Wouldn't it be great if life came with an owner's manual and a warranty with a double-your-money-back guarantee of complete satisfaction? That would be the ideal fantasy -- no suffering, no fuss, no muss, no headaches, no assembly required. However, life does not come with any legally binding contracts of unconditional happiness. What most us here have already realized is that life is not a success-only journey.
So how do we make the most of our time here on Earth? How do we learn to move forward when we have no idea what direction life is taking us? These great and classic questions require great and classic wisdom. Over 2,000 ago in ancient Greece, the quintessential philosopher Socrates said it best when he uttered those immortal words, "The unexamined life is not worth living." To this day no one has improved upon this basic truth for owning and operating the human experience. So, let's start here.
No one can live an examined life without developing a mature, healthy and functional relationship with his or her own mind -- with consciousness. Consciousness is something we are never without: no vacations, no coffee breaks, not even death. If you are asleep, then you are experiencing dreaming consciousness. Even if you are in a coma or heavily medicated, you are still experiencing some form of consciousness, even if it is a trance-like state of existence.
Consciousness is inescapable. Being aware is the reflexive action of conscious examination. And examining our lives by being aware of what we are giving our attention to can be a shallow and fragile relationship, as well as a state from which we are easily and frequently distracted.
Living an examined life denotes paying attention to what you are doing with your mind. It is about knowing when your attention has wandered off to a self-sabotaging or self-loathing place that is damaging or life-diminishing and bringing it back from these distractions.
The mind is like an undisciplined child running off and creating havoc with its unfocused energy. This is why, for thousands of years, meditation has been practiced and taught as a means of self-actualizing. Try this awareness experiment: just take one day out of your life and write down what you find yourself frequently giving your attention to. Take note of what inner dialogue and stories your consciousness gravitates or constantly returns to. Notice what non-life-sustaining, habitual crevices your mind repeatedly slips into. Most of us are extremely loyal and faithful to what we give our attention to, even to the point of being grossly repetitive, or successful in producing only one result: unhappiness.
The ultimate purpose of living an examined life is to make your mind your best friend and most supportive ally, instead of your worst enemy, which is an undermining, toxic, intimate relationship. To begin to determine how friendly you are with your own mind, just acknowledge how often you tell yourself something harsh or deliberately hurtful, something that you would be reluctant to articulate to even your least favorite person on the planet. The truth is, if there is one relationship that you need to make a loving and reliably comfortable place, it has to be your own mind. After all, if there is one consistent element in life, it is that you will always be in relationship with yourself. That will never change. And, since no one knows how to "do it to you" like you, whether that is extending a patient voice of comfort and inspiration or giving voice to the critical, sharp-tongued inner harpy, it is an intimate dynamic that you are destined to live with in an up-close and deeply personal way.
You know you have the comprehensive capacity for being both self-supporting and self-deprecating. Which quality is the one most likely to rule your life? The one you practice most frequently giving your attention to, of course.
How much of your attention goes into worrying and torturing yourself compulsively with thoughts about events that you have absolutely no control over? Have you ever noticed that over 90 percent of the time, the things you focus on that create such misery and stress in your life never come to pass? These are the most common ways we relate to our own mind in a most insidiously adverse fashion. Then we heighten the damage by faithfully poking the sensitive spots over and over again, as if that ever improved the situation!
Most of us are very adept at sleepwalking through life. We allow our attention to go into an autopilot type of functioning mode. Whenever we are not conscious of what we are giving our attention to, the unconscious mind takes over. It continually regurgitates the undigested, unreleased inner waste that we have not recognized as useless and fraudulent. It obsesses over whatever we have not consciously chosen to separate from. This is why we say or do such stupid, embarrassing things when we are not paying attention, because the conscious mind is asleep at the wheel, and the unconscious mind has taken over.
Making your mind your friend is how you raise yourself from an infantile, self-indulgent form of semi-consciousness to a mature, disciplined and balanced experience of self-awareness. The interior process of raising your mind is very similar to the exterior process of raising a child. Every time you find yourself giving your attention to something limiting, self-defeating, mean-spirited and critical, stop! Then, like a dutiful parent, tirelessly remove that myopic focus of attention from your mental grip and refocus it on what is healthy, expansive, productive and freeing.
For example, replaying the thought that you do not have enough money is like a child who keeps putting their hand in the fire. Fixating on that "not enough" story that "I am lacking" has never solved a single problem. It has yet to add additional dollars to your bank account, put more cash in your pocket, support you in feeling better about yourself, actualize your highest potential or help you sleep at night. Quite the contrary. Adjusting your mental lens to focusing on the scarcity issues attracts feelings of hopelessness, loss of power and disposability. You become a victim. It has inflamed your level of suffering and left you feeling physically and emotionally burned out. Like a child that has not yet predictably learned that putting their hand on the stove is how they get burned, unbroken loyalty to that line of self-inflicted, limited awareness repeatedly scars, disfigures and deeply pains you.
Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating for denial, self-delusion or burying one's head in the sand. What I am pointing out is that there are many, many things that happen in life that you have no control over. At the end of the day, you may not be able to control whether you get that dream job, whether a loan or that house sale goes through, or even whether you are going to have a bad hair day, but what you always do have control over is what you give your attention to and how you feel about that.
So, instead of everything in your life revolving around the minute details of where you do not have enough, what if you shifted your field of attention to being grateful for the money you do have, the health you do have, the loving, caring relationships you do have? At the end of the day, would the exterior details of your life be any different? Maybe. Maybe not. But here is the essential difference: you would feel more comfortable in your own skin with an increased sense of relaxation about your experience of life. If all you do have power over is how you feel at the end of the day and what quality of life you are actively creating, what would that be worth to you? That is the payoff in making your mind your friend.
If feeling better about yourself is not sufficient motivation, let me point out the mind/body connection. The body responds in a powerful way to what you give your attention to. Notice how you feel when you think about something in your life that you deeply regret or something that you value that is now gone, whether that is a loved one, your dream job or financial investments that evaporated into thin air. Now think about someone you love with all your heart. Remember a time when you where blissfully happy and full of positive energy. Notice that your body is responding in kind to your thoughts. When you are frightened, stressed or overworked, the body reflects its physical version of your emotional realities.
Your thoughts and what you give your attention to do not exist in a vacuum. You are a hard-wired being. There is a direct and immediate relationship between what you think, how you feel and the way your body responds to all of the above. Your body eavesdrops on your thinking; it is a feedback process. You are continually reacting, neurologically and chemically, to the emotional and thought processes. Making your mind your friend is about harmonizing the mind, body and emotions, because your mind is more than just the brain, the white and gray matter in the cranium. The mind is the sum total of all the forms of intelligence that make up the totality of the human experience: emotions, thoughts, perceptions, experiences and beliefs. If you value and desire vibrant and robust health, you will need your awareness to be a willing, co-creative partner in that journey.
As I have mentioned previously, the one eternal relationship, that one persistent, unyielding component in your life, is you. No matter where you go, there you are. Self-knowledge starts with realizing that the inescapable, unchanging component to life is you, how you relate to yourself and how you feel about yourself. The body, as a lifelong partner in our personal growth, has a very important role in the know-thyself quest. The body does not have an ego or unconscious agenda. It is simply reflecting and responding to what you do with your attention.
Anyone who has ever struggled with weight issues knows how the inner, unresolved needs for comfort and for experiencing life through sweets show up as additional physical pounds that are put on in a futile effort to eat away unhappiness or boredom. People suffering with high blood pressure or ulcers know all too well how the body takes the brunt of heated thoughts and emotions run amok.
The origin of these biological ailments lies with our internally chosen responses to external stimuli and situations that go unexamined, uncontrolled and unmanaged, proof once again that the unexamined life is not worth living. Anytime you think you have dealt with a troubling issue, take a look at how your body is responding. After all, it does not lie or deceive, unlike the ego.
In the process of making your mind your friend and harmonizing your body/mind connection, there is a very simple but powerful habit tat you can practice. That is giving your attention to what you do want, and not to what you don't want. It may seem incredibly self-evident; however, for most people their mental landscape is absolutely cluttered with an obsessive inner dialogue that focuses on scarcity, bad faith in oneself and a unproductive self-disparagement over everything from global political issues to whether this outfit makes their butt look big.
Just watch all the stories your attention plays through over the time-frame of a single day. How many times a day do you think of bills you cannot pay? How many times do you envision others not finding you acceptable or worthy of love? How many times do you reinforce, with your attention, the notion that you will never be happy? Just to underscore this point, ask yourself how many times you think, "What else can go wrong?" Why not ask yourself, "What else can go right?" Different sides of the same coin, yes, but the real question is: every time you flip that coin, does it always land on 'tails' and never on 'heads'?
Most of us are laboring under the misguided notion that focusing on all the possible things that could go wrong or might blow up in our faces is the most effective hyper-vigilant strategy to ensure that all the things we do want (which, by the way, are getting precious little of our attention) will infallibly come to us. It is like watering and feeding all the weeds in your garden yet expecting only the flowers and fruit-bearing plants to bloom and grow.
Worrying is just another name for the well-practiced habit of empowering more of what you do not want to bring into your life. This self-sabotaging, reinforced mindset is not natural. No child is born obsessed with giving their attention to worst possible scenarios. They are too busy playing and being present for what they do have. Remember when you were a child. When you played house or doctor, did you ever imagine that you would not be able to pay your bills and that the bank would take back your home or business, or that you would get sued for malpractice? Did you ever imagine that the insurance rates would be too high or that one good flood might wipe you out? Of course not. You had to learn how to eclipse your present point of focus and assert potentially destructive things into your line of thought. You learned this inner behavior. You can now learn something else, something better.
Creating a new learning pattern for how to organize your mind begins with the little things. Start by releasing the grasp you have on the smaller things you faithfully imagine conspiring against you. Next time you get in a checkout line at a store or change lanes on the highway, stop telling yourself, "Watch, now that I'm in this line, it will become the slowest." Cease cultivating the story that money is scheming its way out of your wallet and bank account every time you pick up your checkbook or go to the mailbox and see a bill. Stop envisioning annoying, micro-brained people going out of their way to ruin your day. Most events that find us in life are the perfect opportunities for taking our peace of mind back. After all, aren't these minor setbacks exactly how we practiced giving our personal power away and tormenting ourselves in the first place?
When you practice focusing on the more manageable, minute details, you will have the skill when you need it most: the ability to maintain balance when the really big things come your way. No one on the planet Earth is immune to experiencing the whole of life: the good, the bad, the pleasant, the unsavory. Making your mind your friend is priceless should you ever find yourself dealing with a divorce, bankruptcy, sensitive legal issues, or a challenging medical diagnosis. Now is the time to gain mastery over what you willingly choose to invest your attention in. There is a plethora of things in the world that legitimately do not have your best interest at heart, but there is no reason to make your relationship with your mind one of them.
Vaishali is the author of "Wisdom Rising" and "You Are What You Love." She is a columnist for The Huffington Post and an international health and wellness speaker who has appeared on The Dr. Oz Radio Show and Oprah.com. Vaishali learned to transform her life from the threat of two terminal disease diagnoses, domestic abuse and financial devastation. Completely recovered, she shares her wisdom. Contact her at www.purplev.com/mediakit or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Vaishali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vaishalipurplev