Being able to know your state of mind is a prerequisite skill for success and happiness. It’s foundational. The state of mind that you’re in determines how you’ll see and evaluate the world, which determines your decisions and actions. Additionally, your state of mind determines the amount of enjoyment or dissatisfaction you’ll get out of the experiences you’re having.
If you’re not good at knowing your state of mind, you can learn. If you’re good at it, you can get better. It’s one of those skills you never stop practicing. But if you haven’t started already, the best time is now.
Here are two of the best tools you can use to level up your skills.
“Vipassana” means something like “clear seeing”. In this type of meditation, you’re practicing the skills of attentional control and awareness of somatic sensations. In the most common form of practice (as taught by a teacher named Goenka), you’ll sit on a pillow, close your eyes, and systematically move your attention through your physical body, part by part, noticing what sensations arise at each part. Your mind will wander furiously, and each time you notice that you’ve wandered off into some daydream or imaginary conversation, you’ll bring your attention back to the part of your body you’re supposed to be focusing on, and you’ll resume noticing whatever sensations arise there.
By doing this, you’ll gradually improve your ability to hold your attention where you want it. In the process, you’ll be confronted again and again with the meanderings of your mind — meanderings that, normally, you would be simply swept away with, but that now you see as alternate paths that you could travel down but that you don’t necessarily have to engage with. By spending many minutes in this state, you’ll get to know your mind in a way you haven’t before. Next, as you start to be able to sustain your attention where you want it to be, you’ll learn to recognize, but not react to, the physical sensations in your body. You’ll see first-hand the somatic component of your emotions. But rather than reacting like the impulse monster you normally are, you’ll be able to simply observe and grow wiser.
In my experience, the best way to learn meditation is to do a 10 day meditation retreat. The Goenka centers (www.dhamma.org) are fantastic. You’ll be silent for the entire 10 days, meditating for about 10 hours a day. You’ll get recorded instruction from Goenka, a master vipassana teacher who died a few years ago. The cost is free, but at the end you’ll have the chance to make a donation so that another student can have the experience you just had.
This is the best way to learn to meditate. You can certainly do it on your own, or using guidance like Headspace, but in my experience, you’ll only develop shallow skills in this way. A 10-day retreat is the way to quickly become proficient and learn some deep, lasting skills.
Psychotherapy, especially IFS
In vipassana your goal is to avoid getting involved with the stories and explanations floating in your mind. In psychotherapy, you dive headlong into that content. The tension between these two approaches is irreconcilable — they cannot both be used at the same moment. But like a hammer and a screwdriver, they’re valuable in different moments.
Hopefully you have insurance that will cover psychotherapy. If not, find a way to get it. Then find a therapist you like. Don’t be afraid to try a few different people out. If after a few visits you feel like you don’t connect — like you’re not understood, or like this person isn’t going to be able to help you — then try a different person. When you find a great therapist it’ll be worth all the effort.
A psychotherapist will help you see the stuff you’re not seeing. It’s like having a good friend, who’s wise and in fact professionally trained, there to just listen and help you work through your stuff. It’s incredible.
Don’t be one of those fools who thinks that therapy is just for people who have some problem or are “damaged”. That’s like imagining that physical exercise is only for the physically unwell. Your mental health is incredibly important, and you’re making a dumb choice if you wait until your problems are large before investing in it.
A type of psychotherapy that I’ve had great success with is called Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS. This type of therapy came out of family therapy, in which a therapist would see all the members of a family and focus improving the relations between them. To do so, the therapist would have to understand and empathize with each member, understand the dynamics between them, and help the members understand and empathize with one another. Eventually, therapists began to realize that the metaphor of a dynamic system composed of a number of separate agents each with their own interests, desires, fears, beliefs, superstitions, and idiosyncracies applies surprisingly well to the individual and the “parts” of a person that want, believe, and fear different things. By focusing on these parts as individuals, and getting to know them and empathize with them as one would a member of a family, IFS therapists and their clients were able to achieve huge and rapid progress in bringing harmony to the clients’ inner worlds.
If it sounds weird for you to think of people in terms of separable “parts”, know that in IFS you’re not necessarily taking it all literally — as if these “parts” are little homunculi living in your head. It’s a metaphor. And it’s one that you can work with to achieve a level of clarity and connection that would otherwise be difficult. But also know that the notion that a human personality is not a unitary thing is well supported by psychology and neuroscience. Check out “Incognito” by David Eagleman for an interesting tour of neuroscience research that’ll give you a feel for how stitched-together our consciousness really is.
When you find a good psychotherapist, dig in. Don’t hold back. Don’t waste your time trying to make yourself look good. You have too much to gain.
These two tools are the best ones I know. They provide foundational skills and vocabulary that you’ll use to unlock may other tools and techniques. Start here.