“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don't know, the world will tell you.” - Carl Jung
Most spiritual traditions have the same two core insights.
First, the default state of mind for most humans contains a strong element of dysfunction. Christianity refers to this collective state as "original sin". Buddhism calls it suffering. Hinduism calls it illusion. Secular groups may call it anxiety, fear, or worry.
The second insight is that we have the ability to transform ourselves into a new state of being. Different spiritual traditions give it different names - salvation, enlightenment, awakening, etc. Secular groups may refer to it as joy, peace, or love.
To move between these two states, spiritual traditions have employed methods like prayer, meditation, and sacred ceremonies.
Interestingly enough, modern science is showing that some elements of these techniques can transform our wellbeing.
The key is developing a trait known as "psychological flexibility". Psychological flexibility helps us manage unpleasant emotions and take action instead of ignoring them.
To understand how to develop psychological flexibility, let's explore three characters that define the human condition.
The Material Me
The Material Me is responsible for action. It's the one that writes, exercises, and makes sweet, sweet love.
The Babbling Baby
The Babbling Baby is responsible for thinking and lives inside the Material Me's head.
Sometimes it thinks positive thoughts.
Other times, it solves problems or strategizes about the future.
But many times, it's mired in unpleasant thoughts like worry, fear, and anxiety.
The Wise Wizard
Lastly, the Wise Wizard. It’s responsible for observing. Like the Babbling Baby, it also lives inside the Material Me's head.
But unlike the Babbling Baby, the Wise Wizard doesn't think.
All it does is watch the Babbling Baby as it acts like a little shit most of the time.
If you've never experienced your own internal Wise Wizard, take a few moments to go through the following exercise.
With your eyes closed, slowly take a few deep breaths. For each breath, follow it from beginning to end. If thoughts arise, simply watch them as if you were a photographer on a safari expedition. It may be helpful to say "thinking" to yourself when you notice a thought. Then go back to following the breath.
After completing the exercise, how do you feel? Did you notice thoughts arising?
As you may have noticed, while the Babbling Baby babbles away, the Wise Wizard is always there to observe.
Every moment of every day, these three characters are interacting. It's like a Broadway spectacle where the Material Me is the main actor, the Babbling Baby is directing, and the Wise Wizard is observing from the audience.
But instead of the Wise Wizard having a front-row seat, for most people, it has been relegated to the cheap seats.
For many of us, it's not even in the building. Traditional psychology usually ignores the Wise Wizard and focuses on the Material Me and the Babbling Baby. But this can be a recipe for disaster.
Throughout our lives, it's like the Babbling Baby has access to a big ass stereo which broadcasts thoughts into our Material Me's head. Let's call it the Self-talk Stereo.
Many times, the stereo is tuned to the Doom and Gloom station.
To combat this, psychologists will tell you to change to the Happy and Hopeful station by thinking positive thoughts.
But before you know it, the Babbling Baby turns your internal monologue back to the Doom and Gloom station.
Life becomes a constant cycle between Doom and Gloom and Happy and Hopeful.
Alternatively, some psychologists will tell you to distract yourself from the Doom and Gloom station by doing something you enjoy like exercising, reading, or cooking.
But again, this is a temporary solution. You can't always do something pleasant so inevitably you end up back where you started.
So, what can we do?
Instead of trying to change the station or ignore the noise, modern science has shown that we can turn the volume down.
This is where the Wise Wizard comes in.
By observing unpleasant thoughts from the Doom and Gloom station, a curious thing happens...
Thoughts get quieter.
This is because nothing in life is permanent. Whether it's a thought or physical matter. Therefore, by allowing yourself to observe and experience unpleasant emotions, you’ll notice that they tend to go away after a few seconds or minutes.
It’s like the light of awareness from the Wise Wizard is a bolt of lightning to the Babbling Baby.
This is the core of psychological flexibility. Learning to experience the full range of emotions instead of running away from them.
When people say our mind wanders, in reality, it's our attention that wanders. By learning to focus our attention, we begin to act more rationally and get to appreciate the wonderful gift of life by being present.
Don't take my word for it. Try for yourself.
Let's explore how.
Reaction vs. Awareness
When the Babbling Baby is in charge, the Material Me is constantly reacting. But when the Wise Wizard is in control, we live in a state of awareness. Awareness helps you observe unpleasant feelings instead of allowing them to control you.
So, whenever you feel an unpleasant feeling arise, follow these four steps:
Step 1: Observe
Observe sensations in your body. Scan from head to toe. Focus attention on your nose. Then your chest. Then your fingers. Then your legs.
As feelings arise, simply label them and bring awareness back to the body. When thoughts arise, simply label it as "thinking" and go back to scanning your body*.
Step 2: Breathe
As you become aware of your body, you may identify a specific part that feels tight or uncomfortable. Focus on that. Breathe into the sensation. Breathe slowly and deeply to release any tension.
Step 3: Create space
While breathing in and around the sensation, focus your attention on it. Isolate it and create space for it. Give it room.
Step 4: Allow
Now, allow the sensation to sit there. Don't try to change the feeling or ignore it. Just observe it. It could take anywhere from seconds to minutes for it to subside. Be patient. Once it goes away, you can scan the body again for another feeling or sensation and go through the exercise again.
We all have a Babbling Baby inside our head. We can't change that. But we can build a relationship with our Wise Wizard to tame the Babbling Baby. If we do, we begin developing psychological flexibility. This helps us move from a state of reaction and dysfunction to awareness and awakening.
As a result, we finally begin living life on our own terms.
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* This is the core of most meditation practices.
The Happiness Trap inspired my thinking around psychological flexibility. The book includes tons of practical exercises in case you want to go deeper.