The Battle to Win Ourselves

“Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,
And each will wrestle for the mastery there.”
-Goethe, Faust

Many of us are at war with ourselves. We’re divided, we have mixed feelings. We’re of two minds, of four minds, of eight minds. How many minds do we have in there?

Every time we say “I’m torn” it tells us that being human means dealing with a certain amount of inner tension and contradiction. And that’s fine, to a degree. It makes us interesting. It keeps us humble, and complicated, and artistically screwed-up in a good way.

Except, minute after minute, day after day, week after week, the battle can get also get exhausting. Torn between conflicting loyalties, conflicting goals, conflicting relationships. That’s a lot of conflict. It can lead to serious confusion and stress and pain. As Freddy Mercury once put it, “We Want to Break Free.”

Breaking Free

Mindfulness is one way to get free, to get perspective. That’s what I do when I’m not listening to epic 80s rock anthems. I teach mindfulness meditation, which means I teach Neurosis Appreciation 101.

It wasn’t until I began meditating that I realized what a divided mess I was. Listening to my various neuroses sing, off-key, in a deranged internal choir. One group singing ‘cheeseburgers now!’ one obsessing about witty repartees I should have made, yet another about whether I was even doing this stupid meditation thing correctly. And then, deeper down: who I thought I was, who I thought they wanted me to be, my fears, my insecurities, and all the rest of it. Boring to others, inescapable to yourself, and thus … even more hideously boring.

It can be a shock to first notice the sheer scale and number of our inner conflicts. But then, as mindfulness practice develops, we also realize that a kind of salvation is available.  We aren’t doomed to repeat the same struggles. The technique itself provides a way out, something we can apply anytime, including right now.

To give a classic example, maybe you’re torn between staying on one hand, and going on the other. “Should I Stay, or Should I Go?” you ask, in a punk snarl. ‘If I go,’ (you think) ‘there will be trouble.’ ‘However’ (you think), ‘if I stay … there may be double.’ ‘So’ (you say), ‘come on and let me know!’ And then you kick over a drum set, because, frankly, all this indecision is bugging the bejesus out of you.

Don’t leave it up to them to make the decision! Take the power back with a little mindfulness action.

The Inner Move

Here’s how: first, think about some situation where you feel torn. The trick is to get as clear as possible about the two or more sides you’re feeling pulled between, about the experience of each in real time. How does the idea (for example) of staying make you feel? Where do you feel this urge in your body? Are there any specific thoughts and associations and images that accompany the feeling? Try to bring the whole vague constellation of sensations and associations into your awareness, curious about them the same way a field naturalist is curious about all the busy little critters in the forest undergrowth.

A body atlas of emotion: www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646

‘Why, hello oddly-shaped guilt-tension through the right midline of my body.’ ‘Hello fleeting visual of my disappointed mother who set this neurotic relational pattern in motion twenty years ago.’ ‘Hello admonishing internal voice on tiresome repeat.’ Etc. Critter by critter, you get to know these various parts of yourself. And then you do the same thing for the subtle sensations and ideas on the opposing side (or sides). It may sound hard, but once you get the hang of it the whole exploration can happen on the fly in a couple minutes.

What’s next? This is the fascinating part. Nothing. You wait. The magic has already happened – it’s in the knowing, the movement of clarity and consciousness into what was once murky and unconscious. Now you just let all these tugs and sensations and ideas lightly coexist in the background as you get on with your day.  Sometimes slowly, sometimes immediately, our inner conflict starts to dissolve. A space is cleared for spontaneous actions and decisions and resolutions to be made, often seemingly all on their own. In some cases, we may realize there was never a true conflict in the first place – the struggle was, literally, entirely in our minds. We break free, without “breaking” anything.

I think this is the coolest and most mysterious and most important dynamic in human consciousness. Within professional mindfulness circles, they call it “the progress of insight.” Again and again – day-by-day, year-by-year – we can learn to repeat this process with ever more fundamental tensions and dualities. Notice, feel, and accept. Each noticing of a divide is also, miraculously, the beginning of the next resolution and unification. Again and again – day-by-day, year-by-year – we pan out the camera of our awareness, and find a wider and more accommodating perspective capable of embracing all our contradictions.

This is the real march of mindfulness. Not the science and not the hype, but the actual inside experience of how awareness grows. Positions and habits and even sub-personalities that were once in conflict become integrated. We become less divided. The prize – always – is a larger version of ourselves.

Cue the guitar solo!

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