I was having one of those days — maybe you’re familiar with them? — when I felt like a passenger on a fast, jerky subway train, holding the handrail tight just to stay standing, each turn throwing me off balance.
I gave a presentation that received a standing ovation and left the stage on top of the world. Then I read an angry email from someone and became angry myself. Following that, I did a fun on-radio interview and I was energized. A little later, I received feedback that I talked too much in a meeting and I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself.
Each new experience sent me flying in a different direction. My concept of myself was simply a reflection of my latest interaction. I was out of control, a victim to the whim of circumstance.
I’m not proud to admit this, but in the past I had a system that helped me remain confident and feeling good in the midst of the turbulence: I took credit for the positive experiences while blaming the negative ones on others. That presentation I did? Yeah, I’m good! The feedback that I talked too much? Clearly that person has her own issues.
The problem with that system, of course, is that it requires a level of denial that anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty and a modicum of self-awareness would find difficult to sustain. Eventually, reality overcomes self-deception.
No, I needed something more solid, an alternative to being tossed around by external events that didn’t rely on pretense.
Then, one day, sitting in meditation, I found it.
As I followed my breath in and out, I noticed something I hadn’t paid much attention to before. And paying attention to it changed everything.
That something I noticed? My Self.
By Self, I don’t mean the person who was breathing, I mean the person who was watching the breathing. This is a little difficult to describe, so bear with me here.
Your Self doesn’t change when circumstances around you change. You’re not a different person after a compliment than you are after an insult. You might feel different things after each, but you aren’t, essentially, a different person.
Becoming familiar and identified with your Self is useful for everyone, but it’s especially important for leaders. You cannot lead without some people’s disapproval and admiration. Or your own doubt and self-aggrandizement. That’s the reality of leadership.
And unless you find solid footing in your consistent, unshakable Self, you’ll be thrown off balance and lose your way. You’ll change your mind at the first resistance. You’ll become overconfident when praise abounds. And you’ll make poor decisions, just to feel better.
Connecting with your Self is the key to maintaining your equanimity, your peace, your clarity, and your judgment, even in the face of changing circumstances and pressures.
So how can you find your Self?
One of the great gifts of meditation is that it exposes your Self. As it turns out, it’s surprisingly easy to find because it’s always there, watching.
Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself: Sit comfortably, shut your eyes, and breathe naturally. Follow your breath as it goes in and out of your body without thinking about anything in particular except your breath.
Soon enough, you will notice that your mind is thinking about something. Maybe it’s wondering what you’re doing or what you look like doing it. Maybe it’s trying to solve a problem. Maybe it just remembered something you forgot to do.
The person noticing those thoughts? That’s you. That’s your Self. Your Self just noticed “thinking”.
See, Descartes was wrong when he said I think, therefore I am. It’s more accurate to say I watch myself think, therefore I am.
You are not your thinking. You are the person watching your thinking. That little distinction is the difference between feeling your feelings and being them — and it’s critically important. When youfeel anger, you’re in control of what you do next. When you are angry, you’ve lost control.
The part of you that observes your thoughts and feelings is steady and wise and trustworthy. Identifying with your stable, predictable Self makes you a stable, predictable person and leader, one who doesn’t get tossed around by random events and the decisions of the people around you.
Being connected with your Self will give you the courage to act even in risky situations because you’ll know, no matter what happens, that you’ll be fine. Even though everything around you may change — how much money you have, whether you have a job, whether you’re married, and so on — your Self will still be there, observing.
In other words, even in failure, you’ll be able to let the part of you that did not change as a result of the failure see what it feels like to fail. Then, when you realize your Self is still intact, you’ll get up and try again.
The same holds true for your successes. Having a strong relationship with your Self will make you incorruptible. Success can still feel good; you just won’t define yourself by it.
How can you best cultivate your relationship with your Self? The most reliable way I have found is by meditating. Which doesn’t always have to mean sitting on a cushion on the floor.
Yesterday I was, literally, on one of those twisty-turny subway rides and I decided to play a game I used to play as a teenager. I got into a stable stance and let go of the handrails. Subway surfing.
As the train lurched, I absorbed the changes by shifting my weight and keeping my balance, staying upright and steady, and noticing what this particular kind of fun feels like.