Becoming aware of and taking responsibility for our inner life is a beautiful and sometimes challenging path to sustained happiness, and also a prerequisite. While the journey of getting to know our inner life is an act of self love, especially when done with curiosity and an open mind, it’s also a journey that is probably never fully complete, as we change and grow over time.
Owning and taking responsibility for our inner life is different than merely being aware of our inner life, and in fact, it deepens our self awareness, as it requires letting go of the ego’s stories that others cause us suffering and that we are victims. Inner life awareness requires us to own our inner life, both our reactions to life and our contributions to how we feel, think and believe. It’s recognizing that the outer word may “trigger” feelings in us, but it’s the make up of our inner life that is responsible for how we feel.
Our inner life is very complex, almost a universe in and of itself. Not only does it include our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, but also our needs, motivations, expectations, judgments, conditioning, projections, transferences, memories, dreams, traumas, griefs, fears, perceptions, habits, opinions and more. Few people except maybe the most enlightened are aware of all their inner life variations at any one time. But getting to know our inner life, and taking responsibility for how it affects how we feel, is an amazing path to self acceptance and lasting happiness.
With few exceptions, suffering comes when one or more aspects of our inner life bump up against the way things are, either in our outer life, or against another part of our inner life. In Buddhism, this is called the second arrow: when we want things to be different than they are. The first arrow is normally something that hurts us, or that does not meet our needs. The second arrow is when we want that thing to be different than it is.
In Buddhism, the cause of suffering is believed to be our attempts to get away from the things that we think will make us feel bad!
For instance, many of us were emotionally wounded as children, and as a result, as adults, we are sensitive and often scared. Wanting to be less sensitive than we are will only cause more suffering and more sensitivity. Wanting our inner child to not be wounded when it is will only cause more suffering, and sometimes even a disassociation from a very important part of ourselves that when ignored can act, well, like a child.
This is not to say that what might have happened or is happening is not unjust or painful. All of us no doubt deserved to have safe, fun, fulfilling childhoods where all our needs were met. But to continue to insist that we get the things we didn’t get when we were young is not going to make it better. Only we we own our experience as it was, and take responsibility for it’s existence, not the actions of others but it’s existence within us, will our suffering start to fade.
When our beliefs, thoughts, expectations and needs are not met by the way things are in the world, and we can’t accept that, we suffer. The logic is quite impeccable. If I don’t care how something is going to turn out, whatever happens won’t bother me. But if I have an invested interest in the outcome, say because of a belief or expectation, and it goes contrary to that, I suffer.
This can be clearly seen with expectations, which when not met can often create resentments. If I expect someone to act in a certain way–say show up for our meeting at 5 pm, and they don’t show up until 5:30–I may feel resentment towards them. But in some cultures, time has a completely different meaning and people show up all the time 30 minutes or 2 hours later than planned with no resentment.
The reason I would have a resentment is that I expect and want them to show up when we agree. It is my wanting it to be so that causes the resentment, not their arrival time. When I own that, when I take responsibility for my part in my resentment, I almost always find immediate relief.
The same holds true for beliefs. If I believe that all people should think like me, I am creating a recipe for disappointment. We see this regularly in the areas of politics and religion. In the U.S., people on different sides of the political spectrum are constantly angry because they can’t understand how the other party doesn’t see things as they do. But when we recognize our beliefs as our beliefs, and take ownership, authorship we could say it is all made up, and start to realize they might not be shared by everyone, relief can start to set in.
For instance, if I am unhappy because my political party does not win an election, my unmet needs might be mutuality, shared reality and protection from harm. Connecting to those unmet needs and grieving their loss can help with my disappointment. Owning that it was my wanting that caused the pain, not the election results, also will relieve my suffering. Owning further that it is my beliefs–my world view–that has bumped up against the will of the voters that is causing my suffering will also drain away the pain.
There is something rather magical about taking responsibility for our inner life. When we own our needs and all the other variations that live within us, we can be happier.