Calming the inner storm

The transformational power of self-awareness

👋 Hello to the 580 Intentional Wisdom readers receiving today’s newsletter. I’m grateful that you’re allowing me to occupy this space in your inbox. I’m aiming to add just a little bit of value to your life every two weeks. So let’s get started…

đź’ˇ The big idea


We've got it all wrong.

We think we're in control. We think we know what's happening.

Nope and nope. We're aren't, and we don't.

In fact, most of us are living our lives asleep at the wheel—figuratively speaking.

Rather than actually being in control of our thoughts, our emotions, or even our actions, we are complete and utter slaves to the randomness of the events occurring around us—and within us.

Stimulus. Reaction. Stimulus. Reaction.

Yes, we are almost always in reaction mode. And worse, we don't even recognize it. Social media takes this phenomenon and puts it on steroids. From jealousy one moment to anger the next. Keep scrolling for your next emotion.

This doesn't sound like the behavior of a human being, does it? It sounds like the behavior of a goldfish. You and I may be animals, but we are not goldfish. Our inner state should not be completely determined by factors outside of our control. And even if we can't control our every thought, emotion, or action, should we not at least be AWARE of what we are thinking, feeling, and even doing? Because today, I can assure you, we are not.

So how can we become more aware and wake up to exactly what it is that we are thinking, feeling, and doing?

One word: Meditation.

Yes, this is a meditation article you are reading right now. How did you get suckered into this? I don't know. But here you are. So you might as well keep going.

The fundamental principle underpinning meditation is this:

You are not your emotions. You are not even your thoughts.

Okay, stop for a second and think about that. That's easy to read, but a bit more difficult to internalize.

You are not your emotions. Or your thoughts. What does that even mean?

It means this: Thoughts come and go. They arise from all over the place. From externally driven thoughts like "Why does this guy still have his blinker on?", to internally driven thoughts like "I really have to go to the bathroom but I'm too lazy to get up."  We are thinking non-stop. In fact, humans have over 6,000 thoughts per day.

With such a never-ending flow of thoughts, you could be forgiven for thinking that those thoughts are actually... you. You could even be forgiven for thinking that those thoughts are your "mind."

Of course, if you did think that, you would be mistaken—at least in the opinion of this newsletter writer. And this is kind of the whole point of meditation: to take a step back and observe your own thoughts. Actually, to take a step back and recognize in the first place that there even is a stream of thoughts and that you, as an observer, are actually quite separate from that stream of thoughts.

I'd imagine that this concept is foreign to many (if not most) of the people walking planet Earth today. Yet, it is perhaps the most critical concept to master in life.

Did I just overstate that? Maybe. But I can't actually think of anything more important. Mastering this concept is quite literally the difference between living life in a goldfish-like state of constant reaction or actually, you know, achieving some kind of an awareness of reality, and even knowing ourselves.

So clearly, since I'm writing this article, I must have this all figured out, right? Not even close. Many times a day I am completely consumed by emotion or thought, and of course, oblivious to my own current state. But through meditation, I do feel like I am slowly waking up, and becoming more aware. And the benefits, well, they're starting to show themselves. More on that in a moment.

So how does meditation help?

Meditation trains the brain to step out of this "stimulus, reaction" cycle and to actually observe the thoughts and emotions that are incessantly running through our brains. In essence, it helps us to become, at least some of the time, a third-party observer in our own minds. And the power of that perspective shift is immense.

The point of meditating has nothing to do with scented candles or essential oils or impossibly uncomfortable sitting positions.

It has everything to do with becoming aware of one's inner environment. Even that sounds too heady. The point, really, is to spend 10 quiet minutes a day to get better at handling the other 23 hours and 50 minutes.

And when you practice observing your thoughts, a funny thing happens: you get better at observing your thoughts.

That's helpful in meditation but it's a superpower in life.

When you are aware that you are feeling an emotion like anger, for instance, rather than just feeling it, you a) already have some distance from the emotion, and b) are that much better positioned to manage your reaction.

When this is working at its best:

  • You decide that you don't need to have the last word in the argument with your spouse.

  • You decide not to yell at your kids for not listening to you for the fiftieth time in a row.

  • You decide not to fire back the sarcastic email to the colleague who is being unnecessarily prickly.

In a way, life slows down. They say Lebron James sees what's happening on the basketball court in slow motion. Meditation, at its best, does this with life. It primes your brain to recognize stress and to keep it at arm's length, but it also hones your ability to savor a moment with your kids or your spouse, and instead of letting it pass by unnoticed, to stop and think "wow, this is pretty great."

It also, and I don't claim to understand why, helps you to empathize more naturally with others. When you are more aware of your own thoughts and emotions, you seem to also be more aware of those that others are dealing with. You can almost feel them.

What conditions can meditation help with?

It’s not just self-awareness that meditation helps with. Research has shown that meditation actually changes the physical consistency of the brain itself—increasing the amount of gray matter in the frontal cortex. That's where things like short-term memory and decision-making happen. Kind of important stuff. There is also a seemingly unending list of physical and mental ailments that regular meditation practice has been shown to help alleviate, including:

  • Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Chronic Pain

  • Poor Sleep

  • Age-related Memory Loss

  • Addiction

So how can you implement this?

If you don't already meditate, and assuming that maybe I've piqued your curiosity, the next logical question is: How?

Honestly, all you really need is a quiet place where you can sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. But we're pretty lucky today. We live in a world where we not only have ready access to many different types of meditation, but also a plethora of tools and techniques to access them.

For the technologically minded, there are some wonderful apps out there that make meditation accessible and (dare I say) even fun. I personally use Headspace as I've come to appreciate their guided meditations and the various courses on offer. I typically follow a course for 10 or 20 or 30 days, just ten minutes per day. The courses vary in their content—everything from dealing with anger and anxiety to preparing for sports competitions, to one that I've just started trying out with my son—meditation for kids—which I'm really excited about.

Each course emphasizes a particular technique. It could be visualization or noting (naming an emotion or thought as you notice it), or conjuring up feelings of gratitude. They're all surprisingly effective.

Headspace also offers this really cool streak tracker. And you know I'm a sucker for a streak.

Others love apps like Waking Up, 10% Happier, or Calm, so really it's about finding the right fit for you. I wrote a bit more about this here.

As you can probably tell, I'm becoming a bit of an evangelist for meditation. My advice if you haven't meditated before is to consider giving it a try. Pick an app, sign up for a 30-day trial, commit to it, and see what happens. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll notice some changes—but most impressively, I think, you'll gain a greater awareness of yourself. And that, I really do believe, can be a superpower.

That’s it for this week…

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But wait, there's more... Seriously, check out the Content Diet section below if you want to dive deeper. I listened to some really phenomenal podcasts on this topic over the last several weeks and I'd love for you to hear directly from the experts as I have. If I had to pick one, I'd advise you to listen to the conversation between Peter Attia and Dan Harris. Man, that one absolutely mesmerized me. It's the most down-to-earth, accessible conversation I've ever heard on the topic. I think I'll be going back for another listen.

Okay, I'm going to get out of your inbox now.

Have an awesome week. And I'll see you in TWO weeks.

Greg

Photo credit: @felix_mittermeier @ Unsplash.com


Content Diet

🎙 Dan Harris and Dr. Peter Attia -- I just appreciated being a fly on the wall for this one. If you haven't read Harris' book 10% Happier, do yourself a favor and do so. The ABC news anchor inspired me and many others to dive into meditation. Harris speaks about meditation in plain English better than anyone on the planet.

🎙 Will Ahmed and Andy Puddicombe -- World's collide. The founder of Whoop and the founder of Headspace? I mean, by definition, it has to be good. Spoiler alert: It is. Andy Puddicombe's journey from Buddhist monk to an immensely successful business founder is incredible. So are the insights these two have on the benefits of meditation.

🎙 Rich Roll and Light Watkins -- Great interview with a really experienced meditation teacher who's got some amazing stories of the transformations he's seen—physically and mentally—from meditation.

Finally, finally, finally.... if you are still reading (thank you)....

I didn't want to clutter up the article with super-specific details on meditation techniques, but below are two of them that I've learned from Headspace.

The first is to think of your brain as a blue sky. Every thought you have is a cloud. If you sit and meditate and focus, let's say, on the breath, you'll notice something. Your mind is going to wander. Unless you are a Buddhist monk sitting high atop a mountain achieving a state of blissful enlightenment, this is perfectly natural. And it's fine. So what you do when you catch yourself thinking (instead of focusing on the breath) is you acknowledge the thought, and you envision it as a cloud passing through your blue sky. "Oh, there's the thought about how I'm supposed to pick up the kids later." Some days meditation is nothing but a constant stream of thoughts—or clouds. In fact, some days, maybe when we're feeling particularly strong emotions, it may seem like there is no blue sky at all. It's just a ceiling of dark, stormy clouds—maybe with some lightning mixed in. But the important part of this concept is visualizing and believing, that actually, our natural state of being is clear, calm blue skies. And by practicing the technique of seeing thoughts as clouds, we cement the notion in our brains that there is a distinct difference between us and those thoughts. In other words, we are not our thoughts.

The second is to identify, name, and then actually lean into emotions as we experience them. This technique is powerful because it has the effect of weakening the emotion. It works like this: I am getting really angry at something that just went down at work. Since I've been practicing meditation daily, I am only consumed by the emotion for a few seconds. Then, my brain naturally says "Oh hey, look at this. It's a strong emotion." And then I name it. "Oh, that's anger." And then I decide to feel it. Yes, I consciously decide to lean into the emotion—which, incidentally, is quite different from being consumed by an emotion and not having any level of awareness about it. A funny thing happens when you notice it, name it, and lean into it. It dissipates. It fades away. It loses its power. I do not claim to understand exactly why this is the case, but I believe there is something in separating the emotion from "me." Again, I am not my emotions.

There's so much more. Once you start learning, there are so many of these techniques that are surprisingly helpful for dealing with everyday life.

Okay, that's enough! Why are you still reading this? Go meditate!