or tornado. At such times, you’re letting go of your usual hyper-focus on getting and achieving things in your outer world.
A good source for practices that support compassion and empathy are the guided visualization and meditative practices developed by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004), an internationally recognized meditation teacher and scholar. Head of the Sufi Order International, his teachings reflected a universalist perspective, based on the common core of Hindu, Buddhist, Judeao-Christian, and Islamic meditative practices. The site also includes multi-media visual and musical models that accompany specific meditative practices.
Increase Your Mind-Body Health
Incorporate aerobic exercise or virtually any kind of physical activity into your schedule.
- Try a class in Yoga, Qi Gong, or Tai Qi
- Commit yourself to healthy diet and nutritional practices
Aerobic activity releases chemicals that enhance positive mental states and well-being. Research finds that it also has robust antidepressant effects.
Sustained aerobic exercise or virtually any kind of physical activity are important practices because a healthy mind-body is the infrastructure for your inner life. Aerobic activity releases chemicals that enhance positive mental states and well-being. Research shows that it has robust anti-depressant effects, equal or superior to medication, over the long run.
Another benefit for your inner life: Many kinds of physical activity require internal discipline, focus, and a desire to sustain the activity necessary for to reach a level of sufficient level of skill. Research shows that activities as diverse as mountain climbing, dancing, bike riding, or swimming contribute to a sense of internal mastery and self-control.
Moreover, aerobic activity expresses your physical energy within the larger environment. That, itself, enlarges your perspective about where your individual life fits in relation to the forces and features of the natural world and the cosmos. Your preoccupations and absorption in outer life tend to recede when you’re within the larger context of the natural world and the physical challenges you face within it. A friend who trekked to the base camp of Mt. Everest told me how the physical challenge, combined with being surrounded by the majesty of the mountains and their “indifference” to human desires, shifted her perspective about her entire life. It caused her to rethink everything she had held important.
Eastern practices like Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Qi blend flexibility, balance, and rhythmic motion with mental discipline and concentration These activities increase your attention to your inner world by integrating physical flexibility, balance, and rhythmic motion, on the one hand, with mental discipline and concentration on the other. Practicing that integration also diminishes the stress hormone cortisol, according to several research studies.
Good sources for state-of-the-art information about mind-body health include the web site of Andrew Weil, M.D.; The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; and the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
Open Yourself to Sensual and Sexual Experiences
- During your workday, take a brief walk outdoors, or visit a museum or art gallery. Write down how it affected you when you return to your workplace.
- Set aside time with your partner for slow, mutual physical stroking or massage, without thinking of intercourse or orgasm as the goal. Light candles, play music and agree to talk intimately – but not about outer life stresses.
Sensuous pleasures and beauty through art, music, or the natural world springboard you out of overimmersion in your outer life by “speaking” directly to your inner life. These nonverbal mediums evoke emotions, mental and even physical states that otherwise remain asleep when you’re too immersed in work and home activities.
Many people whose inner life is out of balance with their outer don’t realize that healthy sexual activity can help build greater balance between them. When mutuality, openness, and non-exploitativeness are part of the fabric of your whole relationship, emotional and sexual, then sexual/physical pleasure becomes an inner, not just outer experience – what some researchers call “spiritual sexuality.” That is, some individuals report a transcendent experience that combines heightened, whole-body sensations with intense emotional-spiritual connection, in which you lose yet retain a sense of your individual self at the same time. That’s the experience of two inner lives connecting.
Serve Something Larger Than Yourself
- Find a way to serve people or causes in need of help.
Giving to others strengthens your inner life by stimulating a “soul-to-soul” connection. It awakens your realization that we’re all global citizens. In fact, a common theme among people who create true balance between their inner and outer lives is that they feel pulled to giving, in some way, to the larger human community, through some kind of service. Some do this as a result of a natural evolution towards wanting to volunteer their time talents; others, from a sudden awakening.
Scott Harrison is an example of the latter. He had become a successful, well-known event promoter in New York City by his late 20s. In the spring of 2004 something awakened in him, he told me, which caused him to see that he had been living primarily to gratify himself. “I realized that I could either live selfishly, or for others,” he said. He decided to volunteer with Mercy Ships, an international organization that provides volunteer medical services to impoverished people, such as in West Africa.
Using his original training as a photojournalist, Scott began chronicling the work of the Mercy Ship and its medical volunteers through photos and stories posted on a web site/blog and in newspaper articles. He originally intended to spend just a month on the ship, but it was such a powerful experience that he remained with it. On a brief return visit to New York in the summer of 2005 he told me of the impact it had -aboard the ship, in a tiny compartment with cockroaches; working with health care workers who treat people who have nothing at all, not even drinking water; and who were afflicted with the most horrendous medical conditions and diseases. “It totally changed my world view,” he told me. “It was like looking through a different pair of glasses.”
Subsequently, he founded a highly successful international charity focused on creating fresh water wells in impoverished countries.
A good source of information about volunteer organizations is Idealist.org.
Your Work and Life Balance Revisited….
Strengthening your inner life can change how you behave in both parts of that old work-life equation.
In the work realm, you might reexamine what you’re doing – whom you work for and with, and what your work contributes to the things you value. At the most radical end, you might change employers or careers, or go out on your own to pursue a dream. Or you can seek new assignments with your current employer that align with your personal values and goals.
In your home and personal life, a stronger inner life might lead you to give some time to help others, say through volunteer work. Or get involved with a social or political cause you believe in. You might decide to take that music appreciation course you’ve considered for years, or finally build that backyard garden you’ve seen in your imagination.
A rising theme among people who create true balance between their inner and outer lives is that they feel drawn to serving the larger human community in some way through their work, their values, and way of life. Both younger and older people express this. It’s reflected in the steady rise of volunteerism, and also in a MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Survey that found that rising numbers of people want the work they do to contribute to the greater good and improve other’s lives, not just their own. They want to have impact. This shift reflects a broader rise in our culture that I described in a previous post as the “4.0” career.
Some people make significant changes in their work and personal lives when their inner life is awakened, like Scott did. Most people are unlikely to make a radical change. But examples of those who do can help stimulate your own thinking about how you might want to shift or redirect your own life, to build greater inner-outer balance. Like a woman who owned a high-end restaurant who sold her business and opened an orphanage after a chance encounter with some abandoned children while visiting another country; a man who took a “lesser” position at a smaller company in a part of the country where he and his family found a better quality of life; a lawyer who left Washington and became a Park Ranger. Or a senior vice president of a major corporation who resigned and bought a small business in order to have more time for parenting his two sons.
Such examples can help you focus on what would create better attunement between your own inner and outer life. They can point you to answer questions like these:
- Which of your current career goals, relationships and commitments are truly in harmony with your inner life?
- Is this the job or career you truly feel in synch with, despite the money it may pay or what people tell you that you should want?
- Are you and your partner devoting enough attention and effort to keeping your relationship positive and energized?
- Do you know why your son or daughter seems troubled or depressed? Have you even noticed?
- How can you become more transparent in both your public and private life?
As you develop your inner life and balance it with your outer, you’ll be likely to find that the old conflicts of work vs. life don’t cause you stress or even dominate your thoughts anymore.
In fact, you may find they disappear.