The Inside-Out Solution

by Douglas LaBier

Special to the Washington Post

The above link is to a shorter version of this article that appeared in The Washington Post, February 14, 2006

A Washington couple recently consulted me in my psychotherapy practice. He’s an executive with a large trade association; she’s a lawyer with a big firm. They told me how hectic it is trying to meet all their responsibilities at work and at home. They have two children of their own plus a child from her former marriage. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it hard just to come up for air, they said.

Similarly, a 43-year-old man from Bethesda came for help with his career. But he quickly acknowledged that he’s worried about the “other side” of life. He’s raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself. He’s constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He tries to have some time for himself, but “it’s hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a ‘life,’ ” he said. He recently learned he has hypertension.

It’s no surprise that these people, like many I see both in my psychotherapy practice and my workplace consulting, feel pummeled by stresses in their work and home lives. Most are aware, at least dimly, that this is unhealthy – that stress damages the body, mind and spirit. Healthy People 2000, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states things starkly: 70 percent of all illness, physical and mental, is linked to stress of some kind.

A lot of the stress I hear about derives from struggling with the pressures of work and home – and trying to “balance” both. The problem seems nearly universal, whether in two-worker, single-parent or childless households.

The reason it’s so common? It’s because people are framing the problem incorrectly. There is no way to balance work and home, because they exist on the same side of the scale – what I consider the “outer” part. On the other side of the scale is their personal, private life – your “inner” life. Instead of thinking about how to balance work life and home life, try, instead, to balance your outer life and inner life.

Let me explain. On the outer side of the scale you have the complex logistics and daily stresses of life at both work and home – the errands, family obligations, phone calls, to-do lists, e-mails and responsibilities that fill your days. Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world. That’s where you’re paying your bills, building a career, dealing with people, managing adult responsibilities, raising kids, doing household chores, and so on. Outer life is what’s on the daily planner, Palm or BlackBerry.

On the other side of the scale is the inner you: private thoughts and values, emotions, fantasies, spiritual or religious practices, the capacity to love, secret desires, a sense of purpose. Our culture does little to acknowledge or nurture this aspect of our lives. You probably keep much of your inner life hidden from others, even those you are closest to. You may even keep it hidden from yourself.

If the realm of the inner life sounds unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you, this only emphasizes how much you–most of us–have lost touch with the inner part of our lives. Often you are so depleted and stretched by dealing with the outer ring that there’s no time to tend to your mind, spirit or body. Then, you identify your “self” mostly with who you are in that outer realm. And when there’s little on the inner side of the scale, the outer part weighs you down. You are unbalanced, unhappy and often sick.

The good news: Reframing your challenge from trying to balance work and home to balancing your inner and outer lives will help you deal with all aspects of life – and build overall health and well-being.

The Other Balancing Act

When your inner and outer lives become unbalanced, your daily functioning is affected in ways both subtle and profound. When operating in the outer world – at work, for example, or in dealings with your spouse or partner – you may struggle with unjustified feelings of insecurity and fear. You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you don’t understand. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional “default” positions, such as submissiveness or rebellion, forged during childhood.

Even if you are successful in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner can be hazardous. With no sense of your inner life, you lose the capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies. Typically, stress mounts, personal relationships suffer, your health deteriorates and you become vulnerable to looking for stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best – maybe a new “win,” a new lover, drugs or alcohol.

And that pulls you even more off-balance, possibly to the point of no return. The extreme examples are people who destroy their outward success with behavior that reflects a complete disengagement from their inner lives – corporate executives led away in handcuffs for indulging in ill-gotten gains, self-destructive sports stars overcome by the trappings of their outer-life successes, political leaders whose flawed personal lives destroy their credibility, clerics who are staunch moralists at the pulpit but sexual predators or adulterers behind closed doors.

These are our modern-day counterparts of Shakespearian characters like Macbeth or Coriolanus, whose “outer” lives are toppled over by unconscious aims, destructive arrogance or personal corruption.

When your inner life is out of balance with your outer, you become more vulnerable to stress, and that’s related to a wide range of physical and emotional damage, as research shows. Heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, a weakened immune system, skin disorders, asthma, migraine, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal problems – all are linked to stress. Together these things can shorten your life.

Servicing your inner life, on the other hand, can restore balance. It builds a state of self-awareness and wholeness; a “heart that listens,” as King Solomon asked for. You realize your interconnections with the human community. A stronger inner life informs your choices and actions by providing the calm and clarity essential for knowing what demands or allures of the outer world you want to pursue and which to let pass — and the consequences of either choice. In short, it brings your “private self” and your “public self” into greater harmony. With a robust inner life you feel grounded and anchored, knowing who you are and what you’re truly living for.

Finding The Gaps

I recently spoke with a man, relatively underdeveloped in his inner life, who was dealing with a classic inner-vs.-outer dilemma. He was debating whether to leave an out-of-town meeting early, which would be difficult, to be home for his daughter’s 18th birthday. I asked him the simplest question: Which choice would he be more likely to feel good about at the end of his life? He immediately saw that it was being at his daughter’s birthday. But he was troubled that he’d been trying to rationalize away what he knew he valued more deeply.

He was suddenly able to see the gap between his values (his inner self) and the choice he was about to make (in his outer world). A good initial step toward awakening your inner life is to identify the gaps between what you believe in and what you do. We all have those gaps.

Here’s a good exercise for doing that:

  • First, make a list of what you believe to be your core, internal values or ideals. Perhaps it includes raising a strong, creative child; close friendships; expressing a creative talent that’s important to you. It might include your spiritual life; an intimate marriage or partnership; or giving back some of the fruits of your good fortune to others.
  • Next, make a parallel list for each item on your list, describing your daily actions relative to those values: How much time and energy do you spend on them? What are your specific behaviors regarding each? Be detailed in your answers – note the last time you took an action aimed at nurturing that creative child, building your marriage or giving some meaningful help to the less fortunate. Don’t be surprised (or ashamed) if you find that very few of your daily activities reflect those key values.
  • Assign a number from 1 to 5 measuring the gap between each value and your behavior – 1 representing a minimal gap; 5, the maximum.
  • Identify the largest gaps. Now think about how your inner values could redirect your outer-life choices in those areas. What would you have to do to bring the inner you in synch with the outer you? What can you commit yourself to doing?
  • Write it all down and set a reasonable time frame for reducing your gaps.

Building Your Inner Life

Developing your inner life is practice, like building a muscle or developing skill in a sport or musical instrument. Here are some important practices most anyone can do. The more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other.

Fill Your “Inner Reservoir”

  • 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.

An “entry-level” meditation-breathing practice, it builds an emotional shock absorber for maintaining centeredness and focus when dealing with your outer life demands.

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. 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. Amazingly, one study found that the sound of a shotgun going off near an advanced meditator’s head produced virtually no change of brain activity in response to it. Want to test out how steadily you can hold your own concentration? Go to the web site www.uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/bonneh.html. Advanced meditators were able to hold their visual focus in this experiment for its entire duration.

Meditation appears to heighten your consciousness and mental control, as well as contribute to a stronger immune system and a more robust cardio-vascular system. It also helps you awaken to seeing what your real “drivers” are in your outer life — where you may be acting unconsciously or with illusions and rationalizations you’ve acquired from dealing with your outer life demands.

Counting your breaths (you could also focus on an object) not only increases your concentration, but also loosens your entanglement in the “flotsam” and “jetsam” of your outer life. This helps increase your attunement to your inner life. This 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.

The twin web sites of The Mind & Life Institute, www.investigatingthemind.org and www.mindandlife.org are sources of research and information about meditation, stress management and health.

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 strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and tolerance for others, especially in the face of external differences, which may dominate your field of vision.

Cultivating positive emotions cultivates your inner life and also heals something most of us suffer from in our outer world-dominated lives: “Empathy Deficit Disorder.” In a culture in which we define virtually every variation of human emotion and experience as a “disorder,” we’ve overlooked one of the most harmful. It results from being so overdeveloped in your outer life that you lose touch with your own heart; with the reality of your interconnection and interdependence with other humans.

Research shows that you can practice and strengthen positive emotions with practice. People who practice this through meditation show heightened brain activity in regions linked with positive emotions like joy and humor; and with feelings of compassion towards people who suffer. They also show diminished activity in brain regions associated with negative or destructive emotions like anger, resentment, depression, or self-pity. In short, practicing certain emotional states strengthen patterns within the brain associated with them.

This means that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices. If you make efforts to change your feelings and thoughts in ways that build your inner life, you’re reinforcing brain activity in regions associated with it. In effect, you can learn to change your brain activity, which reinforces changes you make in your thoughts, attitudes, and behavior.

The upshot is that you can actually learn to “grow” compassion, tolerance, and cheerfulness. You can physically modify your brain through conscious practice. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.

This practice I described above for growing positive emotions also helps builds awareness of your commonality and connection with other people, as fellow humans who suffer and struggle as you do. You might try picking a particular situation or encounter with a stranger as a target for practicing compassion and empathy. For example, when you’re dealing with the checkout person at the grocery store, try to generate positive emotions towards that person, as an experiment. Try to see that stranger as someone who shares, along with you, a desire for love; who’s experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way; or who has hopes and dreams to fulfill. In other words, a stranger who’s different from you but also like yourself, beneath those differences.

This practice is especially helpful when, say, a particular co-worker makes you want to reach for a blunt object. Or when you find yourself having malevolent fantasies about your kids the third time they start fighting with each other in the same evening.

But probably more challenging is feeling compassion and empathy towards someone you actively dislike, or with whom you’ve had big-time conflicts – perhaps an ex-spouse, or a someone at work. Here, try seeing that person through the eyes of your inner self rather than through your outer self. The latter is where you experience your differences. That is, imagine how and why that person might experience his world as he or she does; why that person might have the negative attitudes or feelings he shows towards you. Try to do that without judging him or her.

Practicing compassion and empathy in these ways strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and recognition for others, even where there are conflicts. You become a more balanced, broadened and tolerant human being. Notice that when empathy and compassion are awakened, you tend to respond with a changed outlook or new action directed towards others, with less concern about your own self. Look at the spontaneous outpouring of help that usually occurs to the victims of a natural disaster, like hurricane Katrina. At such times, you’re letting go of your usual over-focus on getting and achieving things in your outer world.

www.universel.net — Guided visualization and meditative practices developed by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004), an internationally recognized meditation teacher and scholar. Head of the Sufi Order International, his teachings reflected a universalist perspective, based on the common core of Hindu, Buddhist, Judeao-Christian, and Islamic meditative practices. The site also includes multi-media visual and musical models that accompany specific meditative practices.

Increase Mind-Body Health

  • 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 finds that it also has robust antidepressant effects.

Sustained aerobic exercise or virtually any kind of physical activity are important practices because a healthy mind-body is the infrastructure for your inner life. Aerobic activity releases chemicals, which enhance positive mental states and well-being. New research finds that it has robust anti-depressant effects, equal or superior to medication, over the long run.

Another benefit for your inner life: Many kinds of physical activity require internal discipline, focus, and a desire to sustain the activity necessary for to reach a level of sufficient level of skill. Research shows that activities as diverse as mountain climbing, dancing, bike riding, or swimming contribute to a sense of internal mastery and self-control.

Moreover, aerobic activity expresses your physical energy within the larger environment. That, itself, enlarges your perspective about where your individual life fits in relation to the forces and features of the natural world and the cosmos. Your preoccupations and absorption in outer life tend to recede when you’re within the larger context of the natural world and the physical challenges you face within it. A friend who trekked to the base camp of Mt. Everest told me how the physical challenge, combined with being surrounded by the majesty of the mountains and their “indifference” to human desires, shifted her perspective about her entire life. It caused her to rethink everything she had held important.

Eastern practices like Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Qi blend flexibility, balance, and rhythmic motion with mental discipline and concentration These activities increase your attention to your inner world by integrating physical flexibility, balance, and rhythmic motion, on the one hand, with mental discipline and concentration on the other. Practicing that integration also diminishes the stress hormone cortisol, according to several research studies.

For state-of-the-art information about mind-body health consult Dr. Andrew Weil’s web site ,www.drweil.com, The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine www.nccam.nih.gov, and the Center for Mind-Body Medicine www.cmbm.org.

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.
  • Set aside time with your partner for slow, mutual physical stroking or massage, without thinking of intercourse or orgasm as the goal. Light candles, play music and agree to talk intimately – but not about outer life stresses.

Sensuous pleasures and beauty through art, music, or the natural world springboard you out of overimmersion in your outer life by “speaking” 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.

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 – what some researchers call “spiritual sexuality.” That is, some individuals report a transcendent experience that combines heightened, whole-body sensations with intense emotional-spiritual connection, in which you lose yet retain a sense of your individual self at the same time. That’s the experience of two inner lives connecting.

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 stimulating a “soul-to-soul” connection. It awakens your realization that we’re all global citizens. In fact, a common theme among people who create true balance between their inner and outer lives is that they feel pulled to giving, in some way, 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 web site/blog and in newspaper articles. He originally intended to spend just a month on the ship, but it was such a powerful experience that he remained with it. On a brief return visit to New York in the summer of 2005 he told me of the impact it had -aboard the ship, in a tiny compartment with cockroaches; working with health care workers who treat people who have nothing at all, not even drinking water; and who were afflicted with the most horrendous medical conditions and diseases. “It totally changed my world view,” he told me. “It was like looking through a different pair of glasses.”

Some web sites that can arouse your interest in service:

www.onamercyship.org  Photojournalism by Scott Harrison, a volunteer with Mercy Ships International www.mercyships.org.

www.idealist.org — Information and resources about career opportunities in domestic and international nonprofit, charity and humanitarian organizations.

For additional information about any of the above, e-mail the Center for Progressive Development, Info@centerprogressive.org or call 202-363-8184.

Work vs. Life Revisited

Strengthening your inner life can change how you behave in both parts of that old work-life equation.

In the work realm, you might reexamine what you’re doing – whom you work for and with, and what your work contributes to the things you value. At the most radical end, you could change employers or careers, or go out on your own to pursue a dream. Or you can seek new assignments with your current employer that align with your personal values and goals.

In your home and personal life, a stronger inner life might lead you to give some time to help others, say through volunteer work. Or get involved with a social or political cause you believe in. You might decide to take that music appreciation course you’ve considered for years, or finally build that backyard garden you’ve seen in your imagination.

A rising theme among people who create true balance between their inner and outer lives is that they feel drawn to serving the larger human community in some way through their work, their 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 recent MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Survey which found 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.

Some people make significant changes in their work and personal lives when their inner life is awakened, like Scott did. Most people are unlikely to make a radical change. But examples of those who do can help stimulate your own thinking about how you might want to shift or redirect your own life, to build greater inner-outer balance. Like a woman who owned a high-end restaurant who sold her business and opened 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; a lawyer who left Washington and became a Park Ranger. 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.

Such examples can help you focus on what would create better attunement between your own inner and outer life. They can point you to answer questions like these:

Which of your current career goals, relationships and commitments are truly in harmony with your inner life? Is this the job or career you truly feel in synch with, despite the money it may pay or what people tell you that you should want? Are you and your partner devoting enough attention and effort to keeping your relationship positive and energized? Do you know why your son or daughter seems troubled or depressed? Have you even noticed? How can you become more transparent in both your public and private life?

As you develop your inner life and balance it with your outer, you’ll be likely to find that the old conflicts of work vs. life don’t cause you stress or even dominate your thoughts anymore.

In fact, you may find they disappear.