That was not me.
How often have we heard that? How often have we said it? We were jealous, frightened, angry — or even worse, hangry, that blood-red zone where hunger and anger overlap.
We did not mean to say or do the inexplicable things we did. We were not ourselves. We can’t even remember thinking in that painful blur.
I was not me.
But if that is not me in those moments, am I myself in every other moment? That question might seem to be simply a philosophical exercise, but it is at the center of a growing movement.
We are hearing more about mindfulness as a way out of our exasperatingly mindless days and lives. The ideas around mindfulness are seeping into not only personal development but also in all of our endeavors.
In fact, the management and marketing experts our publisher, Paul Feldman, interviews will often recommend mindfulness and meditation techniques for better performance. In this month’s discussion, Daniel Goleman, a researcher and author, shares how science shows that mindfulness not only improves every facet of our lives but also restructures our brain.
It takes practice to do that. As Goleman says in the interview, no kind of conditioning happens haphazardly. Working out at the gym on occasion will not have a demonstrable effect on your health and physique.
But the tricky part with meditation or mindfulness is that you are not practicing to latch on with laser-like focus on something. That focus will elude you. Instead, learn to observe and detach.
As thoughts blast you while you meditate, the key is not to push them away but to acknowledge them and let them float away.
This is important for a number of reasons. The ostensible one is that it will train your mind to focus on what you want. But even more important, it gets to the essence of you.
You learn that your emotions and reactions are not you, but something happening to you. You feel anger, for example, but you are not angry. You are not anger.
One of the most helpful visuals came to me while using the app Headspace. The host described thoughts and emotions as clouds against a blue sky. No matter how bad the storm is during the day, a broad, beautiful, blue sky is beyond the clouds.
If you wait long enough, those nasty thoughts and sharp emotions dissipate, leaving you with a clear view. The question is, how did you react during the storm?
Reactivity is almost always self-defeating. Who hasn’t smacked their forehead bloody after reacting badly to something? Maybe it is something yelled at a loved one, a child perhaps, that we and she will never forget and will one day be reverberated to her children and on through the generations.
Observe and let go like it’s a balloon and watch it float away. Is something as unsubstantial as that worth destroying a relationship? Can something lighter than air really define us?
The more we can separate ourselves from our reactions, the less likely our emotions will be able to drive us. They will not be allowed to grab the steering wheel.
Attention is our greatest gift to give. It is what we want from our parents. When we do not get it, we are driven for attention all our lives, coloring desperation into most of our relationships.
We can’t offer authentic attention without being present, focusing on the person or task in front of us. Let’s not have those vacant moments when we wonder where the time and the people went. Life happens now, in the middle of this sentence.
The next step for us is to understand that these fleeting emotions and reactions do not define others either. If someone is behaving impatiently and brusquely who usually is not, that is a big clue that the behavior is not the person.
Perhaps that person is suffering from low blood sugar at that moment and is hitting all your buttons. Rather than reacting, let it go. Help. We all have our hand out at all times, either needing help or giving it, switching in the dance from one to the other and the next.
If we are ourselves only in the most optimal conditions, is that really us? And what conditions created our resting selves? If we are usually anxious, was that a product of an anxious parent? So, is that even us?
Everybody sitting across our desk, lunch counter and kitchen table is a version of us formed under different conditions. When we help those people — daughter, customer, stranger — with something as simple as a smile in a greeting, it is a gift to ourselves. Think of all the times in your life when the smallest act of kindness was greater than the grandest intention.
Let’s start with ourselves. If we try to meditate, we are kind and not impatient. Gently let the distractions go. If we try to be someone else, let that other person go.
You do you. I’ll be me.