Have Insight

Practice of the Week
Have Insight

By insight, I mean understanding yourself, particularly how your mind constructs your reactions to things. Let's say I've just come home from a frazzling day of work, and my wife gives me a hug and then asks in passing, "Did you get any eggs?" (which we had not discussed; I hadn't known we needed any) -- and I get irritated, tense in my body, and a little sad. What's happening here?

Her casual, neutral question about the eggs -- the stimulus -- led to a response of irritation, tension, and sadness due to several factors at work in my mind: stress, a sensitivity to possible criticism (that I had forgotten the eggs) from growing up with a fault-finding (although very loving) mother, and my guilt about not doing enough housework. If those factors disappeared, so would my upset.

Recall a moderately irritating or worrying situation of your own: what were your reactions to it, and why were you reacting that way? Consider stress, fatigue, your temperament, how you interpret certain events, your history with the others involved, and the impact of your childhood.

As with everybody else, your reactions come from causes inside your mind. Therefore, if you can change the causes, you can change your reactions for the better:
  • Seeing, in the moment, how your mind has colored your perceptions and turbocharged your emotions can transform your reactions -- sometimes rapidly and dramatically, like waking up from a bad dream.
  • Over time, you can gradually alter or get better control over the mental factors that wear on your well-being, relationships, and effectiveness.

Begin by shifting attention away from the external causes of your reactions -- like what someone said to you -- and toward the causes inside your own mind, such as how you interpret what was said, attribute intentions to the speaker, or feel especially prickly because of your history with that person.

The mind is like a great mansion, with cozy dens, dusty closets, and dank cellars. Insight explores it, opening closed doors and making sense of what it finds: sometimes a treasure chest, sometimes smelly old shoes -- though truly, it's usually treasure, including your natural goodness, sincere efforts, and lovingkindness.

Nonetheless, it can feel scary to look around (especially in those cellars); these suggestions could help you keep going:
  • Remember the benefits of insight. For example, I'm very independent, so I remind myself that the main forces controlling me are actually inside my own head (e.g., beliefs left over from childhood); understanding them reduces their power over me.
  • Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone who cares about you -- like a friend walking with you down a dark street. As they say in AA: "The mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don't go in alone."
  • Regard what you find without making it good or bad. It's not you. It's only a sensation, feeling, thought, or want arising in a room in your mind. Try to be accepting rather than self-critical, compassionate rather than shaming. Everybody, me included, has wild stuff in the mind; it's a jungle in there!
Drawing on the resources in the bullet points just above, look around inside your mind. Now sense beneath the surface and ask yourself one or more of these four questions:
  1. What is softer -- such as hurt, sadness, or fear -- below hard and defended stuff like anger or justifications? What am I really wanting, deep down? What are the good desires underlying bad behaviors? Such as the normal desire for safety at the root of anxious rumination.
  2. What material here is from a time when I was younger? (For example, because I was often excluded from groups in school, I still sometimes feel like an outsider in groups when I'm really not.)
  3. What am I getting stuck on? Like fixating on a position or goal -- or even a word. What am I trying to control that's not controllable (e.g., whether someone loves me)?
  4. How is my gender shaping my reactions? Or my temperament, cultural and ethnic background, or personality?
You can use these methods for insight on the fly, when things come up for you. And you can use them to drill down into a specific issue, such as sensitivity to criticism, longing for approval, tension with your parents, or efforts to get into a good relationship.

Whatever you find, try to relax and open to it. Helpful or unhelpful, it's just furniture in the mansion of your mind.

For Journaling

Write about a moment of reactivity that you had recently (irritation, annoyance, anger, frustration, blame). Describe what happened; describe the feeling and how it arose. Then explore your reaction by answering at least two of four questions listed above.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Spiritual Practices Directory"

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