Yesterday morning, walking up the gravel driveway under the 200-year-old Oregon White Oak, something in me shifted. I woke up feeling pretty low. Sara and I had an argument the night before, and it was one of those rare ones that have a disproportionately strong impact on me. As I was passing under this majestic tree in my early morning walk to my little office up on the hill, I was actively working with my internal state.
Increasingly, I’m realizing the power of internal state and how it really is the crux of personal development. It really defines our life experience, and whether we react unconsciously or respond intelligently to situations we find ourselves in. Two people — in the exact same situation — with different internal states may have two very different experiences. They will react or respond, do more good or more harm, learn or learn nothing, do or do not… in very different ways.
It isn’t the situation that matters most. It is our internal state. And we totally lose sight of this in the very moments where we most need to remember it. This was where I was at with regards to this conflict with Sara. And fortunately, as I passed under the fresh new oak leaves of the summer, I knew it.
Here’s the deal. When our internal state goes negative it becomes exceedingly difficult to respond intelligently to the situation we are in. Instead of responding intelligently (meaning knowledge drawn from the whole of our being and the world around us) we react unconsciously. Why?
Because we feel victimized by the situation or the person or the people involved. We feel hard-done-by and take things personally. We lose connection, compassion, and caring. We stop seeing the person as a human being. We stop seeing. We stop sensing. We stop being present. We stop loving.
Initiating a Shift
As I walked the path to my office, I asked myself the question, “What would working with my internal state look like right now?” I find that a powerful question when I know my internal state is negative but I can’t seem to get a feeling for the way out and the way up. Instantly, something shifted inside.
Sara had said and done something the night before–as benign as it might have been–that I perceived in a certain, distorted way and had taken personally. Seeing this, a shift began.
All of a sudden, I could release that me-ness which often gives rise to meanness, harshness, negativity. In its place, I could feel compassion for Sara, and for what within her must have been happening — fear and suffering, namely — that gave rise to what she said and did. I felt compassion, too, for the fear and suffering within me that must have given rise to what I did to provoke that reaction from her. And self-compassion for that lack of belief in my own self that was giving rise to the meaning and the me-ness I was making of her reaction.
There’s so much power in that shift and release. Often, it is not what another person actually says and does… it is the meaning we make of what they said and did… that is the problem. The root of our suffering. Our meaning-making is ego-centric: fearful and distorted. And therefore gives rise to the suffering we feel. Others don’t cause our suffering. We do.
I smiled. Just three steps ago, I was suffering and not really caring about the woman I claim to love with all my heart. Two steps back, I asked a genuine question of myself: “What would working with my internal state look like right now?” One step back, something shifted. In this step, I’m different. I’m smiling. I’m feeling compassion. And in love.
Exact same situation. Different me. Different meaning. Different internal state. And, now, a different capacity to work with it all.
The Power of Internal State
This is why I write so much about the power of working with internal state. Read all the books you want. Learn all the techniques and concepts you can learn. There’s truly great stuff out there to learn. There really is. But here’s the deal.
Our ability to apply what we think we’ve learned is determined by our internal state. Want to apply all you think you know? Learn to work with the IOS on which those apps depend. Learn to work with your internal state.
A large client I work with is focused on getting better at awkward, difficult, and/or crucial conversations. Their self-acknowledged inability to do them well is an organizational barrier. They see it as a threat to their vision and growth and ability to serve. It is. And their goal is to make getting good at those conversations an organizational strength.
We’ve got 200 people in a program right now working on increasing this capacity. Many are reading the book, Crucial Conversations. It’s a decent book and wildly popular. Four million copies sold. Four million.
I’d guess the majority of those four million who read it won’t be able to do what the book says to do. Why? Because this book — like so many other books that provide a framework and techniques — assumes you the reader can summon (at will, in the difficult moments) the internal state required to actually do those things.
Many people don’t know what internal state is and how to intentionally work with it. The sad truth is the vast majority of people have no strategy for working with their mind. Not a conscious, intentional, healthy strategy, anyway.
Intellectually, many of us love these framework-type books. They are like catnip for the rational mind. But when the stakes are high, and there’s a difference in perspective, and emotions are involved… we hear a sucking sound as the framework goes out the window and ego and emotion rumble through the front door. And all bets are off. We are right back to our defense mechanisms and our typical doings. We don’t have a crucial conversation. We have a failed one.
The first step to working with your internal state is to know where yours is. It’s pretty simple, really. Not easy, because it requires some awareness and intentionality that can be hard to summon when we are suffering, when our internal state is negative. But it is simple. As simple as this.
Search inside yourself. Are you feeling negative or positive inside? It all starts with this basic awareness. As Sara says, “What we can observe we can change. We can’t change what we can’t observe.”
Then, if your state is negative, do one of the practices I wrote about here. Or, as I did, simply ask yourself a genuine, humble question like…
“What would working with my internal state look like right now?”
Then, be open to what arises.
There’s a very good, virtually undiscovered YouTube video that captures the essence of this in three and a half minutes. I played it for a small group I was working with via videoconference just a few minutes after passing under that oak and through the French doors to my office. As I watched it with the group, I thought to myself. “Anytime my internal state is negative, or I feel stuck, I should watch this little jewel.”
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you have a most remarkable week. Think about becoming evermore skillful at working with your internal state. I’m committed to doing so myself. Think about it. Join me. It reshapes our lives. Because it reshapes us.