Martha Beck explains how to ignore the racket and understand how you really feel.
This very day, two individuals are vying to be your personal adviser. The first, whose name is Fang, dresses in immaculate business attire, carries a briefcase full of neatly organized folders, and answers all e-mails instantly, via BlackBerry. In a loud, clear, authoritative voice, Fang delivers strong opinions about how you should manage your time. Fang's résumé is impressive: fantastic education, experience to burn.
The other candidate, Buddy, wears shorts, a tank top, and a rose tattoo. If you question the professionalism of this attire, Buddy just smiles. When you ask advice on a pressing matter, Buddy hugs you. There are almost no words on Buddy's résumé (the few that do appear are jokes and song lyrics), and in the margins, Buddy has doodled pictures of chipmunks.
Who will you hire to advise you?
Yeah, that's what I used to think, too.
Long, long ago, as a teenager, I gave the name Fang to my socially conscious, verbal, educated mind. Buddy was what I called a perverse, disobedient aspect of my being, who apparently never evolved logical semantics and simply does not understand How Things Are Done Around Here. Fang is wary and suspicious, while Buddy ignores all caution in the pursuit of appealing experiences, like a puppy on LSD. In high school, I vowed to let only Fang run my life. A couple of decades later, I noticed something surprising: Though I generally did listen to Fang, it was Buddy who was always right.
When clients tell me they need to find their "inner voice," I suspect they're already listening to one: a loud, logical, convincing Fang-voice that echoes parents, teachers, priests, and angry personal trainers. You have no problem hearing this voice; the problem is, its counsel rarely leads to fulfillment. Yet you sense there's someone else knocking around in your psyche: someone whose counsel might make you happy—the kind of wise, primordial self I named Buddy. Unfortunately, Buddy is almost nonverbal, initially unimposing, and, from Fang's point of view, way too weird to trust. I believe one of the primary tasks of your life is to trust Buddy anyway. That means first learning to recognize true inner wisdom, and then opening yourself to its peculiar counsel.
Real wisdom is so different from what's drilled into us by most authority figures that we tend to go functionally blind to it. But even if you can't recognize your own wisdom, you can notice what it isn't. Compare this list of Buddy traits with their Fang opposites.
Wisdom Is Sensory, Not Verbal
"It's not as though I hear a voice," says a friend of mine who's famous for her wisdom. "It's more like a little kid tapping me on the shoulder. It's something I feel."
In other words, while the voice of social conditioning manifests itself as a stream of thoughts in the head, wisdom often appears as emotions or physical sensations in the body. Brain-damaged patients who lose function in parts of the brain that register emotion may still understand the logic of a problem, but can no longer reason effectively or make advantageous decisions for themselves. The emotional centers of the brain, along with the elaborate bundle of nerves in your belly (the so-called gut brain), have been evolving far longer than language. And that system, more than logic, is exquisitely attuned to helping you navigate your way through life.
So if you're wondering whether a choice is wise or not, don't search your mind for a rational argument. Instead, hold each option in your attention, then feel its effect on your body and emotions. When something's wrong for you, you'll feel constriction and tightness. The wise choice leads to feelings of liberation, even exhilaration.
Wisdom Is Calm, Not Fearful
The inner voice of social conditioning—that would be Fang—doesn't just speak in words; it shouts them. "Do it my way!" Fang shrieks. "Do not screw this up!" By contrast, inner wisdom is stillness itself. If you're waiting for wisdom to outscream paranoia, get comfortable. It's gonna be a long wait.
Instead, you might want to regard the thought stream in your brain as an annoying TV talk show playing in an upstairs apartment. Send your attention downstairs, to a place in the center of your chest where Buddy is smiling in the stillness. It helps to take some deep breaths. You may have to lie down. But as you feel for that stillness, the yawping from your brain will seem less important. As you begin to relax, you'll find yourself guided to do unexpected things. These may include just resting, often the single wisest choice.
Wisdom Is Chosen, Not Forced
From infancy we're trained by adults who can force us to cooperate. Sometimes, indeed, we're trained so well that we begin to expect all instructions to come through coercion. "You're crazy to want that!" Fang shouts as you try to grow or enjoy life. "You don't deserve it!" "You'll fail!"
Meanwhile, your inner Buddy knocks gently, then waits to be invited in. Wisdom is far, far stronger than fear, but while fear gladly forces itself upon you, wisdom will do nothing of the kind. We can't be victims of wisdom: It must be chosen.
Stop and examine any frightening, ugly, or painful thought that customarily drives you. Ask yourself: Really? Is this really the kind of energy you want blaring through your inner space? If not, calmly state a truer thought: "You're wrong, Fang. I do deserve this, and even if I do fail, the world won't end."
Fang will not appreciate this. There will be shouting. But you'll gain wisdom every time you choose to believe the peaceful thoughts again—and again, and again, and again. Ultimately, this practice will enable you to take Fang less seriously. Then you can go out to play with Buddy, who's much more interesting.
Think of a challenging circumstance or difficult decision you happen to be facing right now—something that's been keeping you up at night. With this situation in mind, write the first answer that comes up when you ask yourself the following questions. Don't overthink the answers. In fact, don't think about the answers at all—just blurt.
With regard to your difficult situation...
What would calm do now?
What would peace do now?
What would relaxation do now?
(Note: I don't include "What would love do now?" because so many people have such misguided interpretations of love. They think love would sacrifice its own happiness, or throw a tantrum, or hide in an ex-boyfriend's garage wearing nothing but night-vision goggles and a leopard-print thong.)
The more often you ask yourself these strange questions, the more open you become to the gentle energy of your own inner wisdom. When you feel your body begin to let go of tension, you know you're headed in a wise direction.
And that's what Buddy would do.
Exercise 2: Nightmare Board, Wisdom Board
Perhaps you've heard of vision boards: collages you assemble from pictures of things that appeal to you. Most of us go through life carrying something similar in our minds—except that instead of pictures that appeal to us, they're crowded with pictures that torment and terrify us. I call these nightmare boards.
Your nightmare board, curated, assembled, and prominently displayed by your inner Fang, contains images of everything that frightens and upsets you, including all your most hideously painful experiences. Fang is continuously adding new pictures to the board and lovingly retouching the old ones.
Here's a radical assignment: Make your nightmare board real. Glue up some actual images of every frightening thought that haunts you. But don't stop there. When you're finished, you're going to make another board. This new board must contain three or more images that contradict every picture on the nightmare board. For example, if your nightmare board shows a devastating oil spill, your vision board might feature three photographs of people tenderly swabbing oil-coated ducks. For every image of violence, come up with three examples of loving kindness; for every crisis, find three beautiful, ordinary moments of calm.
When you're finished, ceremoniously shred, burn, or otherwise trash Fang's nightmare board. Then put your wisdom board where you can see it. Focusing on hope in a world of fear isn't naive. It's the irrational essence of wisdom.
Exercise 3: Vocab Rehab
Take ten minutes and write a description of your life—stream of consciousness, no self-judgment, no editing. Then go over your description, looking for every word that carries frightening or painful associations. These words have more power than you might think. Studies show that after focusing on words having to do with aging, people walk more slowly; when they see words associated with anger, they're more likely to be rude.
This phenomenon is called affective priming, but it works both ways. You can use it to connect with your inner wisdom by changing every stressful word in your self-description to something more freeing, relaxing, or exhilarating. If you wrote "I'm nervous," see whether "I'm excited" may also fit. The word unsure could be replaced by open. As you change your story, Fang's voice will begin to soften, and the peace that comes from your wiser inner voice will begin to arise.
Practice Makes Permanent
All these exercises can divert your attention from bossy, self-righteous Fang and help you appreciate the brilliance of your inner Buddy. Wisdom will never be the loud, obvious one in this odd couple. It will never shout down its opposition or barge in uninvited. But each time you choose wisdom as your adviser, you come closer to making the choice a way of life. Trust me, that's advice you want to take.