In our chosen professions, we are paid to influence the world. Through art, copy and the well-designed media moment, we build emotional connections between client brand X and our target audiences. So of course we believe we know what influences us. We are, after all, masters of the craft.
But do we know the reality of what influences us personally?
Thoughts and emotions: the creators of our world
It’s through mindfulness that we become intimate with influence. We see the connection points between our outer world (circumstances) and inner worlds (thoughts and emotions) and observe what creates happiness and what creates difficulty.
Most of us have noticed that happiness is not often found where we seek it, at least not in a lasting or satisfying way. Looking more deeply, we see a critical distinction: there is a difference between what causes us to struggle and what triggers our struggle.
Waking up to the outer and inner influences
Each day brings ceaseless calls for our attention: the chime of our inbox; the new message sound; the pop-up display; the vibration in our pocket; the 24/7 flow of information, offers and requests. What effect does this have on us?
“Six people are dinging me for last-minute requests this morning, so I’m panicking and rushing through this copy/design, and it’s not coming together right. I’m starting to get angry. Can’t they see I need to be left alone so I can do better work?”
Outer influences (last-minute requests) trigger an inner response (anger) that for most of us is instinctive, unexamined and rooted in wanting our experience to be different than it is (can’t they see I need…).
We spend our waking hours pulled by interactions and circumstances thrust upon us by colleagues, clients, competitors, spouses, partners, elected officials, the media, a down economy, the new account we just won, and the list goes on.
This wanting life to be different is exactly what we examine through mindfulness.
Avoiding struggle, chasing happiness
Most of us can clearly point to times of struggle and to our fight or deny response. We try to “fix” it — usually by changing someone else’s behavior, distracting ourselves with busyness, or escaping from it entirely with the help of a book, an app, a movie or a cocktail.
But what happens when the outer influence triggers a pleasant response? “Yes, I’d like more of that, please!” Our desire for more can often take us completely out of the enjoyment of our immediate experience into a state of planning how we will get MORE or fantasizing about a future with MORE of our new favorite thing.
This wanting can be so strong that our world narrows and our happiness becomes fully dependent on claiming the prize we desire. Not only do we lose the present moment of enjoyment, we may lose days, weeks, decades, even a lifetime, pursuing the pleasant experiences of life.
With all of our energy and focus in life centered around acquiring or creating the pleasant and avoiding and denying the unpleasant, it’s no wonder we’re unhappy, stressed out, unproductive and generally dissatisfied with our lives.
Power over influence
Through careful examination, the storm of reacting to pleasant and unpleasant becomes visible to us. We come to see when our patterns give outer circumstances power and hold over our lives — they sap our energy, enthusiasm and joy.
Shifting the point of influence from the outer to the inner landscape
This process brings awareness to our mental habits:
- Using a challenging situation, look inside at your mental state.
- Allow yourself to be aware of the event in your outer world that has triggered your difficulty, unhappiness, stress, anger, etc.
- Now feel the response in your body. Notice all the physical sensations. Particularly look for tension in your body and changes in your breathing.
- Now notice the story in your mind. Can you see the judgments and beliefs that get unconsciously added to what has happened or is happening right now?
- Can you set down the story, the judgments and all that your mind has added to the experience? Allow the experience to be nothing more than what it is.
- Notice the moving, changing quality of the experience in your body and mind. Notice the experience is not solid. The thoughts and beliefs are not static. They’re moving, flowing. Most of all notice they are not you.
- Now give your experience your full attention. This is meditation. Your mind will wander. The story will come back. Know each moment is dynamic. Practice going beneath all the story lines and being with the direct experience.
Can you see your inner responses are the actual cause of your unhappiness? That it’s not the outer happening, or the trigger, that’s responsible for how you feel?
This simple practice weakens our ingrained habits and gives us power over the outer influences in life. It’s a potent formula to restore energy, sanity and our innate wisdom.
The most amazing thing we see through this practice is that our inner experiences drive our lives, presenting themselves over and over in “outer” situations with the same themes, even if sometimes on a new stage with a new cast of characters. We ask ourselves: Why me? Why is it always this way? It’s not what happens to you, it’s what happens within you.
Through mindfulness we come to see the true causes, the link between inner and outer influences. Most importantly, we train our brains to respond differently to create the causes of inner and outer freedom from our struggles.