“When I look back on my life, I see pain, mistakes and heartbreak. When I look in the mirror, I see strength, lessons, and pride in myself.” ~Unknown
Years ago I wrote in my journal: “My life has no meaning. I’m sick of how miserable I am, of struggling and having to support myself. I’m tired of being alone, tired of feeling like I’m wasting my life, tired of feeling like a loser.”
I was that friend who was always borrowing money, who was always in crisis or called at two in the morning and said dramatically, “I’m not well.”
There are few bits of self-knowledge worse than realizing you’re draining people or driving them away with neediness.
In 2010, I decided to try to rewire my wildly anxious brain for inner peace. Looking back at how much has changed (everything!), the through line of my journey has been “developing self-awareness”. The more I develop an awareness of how this mind and body works, the more I feel stronger and calmer.
Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned on my journey to inner peace.
1. Fill your own cup first.
I grew up in a culture where the social contract went something like this: “I will perform social niceties to keep you from feeling uncomfortable, and you will do the same. (I really was not good in this.)
No one told the truth about how they felt or what they needed, and that in turn made real communication or connection impossible. As an adult, I therefore turned to other people for my emotional well-being, when the truth was that the only solution lay within me.
One day, while riding the bus to a freelance job in downtown Vancouver, I got a voicemail saying I was fired and that my last check would be sent to me. I counted on that check; I didn’t have the $20 I needed to get the ferry home. In a panic, I called a former colleague who had met me at Starbucks, and although she was visibly upset, she lent me money to get home.
On the way home, I had an epiphany: I could offer myself the focus and energy I was so eager to impose on others. In the clumsy vocabulary of my growth at the time, I called it my “me first” project.
I started meditating and as I breathed I called the different parts of my soul back to me, kind of like ‘defragmenting’ a Windows computer. To my surprise, not only did I start to feel whole for the first time, but I also felt calmer and more confident about my resilience.
If our well-being depends on someone else feeling good, we will never feel peaceful. We have no control over how anyone else feels, thinks or behaves. There are an infinite number of factors that affect each person’s mood, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own well-being.
That doesn’t mean we can’t work to change systems of oppression, but if we rely on the conditions being what we want them to be in order to feel peaceful… we could be waiting a long, long time.
2. Stay on the razor’s edge at this point.
I used to call myself “Walter Mitty” in reference to the James Thurber short story (and Ben Stiller movie) about a man who constantly dreamed of living lives other than the one he had, like an ER surgeon or a fighter pilot.
“I want to be mindful,” I wrote in my journal, “but my mind is running all over the place.” I have yet to understand that mindfulness doesn’t just happen; I had to put in the work.
But that’s what the brain does. That’s what he thinks. He ruminates. He creates stories. My mind still runs away with me sometimes, but over a decade-plus process I’ve gotten used to its machinations and it can no longer destroy me with thoughts of self-loathing.
Presence is about accepting the facts of the situation, not our interpretation of the facts. I find it especially helpful to remember this when thoughts are swirling around my head like a tornado, or I have anxiety-related feelings like a pounding heart or a tight chest.
To come back to the moment, I notice the external sensations: In this moment, there is air against my arms. At that moment I feel my feet on the ground. At that moment I smell a mixture of cooking fat and roses.
I don’t label any of this as “good” or “bad”; just that Yippee. Focusing on reality, rather than thoughts, breaks the pattern of rumination in the mind.
One of my favorite presence practices comes from Eckhart Tolle: Close your eyes and rub your hands briskly together for fifteen seconds. Then separate your hands and focus all your energy on the vibrations in your hands. If thoughts arise, bring your mind back to the sensations in your hands.
This takes the mental energy out of the rumination loops and returns it to the body, which – unlike the mind – is always present.
3. Learn to observe your thoughts.
The difference between my self-loathing ruminations on the past and my current sense of peace when my mind is like a runaway horse lies in the practice of observing my thoughts. Most of us are constantly thinking and are not aware that we are thinking. Thoughts constantly enter and leave our mind, but we must pay attention to them to understand that thoughts are not who we are, and thus find peace.
Thinking is like breathing. Sometimes we think to solve a particular problem. Other times, thoughts just appear and disappear like signals from a car radio in the mountains. We do not intentionally create these thoughts; they just appear.
As I learned to meditate, I became accustomed to thoughts drifting in and out of my mind. I’ve learned that they don’t last until I make some effort to keep them around, like thinking, “This shouldn’t be happening” or “I don’t like this situation.” Neither of those things are helpful because the situation—whatever it is—happens.
Then I tried to track my thoughts in real time, off the pillow. It took me a few months to start noticing my thoughts. At first I walked with my head tilted back, like a dog trying to figure out where the sound is coming from. I was determined to catch myself in the act of thinking, but since I had spent forty-four years thinking continuously without realizing it, it took a lot of practice.
Sometimes I felt terrible and put on my investigative cap to find out what thought was causing the distress. Another time I thought for half an hour before suddenly snapping out of it and saying, “Ah! I’m thinking!”
It was such a revelation to understand that I am not my thoughts. Thoughts arise in this field of mind and body that I call “I,” but they are not an integral part of this being. Being trapped by religious thoughts is a special kind of hell; when we understand that those thoughts we are not who we areit creates a space in which we can begin to breathe and climb out of hell.
4. Separate the facts from the stories.
I have been a creative writer for over thirty years. I have always enjoyed writing humor because humor requires judgment about a situation. I’ve written essays and comedy sketches (and even briefly done stand-up) about how to do it terrible or hilarious or grapes the situation was given.
Once upon a time, when a beloved therapist was diagnosed with a recurrence of melanoma and closed her practice, I laughed and cried that…And my therapist has cancer would make a great book title. Of course I felt terrible for her, but not as bad as I felt myself losing one of the best therapists I’ve ever had. OF COURSE it happened to me.
Except it doesn’t. I could choose to focus on gratitude for my own health or for what this woman has already given me. I could see it as impermanence and let it go with grace. But I didn’t have these skills yet.
When I began to seriously seek inner peace, I stopped writing humor and essays for several years. On some level, I understood that the repetition of these stories—each one designed to be funny but also to make me the righteous victim—kept pulling my brain to feel bad.
A book by Marshall Rosenberg Nonviolent Communication: The Language of Life he talks about separating the facts from our interpretations of the facts. For months, I noticed my reactions to various situations based on the stories I told myself. Then I retreated and practiced the list of “proof facts”. It often had nothing to do with the stories I created.
Making judgments is so automatic, like thinking or breathing, that we don’t even notice we’re doing it.
Every person on the planet has the same basic needs: to be safe, to be healthy, to be autonomous, and to be loved (among others). When these needs are met, we generally feel good or at least calm. When these needs are not met, we may feel anger, anxiety, depression, or resentment. Learning to identify your feelings and needs in each moment is a huge step towards self-awareness and inner peace.
Ultimately, it’s about taking full responsibility.
We must take responsibility for our own well-being because no one else can heal for us. We cannot control people, situations or events. Heck, we can’t even control our own thoughts or feelings! But we can examine our thoughts and feelings, be more deliberate in our actions, and practice awareness.
Rather than asking the universe to help us like a lost child, we can realize that we are part of the universe – we are made of the same chemical compounds; we share DNA with all living things – and contribute to our own healing.
This is important so that we don’t project traumatic reactions from our childhood onto others and repeat old patterns or contribute to systems of oppression. Developing self-awareness means taking radical responsibility for our own well-being, because if our inner peace depends on what others say or do, or on certain conditions, we will never find it.
Self-awareness is an essential skill for finding inner peace and living from our wiser nature, yet it is a skill that is not taught in schools or even in most families. This means that it is up to us to cultivate it within ourselves.