I sit down to do my morning meditation. For reasons that I do not fully understand I have woken up in a “bad mood”. I experience feelings of restlessness and agitation. Five minutes into my meditation session I feel a growing sense of nervous energy in my belly. It expands up my abdomen and into my chest. I can feel my heart beating faster. I can feel the muscles around my rib cage tense and threaten to cramp. My mind starts to speed up. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my head. I want to shift, to move, to get up and walk away from the meditation cushion. Perhaps I shouldn’t be doing sitting meditation in this agitated state, maybe some physical activity would be better. A voice in my head tries to convince me of this. My mind starts to race with all the things I need to do during the day. The agitation in my stomach increases.
At work my boss makes an off the cuff comment about my performance of some task. I shrug it off, maybe make a joke about it and go on with my shift. Within three minutes my mind is running simulation after simulation of the brief interaction with my boss. There is an angry voice in my head, “how dare they talk to me like that, don’t they know how hard I am trying?”. I try to refocus on work but in my head the simulations continue to run. My shoulders start to tense and knot. Agitation is rising and coursing through my body. I think of all the things I could have said/should have said. Despite my best attempts I cannot help but think of past incidences where I have similarly been disrespected.
Driving home from work I am stuck in the typical evening traffic. I watch in growing horror as people dart in and out of the traffic jam. It is as if they do not recognize that we are all engaged in one of the most dangerous activities a modern human being engages in…driving. These assholes are willing to risk everyone’s safety in the vain hope that they might save a few minutes in their commute. Some jerk in a giant pickup truck swerves recklessly in front of me. In order to not crash into the back of his truck I have to slam on my breaks. I hit the horn and find myself yelling and gesturing like an angry chimpanzee.
I imagine everyone who is reading this has had these exact experiences or something so similar that you know exactly what I am describing. It is often the case that I find myself a captive of emotional states and thought patterns that I seem to have no real control over. They come on either strong or subtle and then they dig in, the entrench themselves and only dissipate when they want to…how strange.
I like to think of myself as an autonomous being. I like to think that I am the one who is in control of my thoughts and feelings, if not all the external circumstances of my life. But again and again I find myself completely caught up, hooked, by emotions and thoughts that I neither want nor enjoy.
When I think about living life inside-out I conceptualize this kind of life as one in which I am not completely at the mercy of my emotions and thoughts. Indeed, the inside-out life should be one in which I am less and less at the mercy of my monkey mind and emotions. I think I have discovered a way to actualize this…getting curious.
In my own experience what I struggle with most is physical sensations, like an anxiety around situations. Let me give an example: if I have an argument with a loved one, particularly if the argument ends without resolution, if I think that things are left unsaid or undone, I will begin to experience physical sensations of tightness in my chest, of a nervous energy in my legs and stomach. With these physical sensations my mind begins to ramp up with thoughts about the disagreement. I run simulations on ways that the argument could have and should have gone smoother. The thoughts and the physical sensations seem to form a sort of feedback loop. They strengthen and encourage each other. There are times that this physical agitation and restlessness coupled with mental chatter can seem unbearable. It is as if I want to jump out of my skin, or like there is a little man inside my chest scratching and clawing to get out and act, to take control. In the past this would typically lead me to pick up the phone or physically go seek the person I had the argument with out and attempt to resolve it. Of course since my attempts at resolution are driven by this uncontrollable physical and mental urge, they historically only make things worse.
I take a different path now…I attempt to get curious. What is that feeling of agitation? Where is it? Where is it in my body? I make myself describe this, really pay attention to it and note it’s characteristics. I follow the sensations. “Oh look, the tightness in my belly is actually not a knot but more like a pulse…and oh wow, it is actually not totally in my belly, it seems to be radiating across my back”. When thought kicks in I make a note, “oh look, now thinking has come on line”. I try not to indulge in the content of the thought but more just noting that there is thinking. When I do get caught up in thought I try to get curious about that too, “oh wow look, I’ve gotten pulled away again”. The reason I describe the little man above is because I discovered him by getting curious about the feelings, “holy shit, it is like there is this crazy little man in me trying to take control!”. Fascinating!
Dr. Judson Brewer in his deeply interesting book, “The Craving Mind”, describes surfing the wave of craving. We get curious about the emotion or thought pattern that seems to have seized the reins and we recognize it as an incoming wave. We jump up on our surf board of curiosity and attention to detail and we try to ride the metaphorical wave all the way into shore. If we wipe out we get curious again, climb back up on the board and continue surfing.
Sisters and brothers I am happy to share the good news with you that it is possible to surf those waves to shore. It is possible to ride the emotion without getting overwhelmed by it and to ride it until it dissipates. This is huge. It is a game changer for experience. To discover that by getting curious about your internal landscape equanimity, freedom and fearlessness can be increased is a key to living the good life. A good friend of mine calls this equanimity or ataraxia a state of “unfuckablewithness”. It is a key component of living the inside-out life, a life of increasing freedom, fearlessness and equanimity.
Don’t take my word for it. Get curious yourself. Go surfing.