THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
(A How to Connect with the Happy Life You Deserve)
A TALK WITH YOGACHARYA ERIC WALRABENSTEIN
click to play, scroll to read
What You'll Learn in this Lecture
So, it was 30 years ago or so, and I was a student at the San Francisco Zen Center.
My zen teacher at the time told me about a teaching that he was going to share with me and one that he promised, if I were to fully embrace it, would radically change everything for me.
Why he told me he was going to tell me this before he told me this, I don't know, but it created anticipation so maybe it worked.
Anyway, it wasn't for several days until he told me and then when he did--this teaching, it kind of made sense. It was a teaching that he got from his teacher, Suzuki Roshi who started the San Francisco Zen Center. One that some of you may be familiar with.
It's an invitation really.
What he told me was that "the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing."
And in my little 25 year old brain it seemed to make sense. And for me at the time, my spiritual development education, evolution, whatever you want to call it, was the most important thing for me, so I dove into my studies at Zen Center.
I dove into my yoga practices. I was taking a yoga teacher training program and a whole bunch of other things as well.
I even shared this teaching with some friends of mine who were not really in the orbit of Zen Center. One of which was David. Some of you may know him. Probably nobody knows him, but you never know. And he was involved with building this business so he could take care of his family.
And another friend of mine, Jane, was involved with a nonprofit and she was trying to help the homeless.
And so the most important thing, we had three different flavors of it. This spiritual path and this business path and this nonprofit societal benefit path. Altruistic path, that's the word I was looking for.
We all embraced this and dove into our respective most important things with reckless abandon.
Now, while there was some incremental benefit to be had, it certainly didn't measure up to the promises that were shared with me by my teacher. And it wasn't until a number of years later that I realized why I wasn't getting the results that I was promised. Dammit.
And also, maybe more importantly, what was meant by Suzuki Roshi when he would offer this suggestion.
For me, it boiled down to the fact that I, and my friends, were confusing the means with the end.
And the fact of the matter was that I was not interested in my spiritual evolution; and David was not interested in building a business; and Jane was not interested in helping homeless people. Even though from outward appearances it seemed like that was absolutely the truth.
The truth was that we all wanted the same thing--and it's the same thing that all of you want. And in fact everybody on the planet, no matter what we're chasing.
There are several different words we could use for that, but I'm going to use the word relief.
Relief from inner turmoil.
And that inner turmoil, interestingly enough, comes in lots of different flavors.
It could be the inner turmoil of loneliness.
It could be the inner turmoil of anxiety.
It could be the inner turmoil of craving.
It could be the inner turmoil of feeling not really good enough.
And I could go on and on and on.
This seems to be the core of the human quest and we've somehow become confused.
Again the means, whether it's a spiritual path, or making money, or distracting ourselves with fun things, or have a relationship, or saving the homeless people, or a pod of save whales or whatever you'd like to save. Not recognizing that the real payoff in all of those things is that this nagging, uncomfortable, miserable feeling goes away.
And I invite you all not to believe a word of this but to look to your own life and you'll see that you go on all sorts of quests, it could be a quest for a cup of coffee, a quest to a vacation, a quest to a perfect relationship, quest for the new job, quest for the corner office, and you'll notice that when you get what you want there is a momentary sense of relief.
That relief is the most important thing.
And understanding this--that that's what we are after--is the most important thing. Because otherwise, you may have been party to one of these, we tend to go on wild goose chases. Chasing belongings or chasing careers or chasing relationships. And there's nothing against any of those and all of those are part and parcel of a rich life and so I'm not suggesting that anyone cease and desist.
But wouldn't it be nice if we could find the relief that we crave all along the way?
You can still go to a vacation. You can still get the new car. You can still have the nice relationship. But without the sense of lack or desperation or anxiety if it's ever going to happen for me.
This was a big ah-ha for me. And maybe even bigger was when I realized what the obstacle was between me and that relief.
Because I mean for me, if it was a sense of anxiety or a sense of worry, or a feeling of anger or a feeling of lack that I was trying to get rid of through all of these machinations in the external world. It seems to reason, that if I wanted to get rid of those feelings, it might make sense to understand where they're coming from.
And for a long time, I believed that my impatience was coming from the blue-haired old lady in the front of the line of Starbucks writing a check. And my irritation came from the pimply face behind the counter at Circle K who has no manners. And my anxiety came from the fact that my bank account was getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.
But none of that is really true.
Because this is something that the ancient yoga and meditation masters realized long, long ago.
In every moment of your life, your brain is taking the raw materials of your circumstances and using those raw materials, the things that you see, the things that you hear, the things that you smell, and manufacturing thoughts and feelings.
And that manufacturing process is either your greatest asset or your greatest enemy.
And again, this is one of these moments where I'll ask you to reference your own experience; there's probably no one in this room who hasn't been on a beautiful beach, on a beautiful vacation, surrounded by people who love you, and who you love--miserable.
And again, we have to ask why.
Because if it's really coming from out there, then that doesn't add up. Why sometimes does one thing make me feel good and at other times the same thing, not so good?
It's because of this manufacturing process.
The thing that, and I don't know why, but nobody seems to be talking about, there's a colossal difference between your life circumstance and your life experience.
Your life circumstance is the thing that's observable, the thing that everybody can see, that you can see. The stuff you can put your hands on. The bank account balance. The health status. The car you drive. The house that you live in. The relationships you have. That's your life circumstance.
Your life experience is how you feel in the midst of all those things. And that's the only thing that counts.
It doesn't matter how beautiful the surroundings, if you feel like shit. And somehow in this culture that we've come to believe that if we can just fix the circumstance the experience will come along. But it doesn't work.
Because that manufacturing process, the brain and the nervous system, is using your circumstance as raw materials to create feelings and thoughts. And I use that word raw materials very specifically because a raw material can be anything.
You can use steel to make an assault rifle, or you could use that same steel to make a plow to plant crops and feed people. And you can use these colors and shapes to create uplifting thoughts and feelings, or you can use these colors and shapes to create feelings of lack and dread and anxiety and worry.
And when I say you can use, that's probably an unfair way to put it.
Better said, the brain can use. And the truth is is that most of these processes, the manufacturing process that is making us feel the way that we feel, making us think the way that we think, is not particularly conscious for most of us.
It's operating through little pieces of learned programming that we in the yoga business call samskaras.
But the good news is that these samskaras, this programing, these habits, they can be changed. And that's why strangely enough ... You know most people think of yoga as a spiritual discipline. It's really a set of tools and techniques that are designed to work on the nervous system.
The Yoga Sutra says, yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. And the ancient yoga meditation masters long ago realized that if you really want to solve the problem, that's where you have to focus.
That's the most important thing: Somehow getting a handle on the dysfunctional patterns in our brains and nervous systems that are drowning us in internal turmoil of all kinds. Self defeating thoughts, irritations, impatience, and on and on it goes.
So not wanting to leave you on a downer. The good news is...
Well, let's start with the neutral news.
And it seems like it's getting warmer and warmer in here. I feel like a little frog in the thing. Karen, can you maybe just ... It's the right hand button and bring it down maybe 50 degrees or so. Thank you, that should ... There we go.
So, all of us have thousands upon thousands of samskaras, these tendencies in our brains. Some of them are serving us, some of them are not serving us. And you could spend a lifetime trying to sift and sort through all of these in order to try to make sense of what needs to be altered or changed or managed.
And that in and of itself could become ... Let's just say, unhelpful.
But the good news is, there's a handful of these samskaras that are common to all of us, that are creating arguably 80% of the misery in our lives. And if we begin to chip away at those we can make huge shifts. The same kind of shifts that were promised to me by my Zen teacher all those many years ago.
And I speak to you about those from my own experience, not just from some book. So I want to share one of them with you this evening. One of these tendencies that reliably produces a life experience of anxiety or misery or desperation or lack even though we may be living in a life circumstance of anything but.
And that samskara is something that psychologists call negativity bias.
And negativity bias is something that was actually programmed into your noggin by mother nature. And what it basically does is causes us to prioritize the negative things, or the threats in our environment over the blessings and the gifts in our lives.
And once upon a time, Og the caveman, all of that, it really served us well because if you're walking down the trail looking at the pretty flowers instead of the saber-toothed tiger that was coming at you, well, they had a name for you, that was dinner.
So, in that environment it was really critical for the nervous system to be constantly scanning and on edge and prioritizing all of these threats so that we could stay alive.
The trouble is that in this day and age, the nervous system still functions in the same way and it identifies a whole wide swath of things as threats that last a long time.
So, the boss not praising you is a threat, and the spouse not saying good morning is a threat, and the bank account is a threat. And any one of those is enough to lock attention in on that while it conveniently ignores the fact that you are in the top 1% of the population in terms of your wellness and your financial stability and the fact that you're living in this country with a roof over your house and you can come to places like this and on and on and on.
So all of us in this room have really, really high life circumstances but it doesn't feel like that all the time.
And one of the culprits is this thing that I'm calling negativity bias. Because it actually paints an experience marked with anxiety or frustration or despair.
I mean, and I'm a perfect example oftentimes when this happens to me. I live in a nice house. I have the best job in the world. I'm surrounded by beautiful people like you. I have enough to eat. I drive a pretty nice car. I have the best chihuahua in the world back there in the corner. My health is good. And yet, I can get hooked by one little thing.
Sometimes maybe it's a little financial hiccup. Sometimes it's maybe something somebody said about me. And all of my attention, and the nervous system's programmed to do this, it goes to the threat and everything else evaporates and I feel terrible.
And again, if nothing else get this, how you feel is the only thing that matters. It's the only thing that matters to you.
The brain will tell you otherwise, but you can get everything the brain wants, but if you don't feel good, it doesn't count.
So, the little gift I have for you is an exercise that helps to overcome negativity bias.
And it's in the form of a little journal, and we have some out front for you.
It's not suitable for framing, but it is suitable for photocopying if you would like to take advantage of it.
And it's a little ... On the right hand side is what you do in the morning and on the left hand side is what you do in the evening. And it's a little fill in the blank, super easy thing which asks you to demand something new of your neurology.
To take back control from this negativity bias that would have you laying awake thinking about stuff that you can't fix. And instead, use your will and your effort to train your brain to focus on something that lifts you up as opposed to something that pulls you down.
I will warn you that in the beginning this is back-breaking work. Because these samskaras, these mental habits, like any habit, have a tremendous amount of power when they've been engaged in for a long time. And every one of us in this room was born with negativity bias, so it's got a fair amount of horsepower.
But the way it works is that if you think of a samskara literally ... And this is the way that it's usually taught in traditional yoga settings. It's like a groove in the mind.
And every time you engage in that behavior or that thought pattern, it gets a little deeper and a little bit deeper and a little bit deeper.
And if you think of like a deep grove, it's got a lot of power to it as opposed to a little flat groove.
But the old groove that's so deep, every time you do the opposite, it makes a new groove. So instead of focusing on the negative, I'm going to focus on my friend Liz, and I'm grateful for her, and that creates a little groove. Now, this little groove doesn't have anywhere near the power of that big groove, but this old one just got a little shallower and this new one just got a little bit deeper.
And then in the next moment I'm going to be grateful for my chihuahua. And then that gets a little deeper. And because I didn't focus on the fact that he has kidney disease ... Oops I just did it.
But not focusing and focusing on the fact that he's here and that he's happy and that he's comfortable after almost 18 years, as opposed to the 47, and I'm being generous, things that are wrong with him. Then that one gets a little deeper, this one gets a little shallower and on and on it goes.
At a certain point, the tipping point, your default setting becomes to seek out the positive and it becomes effortless.
In this way, we're literally training our brains to manufacture thoughts and feelings that serve us as if on autopilot as opposed to what they oftentimes do now on autopilot.
So, if you would like to play along, these are out on the table on the way out. And like I said, they're a little fill-in-the-blank thing. But here's the other thing that I'll share with you, repetition is the key to all your success. All of it. Because when we're talking about re-patterning the nervous system it's all about repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. Consistency over time.
But if you engage in that I promise you ... And there are other people in this room who can testify along with me. It will radically change things for you.
That seems to be all.