Put Your Mind in Service to Your Higher Self…and Other Wisdom From Martha Beck

may 2016Task Six:
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:

Make Language Your Servant…and Other Wisdom From Martha Beck

mb_0407When 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:

How to Know You’re on the Right Spiritual Path

My religion is called Do-Be-Do-Be Do, pronounced “doo-bee-doo-bee doh.” The final “doh” (Japanese for “the Way”) is more properly written like this: Do-Be-Do-Be means “the Way of Do-Be-Do-Be.” According to the religion’s only member—me—it aims to balance the active “doing” of Western religions with the serene “being” of Eastern religions.

This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that “laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I’ve studied and pondered the subject intensely. I’ve come to believe Marx’s dictum, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn’t wrong—but he didn’t know that opiates aren’t purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the “endogenous opioids” necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn’t about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It’s about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.

Flying High on Faith

My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling “high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said.” Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. “I’d always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty.”

Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. “I was euphoric for more than a year,” he says. “Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside.” Drew found himself questioning Preacher X’s insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious “high.”

Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.

This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It’s why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We’re wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.

Compared with the other side effects of religion, getting high off religious participation, even becoming “addicted,” as Drew says he was, is a relatively innocuous one. In addition to the obvious Jonestown-style cult craziness, mainstream religions present their own dangers—because their substantial history, sizable population, and organized structure make their members even more certain that they have the Truth. When another group shows up with another version of the Truth, all hell breaks loose. “Us versus them” thinking can swell from prejudice to unspeakable violence. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and countless other atrocities had religion at their cores. The perpetrators were so stoned on being Absolutely Right that they never noticed the mind-blowing irony of hating in the name of love, killing to defend the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and waging war under the banner of peace.

One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and…oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You’ll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.

In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.

Make Your Own Opiate

Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that this practice could “turn on” the same natural opiates I’d once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I’d become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.

The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:

Embrace Uncertainty

The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren’t…but if you were, how would you know?

René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, “dazed.” Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t sure. Most people know Descartes’s famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). But he actually wrote “Dubito…cogito, ergo sum.” “I doubt…I think, therefore I am.” Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.

You’ll be vulnerable to “bad drug” religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: “Nobody’s absolutely sure of anything, and that’s okay.” This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.

Test Every Idea with All Your Senses

The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?

That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X’s ranting. It’s what led Copernicus to dispute the religious “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. It’s what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.

Asking if something “makes sense” has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the “self-evident” truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew’s problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.

We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can’t be sensed: “I can see how that might be true,” we might say. “It sounds right.” Or, “Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That’s why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song “This Smells Funny, and I’m Not Gonna Eat It.” If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don’t swallow it.

Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides

The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together.” I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it’s not religion—its absolutism. That drug’ll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.

“The problem for me,” Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, “wasn’t that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn’t just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice.”

In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.

So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we’re following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other’s company, but we don’t need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.

The Rainstorm After the Calm…Insight from Martha

drought

Photo credit: Kym McLeod

Drought is a strange stressor, a parade of beautiful days that slowly become terrifying. The current drought in California is the worst in history. While the rest of the country shovels snow and preps for floods, we Californians dab on the sunscreen and freak out a little more each day.

I have reached the New Age-y point where I really do see how I’m creating many aspects of my reality: my friendships, my business, my sinus headaches. But so far, this drought has me stumped. I tried controlling it with my mind. It gave me a sunny sneer that lasted more than a year.

So recently, when our beautiful medicine man friend came to visit, my hopes were low. Way low. He stayed for a week, during which the landscape hummed with wild animals and an undeniable electric energy. But when the medicine man blessed some sand, laid it down, and told us it would bring the rain, my hopes were minimal.

The next morning we woke to a dense, drippy fog. The following day it rained. Then a few more foggy mornings, and finally, a day I spent editing a book and looking up every minute or so to relish the fact that, yes, it was still raining. For ten hours.

That night I turned on the local weather report to share the general rejoicing. Confusingly, the sad weather man said that no rain had been reported anywhere. No precipitation anywhere. It seems to have rained for ten hours almost exclusively on my property.

Was this a coincidence? A hallucination? I’ll never really know. California is still in a historically severe drought, clearly a punishment from God.  Or, perhaps, a chance to learn the hard way—really, is there any other way?—that miracles can happen.

Whatever your personal drought (a love drought, a health drought, a money drought), I know how awful it feels. I’ve been all the way through all those droughts, and come out the other side. I’ve learned that one day, when your hopes are so low you finally stop grasping at them, the rains arrive.

The Benevolent Guide…Insight from Martha

A few days ago, my partner Karen’s beloved father passed away after a long illness. It was a very gradual departure; for weeks, everyone thought that each hour might be Charlie’s last. The days immediately following his passing were unthinkably grueling for Karen and her family, but I’ll say this for imminent death: it clearly differentiates the things that matter from the things that don’t. Being together matters; how we look doesn’t. Love matters; status doesn’t. Having a roof over our heads matters; having a mansion doesn’t. Peace matters so much that by comparison, literally nothing else does.

A few months ago an interviewer asked me, “What are you most grateful for?” and I found myself cheerfully blurting, “Death!” There was a long silence, and then I stammered, “Er, well, it’s nice to think we don’t have to just, you know, keep doing stuff.” The interviewer did not seem to be going there with me. Oh, well, I thought; when I’m dying it won’t matter what she thinks of me. And then I remembered: We’re all dying!

Getting past the fear this creates has been a life’s work for me—a work very much still in progress. But after schlepping away at it for years, I now feel more awe and wonder than dread of death, and the knowledge of its inevitability gives me permission to do more and more of what matters, less and less of what doesn’t. In Africa, where I spent June, I had few possessions, no telephone or email, a very simple schedule. Since returning I’ve given away most of my clothes and set out to minimize things like unnecessary meetings, housework, correspondence, and especially thoughts that distract me from the amazement of being alive for a little while.

Think about whatever you have planned for the next few hours. Would you do this thing if you were currently helping a loved one cross the threshold of death? Will this thing matter to you at all when you’re the one crossing that threshold? If not, stop. Do something that matters in the face of mortality. Living this way makes death a benevolent guide that shows you how to create the best possible life you can have. And doing that brings peace, the peace that matters so much that nothing else can ever compare.

When in Drought…Insight from Martha

when in droughtLast year was the first I spent in California. Having come from the desert, I was all excited about the winter greenness, the rains that always come in October…okay, November…well, FOR SURE in December…or absolutely in…January?

Or not.

This is the first time in recorded history that the rain has not come at all. The forest I love is gray and stark. I swear I can feel things dying.

I was getting rather testy with God about this when a thing happened.

Jeanette Trompeter, a journalist and pal of Master Coach Jill Farmer, asked to interview me for the local news. We did the interview, then I forgot all about it. Several weeks later, I happened to flip on the TV exactly in time to catch the segment about me. Jeanette then told the weatherman how worried I was about the drought. The man in the magic box faced me and said, “Martha, stop worrying about the drought.”

I know! Right?

It still hasn’t rained. That’s how these things work. When I was deep in debt, I got winks that said “Stop worrying about money.” It arrived…eventually. When I was “incurably” ill, I got winks that said “You’ll get well.” I did…eventually. The good stuff didn’t happen when I wanted it to, but it happened. And in the meantime, these loving messages from the universe helped me drop useless anxiety.

Try this: Think of a current “drought” in your life. For 10 minutes, just trust that it will all be okay. Trust that you’re being guided. Trust, against all odds and evidence, that you are safe.

When I use this exercise on my drought fears, the strangest thing happens: I feel it raining inside myself. I become a microcosm of the life-giving rain that, someday, will bring California back to life. Or so I trust.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A week after Martha wrote this, it started raining in California.

How to Cure Self-Consciousness

file6461281015948You step into the party feeling reasonably confident. True, your favorite little black dress feels somewhat tight, but it’s still elegant, and the wind outside only tousled your hair a little. Then, just as you’re preparing to mingle, it happens: You pass a mirror and glimpse your reflection—your horrifying, horrifying reflection. The dress isn’t just tight; it fits like Luciano Pavarotti’s diving suit. Your hair looks as though a crazed weasel nested, bore young, and died there. Aghast, you wobble off your high heels and sprain an ankle. All eyes are glued on you. All conversation focuses on your disgrace. Everyone begins texting hilarious descriptions of you from their cell phones.

In your dreams, baby.

I mean this both literally and figuratively. Most of us occasionally dream about being embarrassed in social settings. But even in waking life, many of us operate as if Simon Cowell is doing a play-by-play of our work, wardrobe and snack choices. One team of researchers has dubbed this phenomenon the “spotlight effect.” In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny. To claim it, we need to develop a mental dimmer switch.

Turning the Lights Down Low

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, Victoria Husted Medvec, PhD, and Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, the psychologists who coined the term spotlight effect, also devised numerous ways to measure it. In one experiment, they had college students enter a room with other students while wearing an “embarrassing” T-shirt. (The shirt bore the likeness of a certain singer, whom I won’t identify here. I will say that for days after reading this study, I was medically unable to stop humming “Copacabana.”) When the mortified students were asked to guess how many people in the room would remember the face on their T-shirt, they gave a number about twice as high as the number of students who actually remembered the shirt.

Other studies support what this one suggested: The spotlight effect makes most of us assume we’re getting about twice as much attention as we actually are. When Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” he was wrong—but only because he was president of the United States. If you are currently president, rest assured that millions will note and long remember if, say, you barf on the prime minister of Japan. However, if you are not president, you’re probably pointlessly blinded by the glare of imaginary social judgments.

These judgments aren’t limited just to times when we mess up. Our distorted perceptions mean we not only exaggerate the impact of our errors but also undersell our inspirations and contributions. For example:

  • You modestly mumble an idea in a meeting, assuming that co-workers will be awestruck if they like it, appalled if they don’t. Net effect: Nobody really hears the idea—until the annoying extrovert across the table repeats it more loudly, and gets all the glory.
  • You wear clothes a bit duller and more concealing than the ones you love, only to look back years later and wish you’d bared and dared more in your youth. (As one of my friends sighed about her self-conscious daughter, “If she only realized that at her age, you’re beautiful even if you’re not beautiful.”)
  • You sing, swing, and mamba only in the privacy of your home, never with other people. Repressing the urge to sing “Copacabana,” you miss the joy of sharing silly or sultry abandon with the people you love—and the people you may never get to love because inhibition robs you of the confidence needed to form a bond.

These self-limiting behaviors have no positive side; contrary to what many assume, they rarely save us from doing things we’ll later regret. In fact, Gilovich and Medvec have found in other studies that, in the long run, people most often regret the things they failed to try, rather than the things they bombed at. Trying yields either success or an opportunity to learn; not trying has no positive result besides avoiding mockery or envy that (research shows) wouldn’t be nearly as big or bad as we fear.

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Taming Wild Mustangs… Insight From Martha

KOELLE_FINAL_0759

For the last three days I’ve been fulfilling a longtime Wildly Improbable Goal, watching my friend Koelle and some of her Equus coaches taming wild mustangs here at the ranch. It’s just amazing. And it’s reminded me how we really change our lives, and the world, for the better: calmly, kindly, joyfully.

Before our two mustangs arrived, Koelle showed us some film of a typical “breaking” process: terrified horses thrashing and kicking for weeks on end as they’re roped, chained, and otherwise overpowered by humans. Koelle uses a method so gentle she often uses nothing more than eye contact—and it works far, far better than violence. 

In fact, the Equus coaches are using such subtle body language to connect with the horses that it often looks as though they’re simply standing near the mustangs, completely relaxed, barely moving. That’s the energy that allows the horses to calm down and learn that it’s safe to be herded and handled. When I walk around the barn to the mustang paddock, I’m hit by a wall of stillness so sweet it makes me gasp. And this stillness has done more in three days than traditional “breaking” can accomplish in weeks. Better yet, no one is suffering. 

More and more, I feel that this is the way we are meant to do everything. Exertion must be limited to fun; to create what we want in our lives and the world, we must find peace and stay there. 

Today, look upon your life, your bank account, your family, each person you meet, as a wild horse. If a problem looks difficult, relax. If it looks impossible, relax even more. Then begin encouraging small changes, putting just enough pressure on yourself to move one turtle step forward. Then rest, savor, celebrate.  Then step again.  You’ll find that slow is fast, gentle is powerful, and stillness moves mountains.


photo: phyllis lane | www.phyllislane.com

How to Tune In to Your Inner Wisdom

1425765_31554285This very day, two individuals are vying to be your personal adviser. The first, whose name is Fang, dresses in immaculate business attire, carries a briefcase full of neatly organized folders, and answers all e-mails instantly, via BlackBerry. In a loud, clear, authoritative voice, Fang delivers strong opinions about how you should manage your time. Fang’s résumé is impressive: fantastic education, experience to burn. 

The other candidate, Buddy, wears shorts, a tank top, and a rose tattoo. If you question the professionalism of this attire, Buddy just smiles. When you ask advice on a pressing matter, Buddy hugs you. There are almost no words on Buddy’s résumé (the few that do appear are jokes and song lyrics), and in the margins, Buddy has doodled pictures of chipmunks. 

Who will you hire to advise you? 

Yeah, that’s what I used to think, too. 

Long, long ago, as a teenager, I gave the name Fang to my socially conscious, verbal, educated mind. Buddy was what I called a perverse, disobedient aspect of my being, who apparently never evolved logical semantics and simply does not understand How Things Are Done Around Here. Fang is wary and suspicious, while Buddy ignores all caution in the pursuit of appealing experiences, like a puppy on LSD. In high school, I vowed to let only Fang run my life. A couple of decades later, I noticed something surprising: Though I generally did listen to Fang, it was Buddy who was always right. 

When clients tell me they need to find their “inner voice,” I suspect they’re already listening to one: a loud, logical, convincing Fang-voice that echoes parents, teachers, priests, and angry personal trainers. You have no problem hearing this voice; the problem is, its counsel rarely leads to fulfillment. Yet you sense there’s someone else knocking around in your psyche: someone whose counsel might make you happy—the kind of wise, primordial self I named Buddy. Unfortunately, Buddy is almost nonverbal, initially unimposing, and, from Fang’s point of view, way too weird to trust. I believe one of the primary tasks of your life is to trust Buddy anyway. That means first learning to recognize true inner wisdom, and then opening yourself to its peculiar counsel. 

Noticing What Your Inner Wisdom Is and Is Not

Real wisdom is so different from what’s drilled into us by most authority figures that we tend to go functionally blind to it. But even if you can’t recognize your own wisdom, you can notice what it isn’t. Compare this list of Buddy traits with their Fang opposites. 

Wisdom Is Sensory, Not Verbal 
“It’s not as though I hear a voice,” says a friend of mine who’s famous for her wisdom. “It’s more like a little kid tapping me on the shoulder. It’s something I feel.” 

In other words, while the voice of social conditioning manifests itself as a stream of thoughts in the head, wisdom often appears as emotions or physical sensations in the body. Brain-damaged patients who lose function in parts of the brain that register emotion may still understand the logic of a problem, but can no longer reason effectively or make advantageous decisions for themselves. The emotional centers of the brain, along with the elaborate bundle of nerves in your belly (the so-called gut brain), have been evolving far longer than language. And that system, more than logic, is exquisitely attuned to helping you navigate your way through life. 

So if you’re wondering whether a choice is wise or not, don’t search your mind for a rational argument. Instead, hold each option in your attention, then feel its effect on your body and emotions. When something’s wrong for you, you’ll feel constriction and tightness. The wise choice leads to feelings of liberation, even exhilaration. 

Wisdom Is Calm, Not Fearful 

The inner voice of social conditioning—that would be Fang—doesn’t just speak in words; it shouts them. “Do it my way!” Fang shrieks. “Do not screw this up!” By contrast, inner wisdom is stillness itself. If you’re waiting for wisdom to outscream paranoia, get comfortable. It’s gonna be a long wait. 

Instead, you might want to regard the thought stream in your brain as an annoying TV talk show playing in an upstairs apartment. Send your attention downstairs, to a place in the center of your chest where Buddy is smiling in the stillness. It helps to take some deep breaths. You may have to lie down. But as you feel for that stillness, the yawping from your brain will seem less important. As you begin to relax, you’ll find yourself guided to do unexpected things. These may include just resting, often the single wisest choice. 

Wisdom Is Chosen, Not Forced 

From infancy we’re trained by adults who can force us to cooperate. Sometimes, indeed, we’re trained so well that we begin to expect all instructions to come through coercion. “You’re crazy to want that!” Fang shouts as you try to grow or enjoy life. “You don’t deserve it!” “You’ll fail!” 

Meanwhile, your inner Buddy knocks gently, then waits to be invited in. Wisdom is far, far stronger than fear, but while fear gladly forces itself upon you, wisdom will do nothing of the kind. We can’t be victims of wisdom: It must be chosen. 

Stop and examine any frightening, ugly, or painful thought that customarily drives you. Ask yourself: Really? Is this really the kind of energy you want blaring through your inner space? If not, calmly state a truer thought: “You’re wrong, Fang. I do deserve this, and even if I do fail, the world won’t end.” 

Fang will not appreciate this. There will be shouting. But you’ll gain wisdom every time you choose to believe the peaceful thoughts again—and again, and again, and again. Ultimately, this practice will enable you to take Fang less seriously. Then you can go out to play with Buddy, who’s much more interesting. 

Following Your Inner Buddy

Exercise 1: WWBD? 

Think of a challenging circumstance or difficult decision you happen to be facing right now—something that’s been keeping you up at night. With this situation in mind, write the first answer that comes up when you ask yourself the following questions. Don’t overthink the answers. In fact, don’t think about the answers at all—just blurt. 

With regard to your difficult situation… 

  • What would calm do now?
  • What would peace do now?
  • What would relaxation do now?

(Note: I don’t include “What would love do now?” because so many people have such misguided interpretations of love. They think love would sacrifice its own happiness, or throw a tantrum, or hide in an ex-boyfriend’s garage wearing nothing but night-vision goggles and a leopard-print thong.) 

The more often you ask yourself these strange questions, the more open you become to the gentle energy of your own inner wisdom. When you feel your body begin to let go of tension, you know you’re headed in a wise direction. 

And that’s what Buddy would do. 

Exercise 2: Nightmare Board, Wisdom Board 

Perhaps you’ve heard of vision boards: collages you assemble from pictures of things that appeal to you. Most of us go through life carrying something similar in our minds—except that instead of pictures that appeal to us, they’re crowded with pictures that torment and terrify us. I call these nightmare boards. 

Your nightmare board, curated, assembled, and prominently displayed by your inner Fang, contains images of everything that frightens and upsets you, including all your most hideously painful experiences. Fang is continuously adding new pictures to the board and lovingly retouching the old ones. 

Here’s a radical assignment: Make your nightmare board real. Glue up some actual images of every frightening thought that haunts you. But don’t stop there. When you’re finished, you’re going to make another board. This new board must contain three or more images that contradict every picture on the nightmare board. For example, if your nightmare board shows a devastating oil spill, your vision board might feature three photographs of people tenderly swabbing oil-coated ducks. For every image of violence, come up with three examples of loving kindness; for every crisis, find three beautiful, ordinary moments of calm. 

When you’re finished, ceremoniously shred, burn, or otherwise trash Fang’s nightmare board. Then put your wisdom board where you can see it. Focusing on hope in a world of fear isn’t naive. It’s the irrational essence of wisdom. 

Exercise 3: Vocab Rehab 

Take ten minutes and write a description of your life—stream of consciousness, no self-judgment, no editing. Then go over your description, looking for every word that carries frightening or painful associations. These words have more power than you might think. Studies show that after focusing on words having to do with aging, people walk more slowly; when they see words associated with anger, they’re more likely to be rude. 

This phenomenon is called affective priming, but it works both ways. You can use it to connect with your inner wisdom by changing every stressful word in your self-description to something more freeing, relaxing, or exhilarating. If you wrote “I’m nervous,” see whether “I’m excited” may also fit. The word unsure could be replaced by open. As you change your story, Fang’s voice will begin to soften, and the peace that comes from your wiser inner voice will begin to arise. 

Practice Makes Permanent 

All these exercises can divert your attention from bossy, self-righteous Fang and help you appreciate the brilliance of your inner Buddy. Wisdom will never be the loud, obvious one in this odd couple. It will never shout down its opposition or barge in uninvited. But each time you choose wisdom as your adviser, you come closer to making the choice a way of life. Trust me, that’s advice you want to take. 

Doing Nothing… Insight From Martha

TailLob2Yesterday I went whale-watching with my son Adam and my partner Karen. It was a beautiful day, and there were humpbacks everywhere. Aside from the slight injuries I sustained being elbowed by other tourists, it was awesome.

Of course Adam had his own odd way of whale-watching, which consisted of sitting on the boat with his eyes closed for three hours. Whenever I asked him something (“Don’t you want to see the whales?”  “Don’t you want some water?” “Don’t you want to elbow a tourist?”) he’d shake his head briskly, wide awake. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was “feeling ALL the sea animals.” As one does.

This illustrates a paradox I’ve noticed this month: Sitting still is incredibly powerful. Recently I’d been hankering to meditate more, and I can’t sustain a good hanker, so I started sitting more often, and for longer time periods, than ever before. This has had a weird result. Slowing down has caused everything I do to happen faster.

Every day, after meditating for an hour and a half, I get up and observe my body as it does chores. Then I watch my brain and body together writing, teaching, or answering email. I don’t feel as if I’m doing it, and it happens bizarrely fast.  All my life I’ve felt rushed, but the more of nothing I do, the more I seem to feel my way through the ocean of tasks we all face.

This month, especially if you have a lot to do, try doing more of nothing. If you don’t meditate at all, try 10 minutes a day. If you do meditate, double your time. Then notice the velocity at which things get done. If you don’t notice an improvement in a week, quit. But give it an honest try.

Lao Tzu says, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” I’m finding this to be almost magically true. 

Do it—that is, don’t do it—and see for yourself.