Some of the big shifts in my life occurred when I started to look at the difference between inside and out. Examining this difference allows you to discriminate between what you think you want (ego perspective) and what your life wants of you (spiritual perspective). Sometimes these are the same things – but not always.
How many of us have wanted something badly, made it happen, only to realize once we got there, that it wasn’t what we wanted at all? Sometimes on the other hand, no matter how much ‘will’ we use, we cannot get our ‘outside’ life to change. Maybe we can’t get a job or something else is going on that we have no power over. These are situations when the focus needs to shift to inside. This is when we need to ask – what does my life want from me? What is being asked of me? What am I supposed to learn? What new perspective will help me with this challenge? What do I need to let go of?
Many of us were taught to be productive on the ‘outside’ – get good grades, get a good job, be successful, buy a home etc. Yet there are people who spend their lives with an internal focus – perhaps meditating, or some other quiet dedication or internal activity that doesn’t show much on the outside. I’m not suggesting that you have to give up your outer life – only that a shift to an inner focus can enrich your life enormously.
What is ‘inside?’ Inside is a focus not on outer creativity or productivity, but on reorganizing ourselves in some way, so that when we re-focus on the outside, we can master our environment in a new way. Inside means that we recognize that ultimately we are creators of ourselves, and that creating ourselves is more important than ‘looking good’ from the outside. Inside means that we recognize that there are cycles and seasons and that every day is not a day of harvest.
I recently heard a story about a person who was doing enormous work in therapy. So much so that she was having trouble focusing on her job because she just didn’t have the same level of energy and concentration. She was very concerned about the decline in her ability to perform. Yet, she was still doing her job satisfactory. Just not the way she had been. What she was missing was the value of all the work that she was doing on the inside. She was restructuring herself. Her focus had shifted to the internal. Meanwhile her ego was clinging to the idea that the ‘outside’ was more important, but it actually wasn’t. Eventually, she would come out of her inside work; fresh, new, more competent and the outside would fall into place in a much better way.
I remember a very specific time in my life through which I was eventually taught about the difference between inside and outside. I was living in Manhattan and breaking into the film business. There were periods of time when I could not get work. I wanted the work. I wanted to learn and make money. During these ‘gaps’ my focus shifted to ‘inner’ work. I read books, wrote, drew, explored. I learned about who I was. At the time, I was obsessed with my outer life and ‘making it happen.’ Life however had different plans for me. Various situations forced me to go inside and explore and restructure myself. Later in life, when I looked back at this period, I saw that what I learned in the ‘inside’ work was much more valuable than what I was trying to make happen on the outside. I got out of the film industry eventually, but the inside work I did at that time changed me profoundly and gave me skills that have been invaluable to me as a therapist, writer and person.
How does this apply to our relationships? When we have problems in our relationships, we want to fix them – of course. But fixing our relational issues almost always requires inner work. Our society has not recognized the value of inner work. How many people do you know who proudly announce the years that they have spent in therapy or other forms of self-help? If our society recognized inner work and the process of developing ourselves into more stable, loving, generous and wise beings, we would delight at the process of ‘working on’ our relationships. We wouldn’t cringe or feel shame. On a slightly different note, if the inner was truly esteemed, corporate crime would not occur, because our yardstick of value would come from who we were as beings, how we treated others, how we developed ourselves, not from how much we had, and what we looked like from the outside.
The road to self-mastery isn’t quick. It is a process and attitude that requires a shift in values. This shift is a mark of wisdom. Life isn’t just about the external, the flatland of the material goods we can grab onto and claim. Life includes poetry, nature, magic, and love. It includes the experience of all of our feelings and the possibility of great self-understanding. It includes mystery and beauty and that we may not know as much as we think we do.
I am not the center of my world, but part of an unfolding pattern and an integral and important piece of the puzzle. I am willing to listen to the whisperings of my life that beckon me, and cooperate with the mystery that we call growth, life and death.