NOTHING OUTSIDE YOU
Episode 10: What if nothing outside of you could ever disturb you? No matter what you saw, what you heard, or how you were treated? This alluring fantasy might be closer than you think. In this episode, we'll explore the true source of the disturbing feelings we call emotions, and the simple steps we can take to live with more ease, clarity, and joy.
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Imagine a life where nothing outside of you could ever disturb you.
Welcome to this perfect moment, a podcast dedicated to helping you use ancient wisdom to unlock your life of radical happiness, connection and meaning right here, right now. I'm your host Eric Walrabenstein, and I'm glad you're here.
There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my problem was my life. I'd come to believe that my problems were caused by my life circumstances. From the meager balance in my bank account to the struggles with my significant other, from my three-hour commute to my boss' disregard for my feelings.
I was living in San Francisco at the time and so there were plenty of things to get under my skin, and everywhere I turned it seemed there was something. Something I saw, something I was told, something on TV, or out the window, or across the street that in some way disturbed me. Sometimes that disturbance was impatience. Other times it was frustration. And still others, it was outrage at a seeming injustice. But if I'm honest, it was near constant.
Now, this was way back in the very early days of my explorations into yoga and meditation, and I had jumped in with both feet. I was attending morning meditations at the San Francisco Zen center. I was going to four yoga classes a week. I was meditating at home daily, taking scriptural courses and basically short of moving into the monastery, I was all in. So, in the midst of all of these disturbances, I found myself conflicted.
I was clear on what I wanted to achieve from creating a life of more peace and contentment to becoming ever more clear on who or what I really was beneath all of this commotion. But how was I supposed to do all of that in the midst of all of this? I asked myself. So, I decided to leave the drama behind at least for a bit, and I signed myself up for a 10-day meditation retreat.
It was going to be 10 glorious days, secluded in the Northern California mountains with no traffic, no boss, no news or politics, just bliss. Now this was my first residential retreat of any significant length, so I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. But as I drove the three and a half hours to the retreat center, my mind spun with visions of a majestic monastery and an ornate meditation hall, and I could see myself in deep and sacred meditation surrounded by a peaceful sea of other meditators. Finally, I was going to get the needed space, the needed reprieve, from the hecticness of my daily life. Finally, I was going to be able to get down to business.
I remember pulling up to the meditation center. It was at the end of a forest, did gravel road that opened up into a large dirt parking lot, and honestly, parking lot might be a stretch. It was more like a dirt field containing a randomly arrayed collection of cars.
I grabbed my bag from the car and followed the new student signs up a small trail and as I rounded the corner, I came upon a couple of dilapidated old buildings that honestly reminded me more of my time in the army then the gleaming meditation hall I had built in my mind. I walked up to the building, the one with the hand scrawled piece of poster board that was taped to the door that said registration. And as I stepped inside, I was met by a folding table, manned by a dreadlocked 20-something with a clipboard. His name was Benny I believe (#notimportant). And Benny smiled, he handed me my welcome packet and offered to show me my sleeping quarters.
So, we step out the back door and start up a trail that wound up through the trees and about 200 yards in Benny turns off through a clump of bushes and gestures "Here you are! Home sweet home".
And he's standing in front of this tan moss covered 28-foot travel trailer, that to me seemed to say meth much more than it did meditation. Any event, I step inside and find the interior completely gutted with most of the original furnishings replaced with bunks built haphazardly out of two by fours and this was to be my sacred home for me and seven other fellows for the next 10 days.
Orientation came next and this is where I learned where the dining hall was and the three basic rules of the retreat:
First, no talking. Ever.
Second, follow the schedule. Precisely.
And third, no leaving.
Now this was in the days well before cell phones or the internet, so there was really no other issue of outside distractions beyond these three. Each day we were to be up at 4:00 AM meditating by 4:30 and then it was seated meditation on and off until lights out at 9:30 PM. All-in-all we were told we could expect to be in about 10 hours of meditation a day.
So here I was on my spiritual escape--my blissful respite from my harried corporate life in the city. I was deep in a picturesque forest, surrounded by fellow meditators and free from all of the disturbances that at home would pull me this way and that.
Or so I thought.
The truth was that while I thought I had signed up for relief from the irritating world, I had really just traded one set of irritants for another. I traded the morning traffic jam for a 4:00 AM walk through the icy cold rain. I traded my ungrateful boss for a backbreaking meditation schedule, and I traded the agitating TV news for seven snoring roommates.
As they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire.
On the second day, I had the opportunity to have an interview with the teacher. I asked my usual meditation-related questions and then pivoted to what was, for me, the elephant in the room. “In many ways”, I told him, “I felt like my meditation was more challenged here than it was at home”. I told him about the freezing cold trailer. I told him about the snoring roommates. I told him about the bland food, and yes, I told him about my pillow. It smelled funny.
He sat there quiet, unmoving and patiently waited as I unloaded my wheelbarrow full of complaints. I ended with some sort of rambling about how in the world am I supposed to find peace with all of this, and yes, for those of you who are keeping score, I now know the ridiculousness of that question.
The teacher took a sip of his tea and then asked me, "where is the disturbance?"
Seriously, I thought. "I just told you, it's my roommate and the food."
He held up a finger.
"You were merely describing shapes and colors and sounds" he said. "And are you right now experiencing shapes and colors and sounds?" he asked.
"Well, yes," I said.
"And are you right now disturbed?" He asked.
"No, not really" I said. Hmmm.
He picked up his tea and took another sip. He then looks at me in the eye for an uncomfortably long moment and asked, "how do you know that you're not disturbed right now?".
"Because I'm not," I said with a shrug.
"Investigate that," he said, "look into how do you know you are disturbed? Investigate how do you know you are not disturbed?"
And with that he picked up his bell and rang it for the next student to come in and apparently for to be on my way.
So, I went back to my meditation cushion, admittedly less than satisfied with the interview, but I did what I was told.
For three days, anytime I felt myself disturbed either in meditation or not, I would ask myself, how do I know I'm disturbed? And at first the answers I got were, well, patently unhelpful. The answers well because I am or because it's obvious or duh came up again and again.
But slowly over time the answer became more clear, more helpful. Until how I knew I was disturbed was the most obvious thing in the world to me.
And this was the turning point.
Imagine a life where nothing outside of you had the power to disturb you in any way. Nothing you saw. Nothing you were told. Nothing on TV. Nothing outside the window. Imagine it because it's already true.
Now I fully realize how hollow, no, how false these words must seem, but understanding why they are true is critically important for your happiness and your freedom.
You see, what was shown to me on that meditation retreat so many years ago was this, my snoring roommate didn't disturb me. The bad food in the dining hall didn't disturb me. And even the 4:00 AM wakeup call didn't disturb me. And likewise, at home, the traffic, the boss, the bank account, the partner didn't disturb me even though all of them seemed to be disturbing to me and some in a monumental way. But they weren't.
It was something else.
And it's here that I'll pause for my standard disclaimer. Don't believe any of this. Now that's not to say don't listen to it and it's certainly not to say don't understand it, but don't believe it. Instead, the invitation is for you to verify what I am suggesting in your own experience. See if it lines up with your lived experience, because if it doesn't, well, it's of no use to you whatsoever. End of disclaimer.
For me, my meditation teacher's question unlocked a truth. How do you know you're disturbed? When I see a car accident, how do I know I'm disturbed? Because it's certainly not seeing the car accident. I know that's not disturbing because sometimes I see a car accident and it doesn't bother me.
When my neighbor is running his leaf blower, how do I know I'm disturbed? Again, it's not the sound of a motor because I hear motors lots of times and most of the time, quite honestly, they don't bother me.
And when I come home to find the dishes in the sink, how do I know I'm disturbed? It's not seeing the dishes. I mean last week I spent a full hour surrounded by dishes in crate and barrel and, well, I wasn't miffed in the least.
So, in these cases and a million others like them, the question remains: how do we know that we're disturbed?
Here's the truth. In each and every case, you know you're disturbed because you feel it. Sensations in your body like tightness in the chest, heaviness in the belly, or restriction in the breathing. It's these small physical sensations that tell you you are disturbed. These sensations we sometimes call impatience. These sensations we sometimes call anxiety. These sensations we sometimes call anger.
But they are just sensations, bodily feelings, and they are your indication of your disturbance. Or actually, let's put it more precisely. These sensations are not your indication of disturbance, these sensations are the disturbance.
Not the car accident, not the leaf blower, not the traffic, not the dishes in the sink.
The fact is that you can experience any and all of these things and unless and until you feel the sensations you would call impatience, frustration, anger, or anxiety, you would say that you're not disturbed. And this is why we can say that nothing outside of us has ever disturbed us. It's not to say that nothing outside of us hasn't triggered a disturbing feeling, but what is important to recognize is that what is outside of you cannot alone touch you.
I understand this may seem like a mere game of semantics. I mean, what difference does it make really if the so-called disturbance is inside or outside? Whether it's what is seen, or if it's what is felt as a result of what is seen. In either case, I feel bad, right?
Well, yes and no.
You see when we mistakenly believe the disturbance comes from the outside, feeling better, feeling peaceful, feeling at ease becomes a backbreakingly arduous task.
When we believe the problem is outside, we have no choice but to go to war with everyone and everything around us. Our only hope is to get the entire world to cooperate with our preferences and agendas.
We need to get the bank account full, make the boss more appreciative, get the traffic to move faster, improve the health, lose the weight. A never-ending battle and one where at least half of the things we are battling, well, they'll simply never cooperate.
Now on the other hand, when we can see that the real disturbance is inside, that the culprit behind our dis-ease is merely a pattern of relatively mild sensations, then our path to inner peace is simplified. No longer do we need to go to war with all that is around us. We simply need to attend to one thing: how we feel.
This simplified focus on how we feel is a more direct path to the peace and fulfillment we crave.
Instead of frustration and blame for the colossal traffic jam and all of the machinations about how you're going to make sure to avoid it in the future, we simplify. Recognize the frustration is just tightness in the throat and tension in the shoulders. Breathe in, breathe out and let it go.
Instead of anger at your partner who inconsiderately left the dirty dishes in the sink again and all of the worry and stress related to how you're going to get him to stop. Simplify. See the anger as really just tightness in the chest, restriction in the breath, and then, breathe in, breathe out and let go.
And in the same way we can simplify all disturbances, whether they be anxiety or impatience, fear or doubt. We simplify. By recognizing each one as the simple pattern of bodily sensations they really are. And then we breathe in, we breathe out, and we let go. It's the simplified path that will leave you feeling lighter, happier, and better.
Now, for those of you who I know are out there doubting, specifically for those who want to know how you'll ever improve things if all you ever do is breathe and let go, well the answer is you won't, if breathe and let go is all you do, but that's really not the invitation.
The invitation is to do this first: to simplify and see things as they are first, and this will leave you at your best and able to, where appropriate, take action to make positive change in your life from a place of clarity and with greater skill than ever before.
Well, that's it for today. I hope today's discussion has been in some small way helpful to you. As always, I welcome all comments and questions, so drop me a note from my website at ericwal.com. Also, if you could do me the kindness of spreading the word about the life changing power of these ancient teachings by sharing the podcast with friends and family, I'd be more thankful than you know. And don't forget to hit subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes.
Thanks again! I'm grateful for you. So, if there's anything I can do to be of service, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
I wish you a week of simplicity and ease.
I'll see you next time!