Robin recently said something, in one of her many uplifting comments, that really got me thinking. She asked how I came to be so insightful about human nature.
I agreed with her that I do have a pretty good sense of what makes people tick, and I pondered for a bit how I got that awareness. Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.
When I was little, I didn’t feel very comfortable relating with other children. The way they communicated and played looked easy, but when I tried to get involved it didn’t come easily to me. So I took to hanging back and observing, hoping to get a sense of how I could have the fun they seemed to be having.
This was a painful time, but it had wonderful benefits. All that people-watching did give me a strong sense of what motivates human beings, why they hurt and how they heal.
Is Personal Development About Avoiding Pain?
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the story of my own growth is very different from what we normally hear about personal development and how to create it.
Often, it seems to me, personal development is presented as a bunch of “tips and tricks” for avoiding suffering. Common examples of what I mean are:
* If you master the right lines and body language, you’ll always “get the girl” (or guy), and you won’t have to feel alone.
* If you learn the right way to organize your e-mail, you’ll be super-productive, and you won’t have to feel anxious about your work.
* If you use these super-savvy-SEO marketing tips, you’ll escape the 9-to-5 grind, and you’ll never feel trapped and frustrated again.
And yet, I think my most profound periods of growth have been the times when I’ve suffered the most – like those hours I spent on the outskirts of the playground as a kid.
What’s more, in moments when I’ve matured the most, suffering has been unavoidable. When I was little, I had to go to school and be with other kids, and no one was around to teach me “social skills” and make relating easier. But if I’d been able to somehow escape that situation, I wouldn’t have gained an acute understanding of people’s inner lives.
Sitting With Suffering
Experiences like this have taught me that, when I find myself suffering, turning to “tips and tricks” to escape isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes, it’s more helpful to “sit with” the hurt — to let go of distractions and turn my attention toward what I’m feeling.
When I’m feeling lonely, for instance, I’ve taken to getting intimate with my loneliness. I try to tune into the body sensations that tell me I’m feeling alone. For me, aloneness shows up as a heaviness in my solar plexus.
Interestingly, the more familiar I get with that sensation, the more comfortable, and the less threatening, it seems. I start to realize that, as Michael Jackson put it, it’s “just another part of me,” and there’s a peace that comes with that realization.
Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone seek out suffering to mature more quickly. As I’m sure you know, there’s no need to go looking for pain in this world — it’s here in abundance. The Buddha put it simply: “existence is suffering.”
What I’m suggesting is that “crappy” times in our lives are often our most powerful periods of growth — and that the deepest self-development happens when we open ourselves to pain, instead of numbing ourselves to it.
For a few years, I believed that what we often call “the rational mind” was my enemy. I have a powerful rational mind, and most people would see this as a plus, but to me that was part of the problem. I thought all the analysis, judgment and criticism my mind did was holding me back in life.
For instance, when I was having a conversation and just trying to listen to the other person, the rational mind would kick in, coming up with counterarguments, different perspectives, advice and so on. Unconsciously, the other person would sense this, and it would be disconcerting to them. I often felt helpless in the face of the mind’s constant whirring.
How I Lost My Mind
This was partly, I think, because I had an intense, time-consuming job — being a lawyer — where the rational mind dominated everything. As a young attorney at a big law firm, I led a cloistered life, spending most of my time in my office drafting legal papers, memoranda and letters. This was okay with me in the workplace, but it wasn’t easy to silence the mind’s noise in my off hours.
In a sense, leaving that job and starting to coach and write was my rebellion against what I saw as the tyranny of the rational mind. I knew there were parts of me I hadn’t spent much time cultivating, and I thought leaving my old environment was the only way I could really do that in earnest.
I also immersed myself in ideas and techniques to help me discover “who I was beyond the mind,” as some spiritual teachers put it. I spent countless hours meditating, releasing emotions, taking workshops, and so on. Conversation, for me, became about noticing what I felt in my body and trying to give that a voice — “I’m feeling my shoulders relax as I talk to you.” I wrote a slew of articles, and ultimately a whole book, about listening to instinct and intuition.
I made some progress toward this goal of self-discovery — I experienced moments when my mind was blissfully empty, and all I felt was raw sensation — my pulse, breathing, tingling in my hands, and so forth. I saw that the rational mind was “just another part of me,” to paraphrase Michael Jackson, and that I was an okay person even when it wasn’t operating.
How I Found It Again
Perhaps the most important thing I noticed, in these “mindless” states, was that the mind no longer seemed so oppressive. When I began to feel more in control of it, I started to see that it was simply a tool I could use — not an enemy bent on destroying me or making me unhappy.
After seeing this, I started regaining my interest in using the rational mind, and discovering what I could give the world with it. I got back into reading about philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines I scorned for a while as abstract and “heady.” I started a new blog addressing some of the criticisms of personal growth, which has a more “pointy-headed intellectual” style, I think, than what you’ll read here.
I’ve noticed, as I’ve been reconciling with my mind, that I’m having a blast. I’ve been cranking out articles nonstop for the new site, which ideally will turn into another full-length book. The heightened awareness of my body I developed has actually helped me appreciate this — I’ve noticed how light and free my body feels as I’ve done this writing.
The moral of the story, I think, is that I needed time away from the rational mind to rediscover its value. Another takeaway is that we don’t serve ourselves by pushing away parts of who we are, and one of the most rewarding things we can do is make peace with the parts we find it hardest to deal with.
How about you? What part of you have you been pushing away? What could you do to integrate it back into your life?
I think we’d all like to believe that we don’t care whether anyone pays attention to us. We’re heroically forging our own path, and if other people don’t care about what we’re doing or think it’s important, that’s just their loss. But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll see that the reality is a little different.
If you’re a blogger, for example, can you truthfully say you don’t care whether anyone reads what you write? If it didn’t matter whether anyone read your writing, why would you bother blogging at all? Just to organize your thoughts? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.
Uh oh, now we’re treading into dangerous territory, aren’t we? If you admitted you wanted attention from others, wouldn’t that make you a narcissist? A people-pleaser? A needy child in a grownup’s body? There’s nothing good about that, is there?
The Gift of Narcissism
Or is there? Do you suppose Michelangelo would have spent four years painting the Sistine Chapel if he didn’t care whether anyone saw it? That Shakespeare would have written all those plays if he didn’t care whether anyone read them? That Michael Jackson would have recorded Thriller if it didn’t matter whether anyone heard it?
My point is that the human desire for attention has gifted us with a massive amount of brilliant creative output. If people didn’t care about being noticed by others, the world would be far poorer for it.
And, yes, that same desire has probably produced some horrors in human history. I’ll grant you that, if Hitler didn’t care about getting attention, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to become chancellor of Germany. Maybe he would have stayed an unappreciated artist.
But all this means is that our desire for attention, like any other human quality, has light and dark sides. It isn’t inherently good or bad. If we consciously harness it, it can help us do incredible things for the world.
Letting Go Of Denial
I think it’s a shame, then, that we often hate and deny our desire for attention. Instead of acknowledging it in ourselves, we project it onto others. “They’re the narcissists and people-pleasers,” we tell ourselves. “I’m just doing my own thing.” Or maybe we see it in ourselves, but do our best to keep it hidden.
What if, instead of hating it, we accepted — and maybe even appreciated — this part of ourselves? What if we recognized that, without it, we’d be less able to give our gifts to the world?
I know, the ideal in personal growth is for your work to be an expression of your wholeness, rather than an attempt to become whole. But there’s a reason we call that an ideal. It’s something we aspire to, but we don’t usually achieve 100% in practice.
It may sound like a paradox, and in a sense it is, but if you want to be fully okay with yourself, I think you need to accept the part of yourself that doesn’t feel okay unless it’s getting attention. You can’t have unconditional self-love without loving all of your parts, imperfect as they may seem.
Oh, and thanks for paying attention to me and reading this.