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How to Live an 'Inside-Out' Life

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In Part I of this post I wrote of a rising "social psychosis" in our culture. That is, a growing number of people actively promote, accept or are increasingly receptive to beliefs and policies contrary to fact; that either deny or oppose actions for creating a secure, growth-oriented, healthy society and planet.

I'll expand on that in a future post, but here I want to emphasize that this growing social psychosis will likely increase societal and individual dysfunction for some time, until it runs it course. And it will: Demographic, survey and research data reveal a steady, growing shift in behavior, values and attitudes in several areas that will trump the current backlash.

But meanwhile, it's important to find pathways for maintaining psychological health and resilience during these times -- through what I call the "Inside-Out" life. In Part one I explained what I mean by the "inner" and "outer" dimensions of life, and how they differ. A strong inner life is the core of psychological health. It helps inoculate you against the current backlash we're living through. But it also defines the psychological criteria for success and well being, post-backlash, as we face the impact of interconnection, heightened diversity and constant flux in today's world.

In Part 2 I highlight some specific practices that strengthen your inner life; that make it the driver of your decisions, choices and actions within your outer life, now and in the future.

Fill Your "Inner Shock Absorber"
  • Sit quietly, without distraction. Observe your breaths as you breathe slowly, in and out. Count each breath as you exhale, from one to 10; then repeat. Twenty minutes daily is ideal, but if you do only five, that's a good start.

This "entry-level" meditation-breathing practice helps create and maintain centeredness and focus when dealing with your outer life demands, conflicts and worries.

Some forms of meditation are rooted in Eastern and Western religious-philosophical traditions; others in current medical and scientific knowledge about effective stress reduction. All provide a range of physical and emotional benefits that strengthen your inner life. Ongoing research supported jointly by the Dalai Lama and the U.S.-based Mind And Life Institute shows that meditation produces changes within specific regions of the brain associated with greater internal calm, resilience to stress and focused concentration.

Meditation heightens your consciousness and mental control. It also contributes to a stronger immune system and a more robust cardio-vascular system. It shifts your perspective towards just observing the ebb and flow of your emotional states with less knee-jerk reactivity to them. It's like filling an inner reservoir with clarity and mindfulness that you can carry with you in each moment within your outer life.

A fringe benefit: Reducing your total number of breaths per minute to 10 or less, for 15 minutes twice per day (each inhale/exhale counting as one) has been found to lower blood pressure, according to recent research.

Grow Your Positive Emotions and Human Connection
  • Focus your consciousness on emotions of compassion, empathy and connection towards people around you, especially those who suffer or with whom you're in conflict. Imagine those emotions occupying the main window on your computer screen. Deal with negative or indifferent emotions by visualizing them within a smaller, background window, or hidden in a file.

This practice attunes you to the reality of our shared human condition. It builds respect and tolerance for others, especially in the face of external differences. Cultivating positive emotions also heals "Empathy Deficit Disorder," which affects many people's lives, as I wrote about in a previous post. You can become so driven by outer life concerns that you lose touch with your own heart; with the reality of your interconnection and interdependence with other humans.

Research shows that people who practice positive emotions through meditation show heightened brain activity in regions linked with joy and humor; with feelings of compassion towards people who suffer. They also show diminished brain activity in regions associated with negative or destructive emotions like anger, resentment, depression or self-pity. This indicates that you can physically modify your brain through conscious practice. The upshot is that you can actually learn to "grow" compassion, tolerance and cheerfulness. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.

This practice for growing positive emotions also helps builds awareness of your commonality and connection with other people, through recognizing them as fellow humans who suffer and struggle as you do. This strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and recognition for others, especially where there are conflicts. You become a more balanced, broadened and tolerant human being.

Notice that when positive emotions are awakened, you tend to have a changed outlook or behave differently towards others, with less concern about your own self. Look at the spontaneous outpouring of help that usually occurs to the victims of natural disasters like earthquakes or tornado. At such times, you're letting go of your usual hyper-focus on getting and achieving things in your outer world.

Increase Your Mind-Body Infrastructure

  • Incorporate aerobic exercise or virtually any kind of physical activity into your schedule.
  • Try a class in Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Qi.
  • Commit yourself to healthy diet and nutritional practices.
Aerobic activity releases chemicals that enhance positive mental states and well being. Research shows that it has robust anti-depressant effects, equal or superior to medication, over the long run.

Eastern practices like Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Qi blend flexibility, balance and rhythmic motion with mental discipline and concentration. They increase your attention to your inner world through integrating physical flexibility, balance and rhythmic motion with mental discipline and concentration on the other.

Physical activity of any kind helps expand your perspective about where your individual life fits in relation to the forces of the natural world and the cosmos. Your preoccupations and absorption in outer life concerns tend to recede when you're within the larger context of the natural world and the physical challenges you face within it.

Open Yourself to Sensual and Sexual Experiences

  • During your workday, take a brief walk outdoors, or visit a museum or art gallery. Write down how it affected you when you return to your workplace.

Sensuous pleasures and beauty through exposure to art, music or the natural world springboard you out of over-immersion in your outer life. They "speak" directly to your inner life. These nonverbal mediums evoke emotions, mental and even physical states that otherwise remain asleep when you're too immersed in work and home activities.

Light candles, play music and agree to talk intimately -- but not about outer life stresses. Many people whose inner life is out of balance with their outer don't realize that healthy sexual activity can help build greater balance between them. When mutuality, openness and non-exploitativeness are part of the fabric of your whole relationship, emotional and sexual, then sexual/physical pleasure becomes an inner, not just outer experience.

Serve Something Larger Than Yourself
  • Find a way to serve people or causes in need of help

Giving to others strengthens your inner life by awakening your realization that we're all global citizens. A common theme among people who strengthen their inner lives is that they feel pulled to giving to the larger human community, through some kind of service. Some do this as a result of a natural evolution towards wanting to volunteer their time talents; others, from a sudden awakening.

Scott Harrison is an example of the latter. He had become a successful, well-known event promoter in New York City by his late 20s. In the spring of 2004 something awakened in him, he told me, which caused him to see that he had been living primarily to gratify himself. "I realized that I could either live selfishly, or for others," he said. He decided to volunteer with Mercy Ships, an international organization that provides volunteer medical services to impoverished people, such as in West Africa.

Using his original training as a photojournalist, Scott began chronicling the work of the Mercy Ship and its medical volunteers through photos and stories posted on a website/blog and in newspaper articles; and later created a fundraising event for it in New York. "It totally changed my world view," he told me. "It was like looking through a different pair of glasses." Subsequently, he founded what is now a highly successful international charity focused on creating fresh water wells in impoverished countries.

This is a theme that reflects inner life growth and psychological healthy behavior in today's world: Feeling drawn to serving the larger human community in some way through one's work, one's values, and way of life. Both younger and older people express this. It's reflected in the steady rise of volunteerism, and also in a MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Survey report that rising numbers of people want the work they do to contribute to the greater good and improve other's lives, not just their own. They want to have impact on something larger than themselves.

Some people make significant changes in their work and personal lives when their inner life is awakened, like Scott did. Their examples can help stimulate your own thinking about how you might want to shift or redirect your own life, to build a stronger inner life. For example, a woman who owned a high-end restaurant and sold her business to open an orphanage after a chance encounter with some abandoned children while visiting another country. A man who took a "lesser" position at a smaller company in a part of the country where he and his family found a better quality of life. Or a senior vice president of a major corporation who resigned and bought a small business in order to have more time for parenting his two sons.

Those are some of the ways you can practice building a strong inner life. It's insulation against our current political/social backlash and well as a foundation for a resilient, healthy life orientation you need in the globalized, "non-equilibrium" world that surrounds us.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, DC. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

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