“If you think life’s a vending machine where you put in virtue and you get out happiness,” a character on the TV show “Six Feet Under” once noted, “then you’re probably going to be disappointed.” Most people find this out the hard way. I suspect you did. The times when you obeyed all the rules and got punished anyway, ate righteously and still got sick, worked yourself half to death to achieve a goal only to feel depletion and disappointment rather than the happiness you expected — the happiness you paid for, by God!
For thousands of years, wise observers have pointed out that whatever’s in charge of the universe “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” And for thousands of years, the rest of us have answered: “Wait — what?” No matter how routinely it happens, we’re shocked and appalled to see good folks shivering in downpours of ill fortune while their villainous, luxuriantly tanned enemies send postcards from sunbaked beaches.
Perhaps this indignation arises from some innate sense of justice. That’s what the French doctor Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard started testing in 1801, when he took on the care of Victor, a “wild child” who’d spent an estimated seven of his first 12 years in the woods (being raised by wolves … or squirrels — we’ll never really know). Victor had only a rudimentary understanding of human language and social convention. Yet when Itard experimented by punishing him for behavior that usually earned him a reward, the poor child struggled mightily against his punishment.
Whether or not we’re born with it, we’re certainly socialized into the belief that the nickels and dimes of virtuous acts will drop snack-size potato chip bags of happiness into our lives. Our parents offer praise for obedience; our bosses give productive employees promotions and unproductive ones pink slips; our courts (at least try to) punish misbehavers and recompense the wronged. And of course, an endless stream of books, movies and TV shows offers us narratives in which the good guys win, over and over, while the bad guys ingloriously fail.
No wonder we’re stunned when we follow the path of compliance into catastrophe. This doesn’t feel like bad luck; it’s like an unfathomable malfunction that, in the words of Anne Lamott, “would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” While we’re coping with our misfortune — the cancer, the divorce, the bankruptcy — we may also lose faith in the basic rightness of life itself. Some of us spend years kicking the cosmic vending machine, raging at anyone (parents, psychiatrists, lovers, politicians) who might be in a position to cough up the happiness we’ve paid for, or at least give us our money back.
Of course, like any impossible task, this effort produces only exhaustion and despair. At some point, even the strongest burn out. Maybe you’ve reached this limit, plunging from violent outrage into numb nonresistance. Or perhaps — especially if your suffering has been intense — you’ve tried to find relief. Maybe you finally went to a therapist, or learned to meditate, or found yourself downward-dogging away in the yoga pants you swore you’d never wear.
These kinds of responses teach us to stop attacking the imaginary vending machine; instead, we sit down beside it, in all our furious disappointment, waiting for new insight to arise. And here’s the thing — though this approach won’t prevent a lifelong do-gooder from getting cancer or keep a lightning bolt from striking down the nicest person in town, that insight will arise. Following paths of stillness and curiosity, rather than rage and despair, we eventually make a fascinating discovery: Although the righteousness-reward theory hasn’t worked for us so far, it contains a bright thread of truth. There is a kind of virtue that really does buy happiness. The problem is, we’ve been taught to use the wrong kind of virtue and expect the wrong kind of reward. We’ve been plunking euros into a machine geared for dollars, expecting chocolate from a machine that contains only fresh fruit. To get the machine functioning correctly, we need to tweak a couple of definitions.
Let’s consider virtue first. Most of us have been taught that it’s a trait synonymous with adherence to social rules: our family’s way of loving, our peer group’s way of achieving, our social class’s politics and manners. We think it’s virtuous to do what other people want. We may believe this so deeply that we override our innate inclinations. Psychologist Stanley Milgram famously designed a study in which a researcher instructed ordinary people to administer painful electric shocks to a fellow study participant (actually there were no shocks; the subject was an actor pretending to be in pain). Even when they heard a fellow human screaming and begging for mercy, many people went on shocking him just because a scientist intoned, “The experiment requires that you continue.” Following rules? Not always virtuous, it seems.
Now consider happiness. You may believe it comes from external phenomena: praise, money, status, adoration. But even when we attain these things, the happiness they create is temporary and unreliable. External rewards may bring a surge of elation, but it quickly fades, leaving the millionaire still fearing financial loss, the beloved actor still suicidal, the aging supermodel still hating her body. If you’ve experienced this pattern — effort, followed by achievement, followed by elation, followed by a letdown — you may still be tenaciously striving, thinking just a little more money, fame or beauty will make you happy. Observe the evidence. Save your strength.
Try this: Define virtue as living in perfect alignment with what you most deeply feel to be true, and happiness as an upwelling of joy that arises directly from this alignment, regardless of external factors. Then run your own experiment. With these new definitions, you’ll find that the virtue-in, happiness-out vending machine works. It really, truly does.
I’ve experienced this myself. Several times, I’ve broken the rules of my culture to follow my sense of truth — ended my marriage, left my church, chosen to be vocal in my dissent. Each time, I’ve lost relationships and money, experienced social shaming, even suffered threats to my life and liberty. I won’t lie: It hurt. A lot. Yet, paradoxically, each choice also increased a flow of happiness that seemed to arise for no reason except that I’d stopped blocking it. I was amazed to feel peace trickling through sorrow and disappointment, gradually dyeing everything some shade of happy.
When people experience this — despite outward losses — they begin blooming like flowers, from misery to surrender to thoughtfulness to inner peace. Alignment in, joy out. In sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, that machine works.
If you’d like to experience this for yourself, join me in something I call an Integrity Cleanse. The word integrity (from integer) means “wholeness.” Living in integrity means expressing and doing what’s true for you in all situations. Depart from your truth in any way—offer a fake smile, flatter your awful boss, marry for money—and you become two people: the truth knower and the lie actor. That’s duplicity. And duplicity, not social noncompliance, is the real enemy of joy.
To start the Integrity Cleanse, first ask yourself, “Where am I out of integrity?” Where are you not feeling what you feel, knowing what you know, saying what you believe and doing what feels most right? Once you’ve identified the duplicity, come back into integrity. Speak your truth. Act on it. No matter what.
Sound radical? It is. Plop integrity into an unfair system, and you’ll get back disapproval or attack. People have been imprisoned for living with integrity. People have died for it (sometimes moving society a little closer to equality and liberty in the process). Even if your consequences are relatively minor — your parents object when you leave graduate school, your book group mocks your political stance — they’ll still sting. At first you may feel the same old outrage: “I put in virtue and got back punishment!” Stay the course. See what happens.
I’ve watched many people take Integrity Cleanses. They often leave (or experience rejection in) situations that don’t match their truth. This can feel like the end of the world — because it is: the end of the illusory world where rule following buys happiness. Refusing to give a drug-addicted loved one more money; quitting the secure, horrible job; stating your beliefs to bigots — such actions may feel like dropping atom bombs on your own safety. You’ll certainly be afraid. Maybe sad and angry as well. But almost immediately, you’ll also feel an indescribable relief, as if a broken bone that healed badly has been reset in its correct alignment.
Continue your Integrity Cleanse and you’ll begin to see how the cosmic vending machine really works. You’ll find ways of thriving in the world as yourself, not someone else’s puppet. Despite all the challenges, that will feel good. In fact, it will feel amazing.
But don’t take my word for it. Try putting complete integrity into the vending machine of your own life, and sample what you get back. Even though the reward may not be what you expect, and although some bitterness may mingle with the sweetness of living your truth, I doubt you’ll ever have tasted anything quite so delicious.
How would it feel to be grounded in your truth, in every area of your life? No more saying “yes” when you mean “no. No more stifling your truth to avoid rocking the boat (even a little) No more striving to please no matter what it costs your soul.
One of my more embarrassing memories is the day in high school drama class when I was assigned to deliver the famous monologue in which Lady Macbeth loses her freaking mind. Bumbling my way through history’s worst rendition of that scene, I suddenly understood why actors are always asking, “What’s my motivation?” I had no idea how to portray Lady M because I couldn’t imagine what the heck made her tick.
At the time, I blamed my abysmal acting skills, but now that I’ve lived many additional decades and watched 800,000 episodes of Law & Order, I realize my horrible performance wasn’t entirely my fault. Lady Macbeth is incomprehensible because after years of secrets, lies, and manipulation, her mind is such a mess even she can’t find her way around it. She lives in a private hell, and as she puts it, “Hell is murky.” She’s constantly scrubbing at her hands, but that doesn’t help. Nothing is clear to her. Nothing is clean.
Though few of us are in Lady M’s league when it comes to foul deeds, most of us at least occasionally act on motivations that are less than pure. We tell little lies to get people’s approval, do things for acceptance that feel wrong-ish, soothe a friend’s feelings not out of unsullied love but because we’re hoping for a favor. To live a totally clean life is as rare in its own way as being a mad murderess. But even if we can’t be completely pure, it’s within our power to do what twisted sister Macbeth couldn’t: clean up our act. Which is another way of saying welcome to the Agenda Cleanse.
Why an Agenda Cleanse Is Good Life Hygiene:
The problem with hiding your real motives is that you’re essentially keeping a secret, and as neuroscientist David Eagleman has written,”The main thing that is known about secrets is that keeping them is unhealthy for the brain.” When we begin to weave webs of deception, we need to expend enormous mental energy to prevent them from tangling. There’s less brain power left over for solving real problems, and we start to falter in other areas of our lives.
The problems may even show up in our bodies: Secrets and lies can weaken our immune systems. They’re also hell on relationships, both personal and professional. People can feel the difference between a pure agenda (you kissing your baby) and a murky one (a politician kissing your baby). They find ulterior motives vaguely to intensely repulsive. As a result, impurely motivated actions tend to backfire. Lie for approval, and people disapprove. Try to control people, and you lose control. Pretend to be perfect, and you risk being caught by folks who’ll abhor your pretense of perfection more than your imperfections themselves.
If, in light of all this, you’re hesitant to do the Agenda Cleanse, I’ll assume it’s because you’re either Lady Macbeth or Mother Teresa. Everyone else, please meet me at the next paragraph.
Agenda Cleanse Step 1: Pick an interaction, any interaction.
Think of something you plan to do in the upcoming hours or days that involves other people. It could be going to a coworker’s birthday party, putting in a day at the office, attending square-dancing class, whatever. We’ll call this interaction activity X.
Step 2: Ask yourself the actor’s question.
Keeping activity X in mind, ask yourself, What’s my motivation for doing this? Don’t spit out the first facile answer that comes to mind (Um, I have to?). Give it real thought, and be brutally honest. Your clarity—maybe a little piece of your sanity—depends on it.
There might be several reasons you’re planning to undertake activity X. Feel for the one that’s deepest. Maybe you’ll be attending the coworker’s birthday party because you sort of want to be there but also to be polite, and mainly because you want cake. You may go to work to earn money, and to feel important, but primarily to prove your worth to your parents. Perhaps you square-dance partly for love of the music, partly to show off your new Frye boots, but mostly because your friends just keep hounding you until you go. Pick the motivation that feels most true, your real bedrock reason.
Step 3: See if your real agenda aligns with your apparent agenda.
Now that you’ve identified your actual motivation, check to see whether you’re making it clear or hiding it from others—and even yourself. Finish this statement, and don’t hold back. Tell it like it is.
I let myself and others think the real reason I’m doing activity X is _______________________________________________.
To the extent that this answer is the same as your answer in step 2, your agenda vis-á-vis activity X is transparent. If the two answers are different, you’re in hot water. Happily, I mean that in a good way.
Step 4: Clean your hidden agendas with an unbroken stream of truth.
Simply by stating your real agenda and admitting that it’s different from the one you present to the world, you’ve already started getting clean. To keep the process going, consistently tell yourself the truth about your motivations and any deceptions you perpetrate. You won’t change your behavior immediately, and that’s fine. Just keep getting clearer inside by acknowledging where you’re not being clear outside.
This means that as you wish your acquaintance a happy birthday, you remind yourself, I’m here for the cake. As you assure your boss you love your job, own the truth: This is pure b.s.—I need the paycheck. While do-si-do-ing, silently admit, I’m doing this only because I didn’t have the guts to say no.
Sustained personal truth-telling will gradually cleanse your inner life. This, by the way, is what happens in good therapy: Each week a perceptive professional helps you admit to the real forces behind your actions. As you start to see your inner motivations more clearly, you begin relating differently to the world around you. This leads naturally to the next part of our cleanse.
Step 5: Allow your pure inner agenda to radiate outward.
Just as muddy motives leak, revealing impure agendas to the people we’re trying to fool, a sustained clear agenda becomes ever more luminous to others. Even if you don’t mean to change your behavior, your cleanse will begin shining truth on everything around you. This may disturb people whose motivations are still impure. Indeed, these people may become so alarmed that they try to pressure you back into insincerity.
In response, you can always go back to having crazy-making, murky agendas. Or you can keep cleaning up your act until folks around you either undertake their own cleanse or go away. One client told me, after an especially hidden-agenda-packed meeting, “I’m exhausted by my own hypocrisy.” Once you start articulating such feelings, you’ll stop doing things with impure agendas, slowly separating from people and events that are essentially environmental pollutants.
Of course, there are scenarios in which it isn’t wise to take your true feelings public. But these scenarios, like Lady Macbeth, are truly insane: political dictatorships, prisons, reality shows featuring various populations of “real” housewives. People who live within such systems sustain impure agendas just to survive. As you become more honest with yourself, you’ll know whether being more pure in your outward behavior is truly inadvisable or whether “I can’t say what I really mean” is just another fib.
Step 6: Fill your life with clean, clear things.
I’ve noticed that as my clients begin speaking the truth to themselves more often, they grow increasingly accurate at spotting false agendas in others. This makes them safer in every situation.
Run frequent agenda cleanses, and you’ll unconsciously steer yourself toward activities you truly love and people who truly love you. People will trust you, and you’ll know whom to trust. The brain space that was tied up in conniving manipulation will be free for problem solving and creativity. Your energy will rise; your stress level will fall. You’ll be happier and more at peace.
Macbeth tries to make this happen for his wife. He orders a doctor to “Cleanse….that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.” The doctor, checking his records and noticing that psychiatry won’t be invented for centuries, says, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Agenda cleansing, you see, is an inside job. And I have nothing up my sleeve when I say I think you’re just the person to do it.
How would it feel to be grounded in your truth, in every area of your life? No more saying “yes” when you mean “no. No more stifling your truth to avoid rocking the boat (even a little) No more striving to please no matter what it costs your soul.
No matter how many times I experience The Storm Before the Calm, it always sneaks up on me. I never recognize it until I’m fully lost in it; bruised, drowning, desperate for relief. Storms are devilishly clever at disguising themselves. “I’m Hurricane Bob!” “I’m Tropical Storm Betty Sue!” “I’m Low Pressure System Barry Manilow!” Don’t let them fool you. No two storms have the same name, but they all wreak the same kinds of havoc.
Of course I don’t mean literal storms. I’m talking about periods of intense disturbance we go through prior to deep and lasting personal growth. I suspect we all have these Storms Before the Calm. But I don’t think most people recognize them. So it’s about to get unbearably metaphorically meteorological up in here.
A Storm Before the Calm begins long before we see it. It’s born in deep wanting—maybe a subtle itch, maybe a yearning so strong it rattles our teeth. It begins down in our guts, and eventually we begin burping it up, asking God (or Whatever) for resolution. Maybe we consult priests and offer formal prayers; maybe we gag out strangled cries that never even make it to language. Either way, we’re begging for change, for fulfillment, for something better.
We want this to happen smoothly and prettily, a sunrise illuminating a perfect summer morning. We expect it to happen this way.
And Whatever says, “Mmm-hmm.”
We forget that to give us more than we currently have, life must make us more than we currently are. And that the first act of every creative change is the destruction of the existing order.
Make no mistake: when we ask for better lives, we are calling the whirlwind.
When the Storm hits, we don’t connect it with our wanting, with our calls for help. We feel blindsided by misfortune, attacked by circumstances, drowned in agony we can’t control.
Loss of control is the essence of the Storm. We may lose control of our emotions, our actions, our work, our relationships, our bodies, everything. It all devolves into chaos—not just the normal inconveniences of daily life, but disruptive, preoccupying chaos, events and feelings we can’t ignore. Plans fall through. Efforts fail. Jobs disappear. Relationships end, or become fractious and impossible. Controllable? Ha! A Storm Before the Calm barely feels survivable.
I tend to recognize the Storm Before the Calm just after I become convinced that I’m cursed. During some of my worst Storms, I’ve felt like a cockroach that God (or Whatever) was trying to kill, first with a rolled-up newspaper, then with a shoe, then with a ton of bricks. After every mammoth blow, I’d be dismayed to find myself hideously alive, missing my head and most of my thorax, but still able to creep forward on my single remaining leg. While, I imagined, God rushed off to deploy the nuclear warheads.
That’s when I remember.
Wait, I think with my tiny, headless-cockroach mind. There’s something about this feeling, this horrible, horrible feeling…it’s not like ever before, but yes, it’s that bad. I think it may be the Storm Before the Calm!
And God (or Whatever) whispers, Bingo.
That dim flicker of recognition is the moment I feel the sea change. I’ve done it enough to know roughly how it’s going to play out. I relax into the belief that Storms Before the Calm come to destroy us, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And that this is grace unfolding. I know that the greater the gift we’ve requested, the wilder and more violent the storm will be, and the deeper the grace.
Contemplating this—that the Storm isn’t a curse, but preparation for the blessing—ushers me into the Calm. Right then, just like that, I feel the pain ease. Before the wind dies down. Before the argument is resolved. Before the disease heals. Before the rent is paid. The Calm doesn’t come because the Storm is over. It comes because I’ve moved into the truth.
Truth is always calm. Still. Gentle. Quietly and intensely alive.
I think almost everyone goes through this pattern. If we look, you can probably remember breaking through a few Storms into the Calm yourself: “Oh, right! After my nervous breakdown I discovered meditation and Klonipin, and things got so much better,” or “True, it was after Jack left that I finally got the nerve to quit my job slaughtering cattle.”
Right then, just with that tentative step toward a different interpretation of ill fortune, the Calm begins. It feels faint at first, but dropping attention deeply into it—focus more on it than on the Storm—begins to reveal that it’s VAST. So huge a million hurricanes could rage inside it and never disturb its peace. That Calm itself is what we really are. Every single pathetic-looking little human is bigger inside, far bigger, than any storm ever seen on earth.
Sometimes, when I can’t reach the Calm, I’ll just stomp into the Storm, betting wildly that it’s more benevolent than it seems. With a sort of inner Viking war scream, I’ll open the grim and complicated spreadsheets from the bank, or go get the painful medical test, or initiate the conversation I’m way too afraid to have. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll sit in a silent room, refuse to distract myself, and face the tempest in my mind.
If I do this bravely enough, a weird thing happens. Right at the center of every Storm I find its eye—the one part of my flailing self that can see clearly.
From that still place right inside the storm, all the horrible luck, the stress, the pain, the shame, the loss, begins to reveal itself to me as an incomprehensibly perfect, intricately choreographed rearrangement of the universe, meant specifically to do one thing: Fulfill my longing.
“Oh,” I notice. “The illness came to teach me to relax.” Or, “Oh. The job loss came to teach me that people will help.” Or, “Oh. I failed because I had to discover that I’m worthy of love, no matter what.”
Oh. I called the Storm. It came because I asked. And it’s exactly—exactly—what I needed.
At that moment, I realize what my favorite yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said, “Don’t you see? God is doing this all for me.”
Not to me.
Doggie Do-Good Camp was supposed to last two weeks. That’s a long time to be separated from a dog you’ve just adopted, but when we got Claire, our emergency backup Golden Retriever, it seemed necessary. She was anxious, jittery, and unresponsive to even simple commands. After two weeks, a Doggie Do-Good trainer called to report that Claire needed more time. “Claire is one of the cutest dogs we’ve ever worked with,” said the trainer. There followed a charged silence. The trainer took a deep breath and added, “Her scores are, er, very low.”
It was hard to contradict, but still, harsh, dude. All our lives we’re taught to jack up our scores, fight for every point we can get, compete for rank like hyenas fighting over filet mignon.
After a full month of Do-Good Camp, Claire came home with a dim, flickering concept of the word “Come.” Mainly she just figures we like to shout randomly; she hasn’t put this together with us meaning for her to do…well, anything.
We could go back to rigorous training, but we haven’t. You know why? Because even with all our kvetching and complaining about a dog who has the same I.Q. as a patch of mold, Claire’s joy in being naughty has brought us untold happiness.
It’s amazing to watch a life lived without concepts, without rules, without fear of punishment. Claire is free from all that, and so even more than most dogs, she continuously chooses love over everything else. Love of play, love of sleep, love of our motley little pack of people.
Today, for at least fifteen minutes, try channeling your inner Claire, doing something that may look messy, but fills your heart. (I’m sharing a video for inspiration.) Every few hours pause, tune in to your desires, and then throw yourself into something that feels as luxurious and sensual to you as rolling in the dirt does to Claire.
We didn’t name our emergency backup retriever, but her wonderful former owner did it perfectly. “Claire” means light; for us, living out of sheer joy, no rules, lights up our family and teaches us how to illuminate our own experience. This month, may your life be filled with light, and may you care not one bit if your scores are very low.
I’ve heard from so many of you in recent days, weeks and months about how we can get by during a period when the news from the world feels cruel and dangerous. I wanted to talk to you directly about the helplessness many of us feel at such times.
The Buddha’s last words were, “Make of yourself a light.” As a tribe, it’s my wish that we may all be lights for ourselves and each other in times that feel dark.
Task Seven: Notice that you are all for all, always.
We’ve arrived at the final task in our newsletter series based on my new book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. The Seventh Task in becoming your wild self is the ultimate act of spiritual surrender, in which you completely release your identification with what I call your “meat self”, that sense of individuality and “me-ness” that has defined you throughout your life.
So, why not do that now? Take a deep breath, and just let go of your ego forever. Take a few moments, if you need them. I’ll wait.
Obviously I’m kidding, though kudos to any of you who just achieved spontaneous enlightenment through the sheer power of suggestion. The Seventh Task represents the end of all suffering, which makes it the Big Banana, spiritually speaking. It’s what generations of mystics and yogis dedicated their lives to seeking, and very few were ever successful. So it’s fairly safe to say that you and I are unlikely to spontaneously achieve the Seventh Task in the checkout line at Whole Foods, no matter how raw and organic our groceries.
If you’re using the first six Tasks consistently, Task Seven will take place when you add in stillness, in the form of some kind of meditative practice. You might even find that your meta-self begins moving into stillness spontaneously. The magnetic tug you felt when you first let your body be moved in Task Three, the deep fascination of Task Six, might all steer you in the direction of some sort of meditation. Give in to the desire to be still, even if it hits you in that self-same Whole Foods checkout line. We all know the staff there have seen weirder things than a spiritual seeker clambering atop the avocado display to assume the lotus position.
Give in to stillness; more importantly, open into it.
If you can do this for long enough, I’m telling you, you’re going to experience something more miraculous and bewildering than anything you’ve encountered on this path so far. You keep opening and opening into the stillness, and at some point, something very… unusual happens. And by unusual, I mean by standards that would have even veteran Whole Foods employees shaking their head in disbelief. But bear with me. Do this for long enough and a moment will come in which you will experience the universe opening its eyes as you. If you continue to expand, the scope of the intelligence that’s looking out through your eyes grows incredibly, impossibly, magically vast.
And then one day you just might find yourself looking at the world with a new understanding: I made this. Not your individual identity, but the entirety, the consciousness that existed prior to energy and matter; the creator whose name is Stillness and out of which all things come. And you know for a fact that if a miracle were needed, you could perform one. There is no doubt, no self-aggrandizement, no ego—there’s no you. There’s no self left at all.
The spirit that wants to heal the earth for us—not for itself, but for us—is abroad in the human race right now. It’s in you and in me with the intention to show us that “you” and “me” are an illusion. There is only “all”—all for all, always. When we wake up to that, we will save the world.
And that, my darlings, is about as wild as it gets. Wouldn’t you agree?
You can find the links to all seven tasks below:
Let Your Meta-Self Flow Through You
Task Hello, beloved readers! If you’ve been following along—or if you’ve read my recent book, which is finally out and about in the world—you know it’s time to learn the Sixth Task of Bewilderment (pronounced “be-wilder-ment”). It’s all part of the process of waking up to your inner, deeper, higher purpose.
Task Six is about learning to let inspiration flow not only through your limbs and heart, but also through your brain. This delicate operation can’t work well if you haven’t mastered at least the rudiments of earlier Tasks, particularly Task One, which is to calm yourself out of fear. Most people tune into fear and use their thinking as a control mechanism, trying to access good feelings and avoid bad ones. This approach can be quite effective. It can get your taxes filed, your children educated, and your ordinary work done. But it’s sort of like inheriting a magic wand and using it only to stir soup. When you put your mind in the service of your higher self, it becomes limitlessly resourceful, creative, and beautiful.
The way to do this is simple: find a problem you want to solve or a skill you yearn to master. Work very hard to find a solution or acquire the skill. Then stop—completely—and go out to play. Think. Don’t think. Think. Don’t think.
If you repeat this process enough, a fabulous thing will happen. You’ll get a feeling of something forming in your brain, and then, quiet suddenly (and most often during a “don’t think” period), an idea will pop into your consciousness like an egg rolling out of a chicken’s derriere. Or, with an almost audible click, the skill you’ve been struggling to learn will suddenly become easy.
This won’t feel like something you’ve done, because you don’t have to do it. Your larger self (I like to call it your meta-self) does it for you.
I could go on and on about the number of inventions, philosophical ideals, scientific breakthroughs, and artistic masterpieces that have come to be through this method. But I’ve thought enough for now. I’m going to call my dog, roll out my new electric scooter (a hundred bucks online—so worth it) and toodle about the countryside, waiting for my higher self to lay its next egg.
*You may read the first five Tasks described in my newsletters here:
There is a creature swimming our oceans that is called Acanthonus armatus. But, perhaps because Acanthonus has the smallest brain-to-body weight ratio of any vertebrate, it prefers to go by its more familiar name, the bony-eared assfish. I did not make that up.
You can know that Acanthonus armatus is your animal totem if you’re swimming around subtropical waters and you hear yourself call out, “Whoa, Mabel! Get a load of the bony ears on that ass fish!” Listen: fish don’t have ears, and you don’t know anyone named Mabel. Now, I know that if the bony-eared assfish is your totem, you’re already having trouble following this, so just lie still and try not to think.
When you look in the mirror, you don’t see what the rest of us recognize as your face. You see all your small asymmetries—the freckle on your left cheek, your crooked smile, the part of your hair—reversed. When you think about yourself, this quirk of perception is much more dramatic, because as Byron Katie says, “Like a mirror, the mind has a way of getting things right but backwards.”
Katie fans (including all MBI coaches) spend a lot of time noticing this reversal of the real, and flipping our thoughts to discover the truth. This is what I’m calling the Fifth Task of Bewilderment. It’s a way of making language our servant, not our master, as we wend our way toward the truths that set us free.
If you’ve never heard of this Task, but you’re sick of misery, I urge you to learn it and use it, soon and often. Try this: call up an unhappy thought you believe about yourself—“I’m a loser/ idiot/ failure/ hot mess/ etc.,” or “I’m too old/ fat/ stupid/ loud/ etc.” Write it down.
Now, you may recall that the Second Task was simply noticing what nourishes you, and what poisons you. Read your unhappy thought, and just notice how poisonous it is. It will corrode your happiness like acid destroying silk. The Second Task asks you to push it aside, but the Fifth Task makes it useful. Your pain is the indicator that this thought is useful and important, but only because its mirror image, its polar opposite, is trying to make itself known to you.
The full Byron Katie work will help you see this at a deep level, but right now, try a shortened version. See if you can think of real, factual evidence indicating that the opposite of your unhappy thought is the truth you most need to learn right now.
The word “opposite” is key, here. If you think you’re too old, the truth isn’t just that 60 is the new 40—that’s just a lame way of comforting yourself, while still believing that there’s such a thing as “too old.” The Fifth Task asks us to radically shift our whole perception of reality. It asks you to think of a way in which you’re actually too young.
For example, maybe only immature humans, who haven’t yet noticed the ageless Being powering all of our meat-selves, fuss about aging. Maybe you’re too young to have stumbled across Einstein’s discovery that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TIME. Maybe you’re still so little you still believe it’s better to begin a journey than to come home.
Can you see how the Fifth Task forces open the tight fist of the mind, allowing you to touch and feel and play with reality in new ways? It’s the very definition of out-of-the-box thinking, and as you do it, you’ll find that your suffering begins to dissolve. What’s left is not a new box of thoughts, but a free mind. What you’ll see in the mirror after that is a wild, beautiful, undefined creature, with a wild thing’s pure delight in the experience of life.
*You may read the first four Tasks described in my newsletters here:
Even though Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my very favorite writers, it took me a long time to read her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. The reason is that when I read about creativity, or when I read Gilbert’s work, I get so motivated I have trouble sleeping. I’m talking for weeks at a time. Liz Gilbert writing about creativity? Frankly, I found that a little scary.
Then, last week, I went to the Arctic in search of the aurora borealis (also called the Northern Lights, and definitely something you should put on your bucket list). Since the lights are most likely to show up between midnight and 4:00 AM, a little insomnia was in order. So I read Big Magic between excursions into the arctic cold, and I got wired like a fox terrier on cocaine, jet-propelled into every creative project I’ve got going. I read, I laughed, I marveled, I ran about in tight circles just to cope with Gilbert’s wonderful energy and my own enthusiasm. I didn’t sleep for four days.
When I finally saw the northern lights—which are amazing—the book reminded me that the aurora borealis is only one of the creative miracles unfolding around and within all of us. I’d love you to go on that adventure too, so head north, and read Big Magic.