How adept are you at stepping outside yourself and observing your own patterns? Think of this as mindfulness 2.0. I get the sense this is something a great many folks don’t put a lot of energy into, either because life has them in survival mode or there are too many other things distracting their awareness away from what’s going on internally. I can’t say I’m fantastic at observing my inner life either, but it’s something that I’m actively practicing. It’s quite illuminating, really. It’s both fascinating and maddening to observe yourself following a current that you know may well take you right over a waterfall, and yet even knowing this, you still hit what feels like an invisible wall when you try to shift the pattern and respond differently. Just like anything, it gets easier with practice. Sometimes I can respond differently. Sometimes I can’t. It takes continual practice and lots of self compassion. I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing or that I’m making any progress half the time. Turns out there’s a bit of an art to observing yourself.
Have you ever started making something, maybe painting or a short story or a wool hat or a book shelf, where at some point you got to a place where it seemed much easier to set the project down rather than continue to work on it? When exercising creativity, so often it’s tempting to say, “Well, this isn’t going well. It’s simply not good enough to put any more effort into.” And then you put the project down. You no longer have to worry about messing it up, but you also don’t give yourself the chance to learn something from the process.
Practicing mindfulness in the form of introspection is similar. You try really hard to force yourself to step outside your thoughts, your reactions, your deeply ingrained tendencies to respond in a certain way, and then it gets too hard. It feels too defeating to watch yourself continually go down those old rutted paths – it’s almost worse to be able to observe yourself doing it, right? It’s exhausting in a whole new way. It would be much less painful to go back on autopilot and put the blinders back on.
However, isn’t it more exhausting (in the long run) to be continually swept away in your own current of patterns that let you down time and time again? To allow yourself to sink into those old ruts that you know will catch you, even if they leave you battered and bruised shortly thereafter? It can feel like those old ruts — those riptides comprised of old programming and childhood wounds and cultural bias — are a lifeboat. There is, of course, something to be said for going with the flow and letting fluidity into your life. But there is also something to be said for being able to pull yourself out of a current when you need to – in being able to swim the other way instead of just letting that self-abusive lifeboat carry you away on a river of clouded vision. Not all rivers take you where you need to go, even if you’ve been on the same river for the last 45 years. Sometimes you need to portage, or walk upstream, or take a break from the water entirely to get your bearings.
Making art or music or other creative projects is hard. But when you keep doing it and practicing and trying again, you get something back, even if it doesn’t always look how you think it should. Observing your inner world is hard, too. But when you keep doing it and practicing and trying again, (You will be swept away on the clouded river time and time again. It’s okay. Every time it happens, you have earned yourself another chance to practice pulling yourself out of the current.) you get something back. Yourself. Even if you don’t look like you think you should.