With the new year fast approaching, millions of us will decide in the days ahead what we want to focus on in 2021. Many with holiday guilt will choose to lose ten pounds, workout more, drink less or all of the above. Others may decide they want to read more, travel more or save more. All great ideas.
But I’d submit that there’s only one resolution we need to commit to. And then recommit to every January 1. And that resolution is…
Working on ourselves.
First, a mea culpa: It’s beyond presumptuous to proclaim to know the best new year’s resolution for everybody. But if you’ve read any of my previous pieces you know of my fervent belief that working to get our inner houses in order is the most important endeavor any human can pursue.
All problems emanate from inside
Why is that? If I could sum it up in one sentence it would be this: Almost every problem, challenge or hardship we face can be traced to our inner life being out of order.
And if I had to sum up why that is true in one sentence it would be this: We humans spend our lives in the futile pursuit of external solutions that we think will solve our internal needs.
-If I become a successful doctor I’ll feel happy inside.
-If I marry the perfect man and have a slew of kids I’ll feel happy inside.
-If I go to an Ivy League college I’ll feel happy inside.
The external world can’t make you happy
If if if if if…It’s always, ‘If something “good” happens externally in the future I’ll be okay inside.’ The problem? It never works. Ever. For anybody. Sure, it can work in the short term, but never in the long term.
For the answer to why look no further than the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism — 1. Life is suffering; 2. Suffering is caused by desire (synonymous with seeking external gratification), 3. Eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering.
So how do we eliminate desire/seeking external gratification? That’s the Fourth Noble Truth which lays out the Eightfold Path for achieving this. But that gets too thinky and complicated for me. The good news is, I think I can sum it all up in one sentence:
WORK ON YOUR INSIDES SO YOU DON’T NEED THE EXTERNAL WORLD TO MAKE YOU HAPPY.
As Mickey Singer would say, you live in there. You may as well clean it up and make it as nice a place to live as possible.
Which brings us to the $64,000 question of our show: How do we work on our insides? A 20,000 page book could be written about that, but let’s sift it down to a few basic, doable things you can commit to starting January 1, 2021.
- Start a Regular Meditation Practice
Nothing would be more beneficial for your inner well-being than developing a regular meditation practice. Why? The short answer is that most of the reason your inner world is out of whack is because your egoic, conditioned self rules the roost over your conscious, real self. This is true for virtually all humans. It’s not even a close battle. It’s me playing Rafa Nadal on a clay court.
How does this inner drubbing manifest? Mostly in the form of our conditioned minds creating and spewing unhelpful thoughts 24/7 that torment and inhibit us.
Separating the two selves
Meditation helps to separate these two selves to the point that our conscious selves can simply observe our out of control, egoic selves. For most people, the egoic self is all there is. It’s who we identify with as who we are.
So one person thinks they’re a neurotic worrywart who can’t stop thinking about all the calamities that always seem to lay ahead, but rarely come to pass. No, they are not a neurotic worrywart. Their true identity is the consciousness that is aware of those worrisome thoughts.
Another person thinks they are worthless to the world. They aren’t. Their true identity is the consciousness that is aware of those thoughts of worthlessness.
Still another person thinks they are the smartest, prettiest, most talented human on the face of the earth. They aren’t. They are the consciousness that is aware of those perceptions of their traits.
What is meditation?
Bringing it all together, meditation is simply the practice of placing attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing or sounds or any number of things. Then when your attention wanders into thinking, we just notice that and bring our attention back to what we were focusing on.
When we do that, we are NOT stuck in our heads being dominated by involuntary thoughts. Over time, the conscious, real you becomes stronger and the thought factory, egoic mind becomes weaker.
That sentence you just read really is the totality of the spiritual path. The best way to get on that path is to start a regular meditation practice. If you’re looking for a place to get started, go to davidgerken.net where you’ll find my free, easy to follow program for regular people like me.
2. Start a Mindfulness Practice
All mindfulness is is being present in our daily lives. For our purposes, the most important aspect of mindfulness is practicing becoming aware when we get lost in thought in our everyday lives and bringing attention back to whatever’s happening in our present moment.
For example, you’re in the checkout line at the supermarket and you notice that your mind has wandered to worrying if your girlfriend is still into you. That’s not part of your present moment, right? So bring your attention back to what you’re doing — standing in line.
As the great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh famously said:
“When you’re doing the dishes, be there doing the dishes…”
As for a specific practice to follow, keep it simple in the beginning. It’s just two parts:
1. Make a commitment that, starting January 1, 2021, you are going to practice becoming aware when your mind wanders into thinking during your daily life.
2. Once you notice that you’ve drifted into thinking during your day, try one of these simple techniques for returning your attention to the present moment.
a. Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, then open your eyes and relax into the moment.
b. Notice five different things in your present surroundings. If you’re at the store this could be: cashier’s horn-rimmed glasses, Oprah on cover of People Magazine, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, fan on ceiling and running shoes on woman in front of me. This will ground you in the moment.
c. If you’re outside, do your three deep breaths as you look up at the vast expanse of the sky.
Do whichever one of these resonates with you. That’s all you have to do. Commit to becoming aware when you’ve become lost in thought and then do one of those three things to get you back in the moment.
3. Let Go of Yourself
Mickey Singer, many Buddhists and Hindus would say that letting go of yourself is the purpose of one’s life. The key question is, what ‘self’ are you to let go of?
The answer? That conditioned, egoic self that isn’t the real, conscious you.
How do we let go of that egoic self? I like Mickey Singer’s teaching on this. He counsels that we need to be on the lookout for when one of our buttons has been pushed.
Getting your buttons pushed
What does he mean by getting a button pushed? Some are what he calls low-hanging fruit, like that feeling of annoyance/anger we get when someone in front of us drives 25 MPH in a 45 MPH zone.
An example of a more serious type would be someone who since childhood has always considered themselves not smart. So they’re at a dinner party at age 45 where somebody mentions some historical fact about World War II that everybody else but them seems to know. They feel a deep, painful button pushed inside.
Mickey’s three step technique
What’s Mickey’s technique for dealing with these situations? We do three simple things:
1. We notice that our button has been pushed;
2. We relax our head, shoulders, arms, chest/heart and stomach and then lean away from where we are feeling that pushed button to give that feeling room to soften;
3. Finally, we literally let go of that feeling. Feel it release up and out of us.
When we do this time and time and time again, day after day, month after month, year after year, slowly but surely that self-critical, thought crazy, egoic self that dominates most of us starts to dissipate. The result is an overall inner calm that is priceless and beyond words.
How do you set up this up as a “program” to start January 1? It’s the exact same as with the mindfulness component (which this is really a subset of). You just 1) Commit to noticing when your buttons get pushed; then 2) Notice, relax and let go, just as stated above.
Therapy is also helpful
If you’re experiencing serious inner pain in your life, a fourth area to consider is psychotherapy. I’ve done therapy on and off since my early 20’s and have found it exceedingly helpful in making sense of inner turmoil, something that is essential to resolving our deeper core issues.
I’ve set out a number of areas here for working on yourself, but don’t let that daunt you. If doing it all seems like too much, pick one or two and make those your 2021 resolutions.
Of one thing I’m certain, though. Until you dive in and do things like meditation, mindfulness, letting go of yourself and therapy — i.e., do the hard work it takes to get your inner house in order — life will always be some level of hard. The good news is, all of this work I’ve suggested is eminently doable.
You just need to commit to doing that work. January 1 is always a great day to get started…