The first step to better relationships is disengaging from the bully in your own mind.
Of all your relationships, the most fundamental is the one with your own mind. Because you can’t be a good listener, lover, parent or partner if you’re not mindful of the present moment.
As a meditation teacher, I meet a lot of people who tell me their minds are maddening, stuck in loops of negative thinking. They complain about having way too many thoughts.
But interestingly, no one ever says they have too many happy thoughts. Too many loving thoughts. No, what people complain about is a harsh inner voice I like to call the “attorney for the prosecution,” because it’s forever raising objections, making accusations, and riling up the jury. It’s that undercutting, belittling voice that nags away, usually more loudly when we’re stressed out, saying things like:
- You suck.
- They won’t hire you.
- That’s a stupid idea.
- You don’t deserve to be that happy.
- You’ll probably end up alone.
- You should be more organized/save more money/lose weight/drink less…
This barrage of negative self-talk is truly hell on earth. When we listen to this voice we tend to get in our own way, second-guess ourselves, and blame ourselves for our misfortunes. And the things we do to drown out this voice—whether reaching for another drink or a joint, or numbing ourselves with video games or shopping or sex—tends to make the situation worse, and give the voice another club to beat us with. (“Another hangover? You’re such a loser.”) No one deserves to be talked to in this way. And yet, this is how I used to talk to myself all the time.
For me, meditation was the way out of this trap. It gave me a tool to help settle into a deeper, quieter state of consciousness where that voice was harder to hear. And sometimes I experienced a place of complete inner contentedness—a blissful silence—where the voice couldn’t even reach me.
Negative self-talk never goes away completely. But meditation gives us the ability to not engage with it so much. Instead of arguing or recoiling in shame, we can come back to our senses. We notice something—be it the sun on our face, the feeling of the ground under our feet, the lingering taste of our morning coffee – anything will do. We pay more attention to life itself than to our negative thoughts about life.
It’s by cultivating a daily practice of meditation that we learn how to step in when that voice cranks up and say, “Hold on a second,” in the same way we might stop a bully from assaulting someone on the playground. We can learn to see this voice for what it is—a manifestation of our fears and anxieties—without letting our whole identity get swallowed up in it. This is the difference between “I feel angry” and “I have anger issues.” Between “I lost” and “I’m a loser.” Between “I did something wrong” and “I am something wrong.”
This is how we repair the damaged relationship we have with our own minds, which in turn becomes a solid foundation from which to improve all our other relationships.
It’s a much easier way to live.
James Brown teaches meditation in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, two young sons, and crazy dog.