Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan

My first foray into Amazon’s $3.99 bargain bin did not go so well, so it was with trepidation that I sought another bargain bin book.  Most of the titles seemed like mass market fiction flubs with tired, once novel subgenre’s.  Then I came across this title which was actually a steal at $1.99 but the title was in that distinctive Google color combo.  Great, a rip off Google.  I clicked the bait, and once I read that Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman had written one of the two forwards, I was sold.  I consider Goleman’s book one of the top ten books I’ve ever read in my life.  Then I learned that Meng was a Google employee, hence, the iconic Google color combo in the title, and he was promoting his own brand of mindful meditation.  Great, I thought, another retooled and repurposed authentic topic to monetize for geeks at a big corporation. 

 One of the first quotes that captured me was, “a taste of your own deep interior resources for acting in your own best interest by realizing that your interest is best served by recognizing and nurturing the interests of others at the same time.”  In arguing with people about individualism versus socialism, socialists will argue that allowing individuals to do as they please would result in chaos and conflict as individuals hoard and leave nothing for the weak, poor, elderly, or disabled.  Without some overriding social mechanism, namely government, nobody would care for the “disadvantaged” in society.  My argument is that there is already an overriding social mechanism that compels us to sympathize, empathize, and care for those in need.  It is called our social instinct.  We are all born with one.  In fact, arguably, no other animal has a more powerful, advanced social instinct than the human.  Without constant human contact, support, and teaching, the human child would die and the human adult would languish and probably kill himself.  Humans have been brainwashed into thinking that we are all born evil with sin, that to unleash us would result in a sinful, savage wilderness.  Left to our own devices, humans would be one of the most socialized creatures in the world.  The artificial social mechanism that controls our behavior, i.e., government, actually perverts and obviates our internal, natural social mechanism.  It contrives us from givers and sharers to takers and hoarders.  If each individual believes that a portion of his income is going to helping those in need, he feels liberated to focus only on taking and self-actualizing, self-fulfilling, self-aggrandizement.  If each individual believes that laws are created to protect each other from each other, then so long as he finds himself within the law, he seeks to gain every kind of advantage from taking, hoarding, and exploiting each other, feeling secure that so long as it is not illegal, it is morally acceptable.  What the artificial social mechanism does is actually turn an otherwise naturally social being into an antisocial being that feels that paying taxes and being lawful are the only sufficient boundaries for being considered a good person.  And this is why so many people are puzzled that they are not happy, that they are in fact miserable and hopelessly trapped in a vicious circle of selfish self-aggrandizement and misery.  What they fail to understand is that their misery is intimately connected with the artificial social mechanism obviating their giving and sharing, that as naturally social creatures, we derive the greatest pleasure and self-fulfillment from giving and sharing, and it has been taken away from us, and by no coincidence, we have been slaves to selfish greed and working harder and harder to pay off debts to purchases made to make ourselves look and feel better.

 What this book advises is getting in touch with that inner, natural social mechanism which is trying to tell you to be more giving and sharing.  But I would argue, this will only create cognitive dissonance, because our culture is inundating us with messages that we should be selfish and aggrandize ourselves.  The fact that Meng displays photos of himself with notable celebrities indicates to me that he hasn’t gotten the full message yet.  What I would advise is realizing that just because the state takes a sizeable chunk of your income and makes a feeble attempt at helping those in need, doesn’t obviate or preclude you from personally giving and sharing.  The obvious reaction is, but why the hell should I?  Isn’t that what I’m paying government to do?  Don’t a million regulations and codes ensure that people are nice to each other and don’t hurt each other?  My response is, first of all, most of your taxes and administrative fees go to big business.  Second, most regulations and codes do not protect people but rather protect special interest groups from competition and market newcomers.  Third, if you paid government a third to half of your income and assets to impose mandatory weekly exercise, does this mean you would only exercise once a week?  Giving and sharing is as critical to our well-being as exercising and eating healthy.  Stop exercising and eating healthy, and you feel like crap.  You feel moody, irritable, anxious, mercurial, and unhappy.  Stop giving and sharing, and you also feel moody, irritable, anxious, mercurial, and unhappy.  When you go to a doctor or psychiatrist and tell them you feel horrible, he will prescribe some experimental drug that settles your stomach or elevates your mood.  If they weren’t quacks, they would actually prescribe you exercise and a healthier diet, and then if they were enlightened, they would prescribe a healthier dose of giving and sharing.   

 As with most all self-help books, the author assumes that everyone is a blank slate, and that you are going from 0 to 100.  He states that emotional intelligence is a learned skill.  I would disagree.  We are all born with social instincts.  We want to be friendly, kind, and nice.  What we are taught is how to convert that natural instinct into actions using cultural norms, traditions, and language.  But I would also argue that the vast majority of people lack emotional intelligence not because they were born without it and didn’t learn it, but rather, because they experienced some emotional trauma that basically dimmed down their emotional receptors.  Ming likes to use engineering metaphors like resolution, so I’ll use one too, sensor overload.  If you point a digital camera at the sun, the camera will adjust by dimming down its sensitivity to light.  If you point it into a dark room, it heightens its sensitivity to light.  I argue that the main reason people are emotionally dim is that they have at some point been overloaded by negative emotional feelings, so their sensitivity to emotions were permanently dimmed down both in themselves and in others.  Ironically, however, this causes sensitivity anomalies and inconsistencies.  In other words, they are highly insensitive to most emotional cues in themselves and others, but in an attempt to pick up anything, they also randomly become overly sensitive to subtle emotional cues in themselves and others.  In other words, if they are upset, they ignore it, and they get this consistent feeling of unease, tension, anxiety, and frustration.  They refuse to accept that they are upset.  Then someone comes along and interrupts them in a conversation, and voila, they have discovered the source of all their unease, tension, anxiety, and frustration.  It’s this mf!  So they explode at the poor person.  They go from highly insensitive to their own emotion and then overly sensitive to a false or trivial emotional signal.  So, I’ve seen this all the time.  Someone goes to a self-help seminar or reads a book and goes, wow, I learned so much, I’m going to implement all these ideas in my personal life, but it fails.  They give up in frustration.  They fail, because they have failed to identify the root cause of their problems, a past trauma or experience that screwed up their sensors. 

 I would also argue with happiness being the prime goal of emotional intelligence or life itself.  I find this selfish and shallow.  If you want to be happy, to attain a level of inner-balance and tranquility, then yes, go up to a mountain and meditate and turn off all outside information that may upset you.  This is not the goal of humanity.  You can also take drugs that will permanently put a smile on your face and dull down your brain so you can’t take in any bad information.  As social beings, I believe, the goal of our life is giving and sharing, to solve problems that make others unhappy but also uncaring and not giving or sharing people.  The goal is to convince others that giving and sharing is the purpose of their lives.  What use are monks who live in solitude?  What makes some redeemable, in my mind, is when they adopt orphans and raise them.  That is giving and sharing.  But monks who live a solitary life of meditation are kidding themselves and denying their true nature and purpose.  In fact, their culture allows it so as to minimize their positive influence on others.  The more I learn and read, the more depressing it can get as you learn how corrupt and unequal life is.  If you’ve never left your city or state, you have no idea the suffering in the Third World.  You have no idea that the vast majority of people on this planet live in misery and extreme poverty.  Yes, this is upsetting, but it should be.  We are all connected and responsible, but it also means, we are all empowered to help everyone.  One day, we may discover an inhabited planet and learn that 100 trillion intelligent being live in misery and poverty that would make Ugandans look like Orange County residents.  The answer is not shutting ourselves off to information to be happy idiots, but rather if we have the technology to discover them all, we also presumably have the technology to help them out.  So yes, you can be a happy fool by refusing to learn about the inequities, injustices, and inhumanity in our world.

 I would hypothesize that people who have suffered great emotional trauma can not only desensitize themselves to emotions (importantly, in themselves as well as in others) and subsequently become emotionally unregulated messes that overreact to false, trivial, or minor emotional signals, but they also can desensitize themselves to pain and also subsequently become over sensitive to false, trivial, or minor pain signals.  Someone who can endure hours of tattooing, weightlifting, jogging, whatever, all the sudden can be the biggest baby in a dentist’s office or freeze to death at the slightest cold breeze.  Their pain receptor regulation system as with their emotional receptor regulation system has become corrupted.  This is perhaps why people who have been traumatized can wind up becoming the greatest athletes who can overcome the greatest physical adversities or either the most uncaring sociopaths or the most caring good Samaritans with infinite compassion.

 This book is thick and slow.  It’s not written overly technical, but it just throws so much information at you so quickly that you can’t read it quickly.  For me, I have to get up and write things down, so I find myself constantly going over to my desktop.  Some great notes: Emotions are better detected in our body responses than in our mind responses.  Our bodies can detect things quicker than our minds, but it cannot sometimes communicate through our minds.  It communicates what it learns through our body, our heart rate, our sweat glands, our stomach, our skin temperature, the dilation or contraction of our pupils.  Becoming emotionally intelligent is about becoming aware of what our bodies are telling us.  They say choice lies between stimulant and reaction, but I would say freewill lies between stimulant and reaction and mindfulness of the stimulant elongates the space between, hence the freewill.  Verbalizing activates parts of our prefrontal cortex that delay reactions by our amygdala.  In other words, when we communicate or at least talk to ourselves, we become less impulsive and reactive, and we also expand our choices and freewill. 

 One of the great problems with modern society is how we are constantly bombarded by temptations and judgmental messages which make us constantly anxious, fearful, and desirous.  This constant state of distraction, however, also makes us more compulsive, impulsive, and what some might call, sufferers of attention deficit syndrome.  Meditation, simply put, is tuning out the distractions and finding peace.  This alone is a huge antidote to heavy, daily doses of distractions.  But what we are also learning is to expand the space and time between stimulation and reaction.  Animal trainers know this well.  They train animals to pause between being presented with food and eating it, with seeing something they want and grabbing it.  But I think we fail to realize there is also a big thing hardwired into us that does the same thing, and that things is called our social instincts.  When we are in a cohesive group, we don’t immediately grab food as it is placed in front of the group.  This would create a chaotic free-for-all.  Instead, everyone waits until everything is placed and everyone is at the table or floor, and then we start to eat.  We call this civilized, but we did this before civilization.  It should be called social.  Therefore, social instincts, I believe led us to expand the time and space between stimulus and reaction and also caused us to become more intelligent.  Of course, those inclined to become intelligent faster also benefitted more in a social environment.  What I have learned personally is that trust in relationships causes patience and self-discipline.  I clearly remember having exceptional self-discipline early on, but after a series of experiences that undermined my faith in my family and relationships, I went the opposite way and became exceptionally impulsive and reckless.  This is one major reason, why I believe people in modern society, especially Americans, are so vulnerable to a culture of temptations and anxiety-causing messages, that they have become exceptionally anti-social as well as impulsive and compulsive.  In other more social cultures, the relationships help people be more in self-control and patient, but in America, we need solutions quick and fast, and bringing together an extended family is not feasible, so some of us embrace meditation.   

 Meditation and mindfulness is like having a child and being in control of that child.  Many parents who suffer sensory corruption either are tone deaf to the communication of their children or they overreact to false, minor, or trivial communication.  Either way, the child is incapable of being soothed and remains ever anxious, colicky, and easily upset.  That child is us, our inner selves.  I believe what this book and others mean by getting to know yourself is not being tone deaf to what your body is telling you.  Often this means not being in the moment, being overly distracted by worries about the future or past.  This also takes away from our enjoyment of the present, and this is probably why happiness is tied to mindful meditation and the ability to control focus and keep it where you want it.  Often times, people go out to get drunk or intoxicated, because their minds are driving them nuts and always possessed by past worries or future concerns.  They want to be in the present, and intoxicants are the only way which provides them with temporary relief.  Mindful meditation is a much healthier way of training your mind to be in the present.  I had this friend I volunteered with, and we traveled a lot, and I was often dismayed how we would go to the most amazing places, places he would never have been able to afford to travel by himself, and he didn’t seem to be in the moment enjoying himself.  When he ate, he scarfed down food.  When I showed him some nice wine, he’d chug it.  As much as I tried to slow him down to enjoy the moment, he steamrolled over life and flattened everything in his path.  But I catch myself doing the exact same thing.  When I travel, I worry about how I’ll get to a destination, and how I’ll get back, and I’ll always need something, so I’ll always be searching for a toothbrush or band aids, or instead of just enjoying the place, I’d waste hours shopping for clothes I can find at home.  Then I’d look back at the trip and reminisce about how wonderful and incredible it was, but while I was there, it all seemed a bit stressful and dull.  I can definitely see how people who can remain focused in the present tend to enjoy life more and have a much fuller and richer experience than people who are overly distracted by the past or future.  Perhaps when we evolved and started to realize that there was a past and present, our minds were overwhelmed by reliving past embarrassments or anxious over future concerns.  Perhaps meditation is one of the greatest inventions to fix this little glitch of evolution. 

 What I feel the author misses is the reason why people don’t live in the present, and the answer seems always the same.  When the present is traumatic, when you experience something horrific, keeping your mind in the present would make you go insane.  An adaptation was the ability to leave the present and place your mind somewhere else.  Since the first instance was involuntary, the mind subsequently, involuntarily drifts off to the past or present or upon the slightest signal of danger.  This is a survival mechanism.  To know oneself is to know not only what you are feeling at the present but also what you have experienced in the past and how it has affected you now.  The mind can be like a child or animal.  If it’s been spooked once, it becomes jumpy and edgy and easily spooked again.  You need to be nurturing and soothing with your mind in order for mindful meditation to work.  Training a normal mind to be mindful and present is easier than training a mind that has continually drifted off to preserve itself from danger in the present moment. 

 What becomes clear is that when we suffer extreme and overwhelming emotions, we dissociate, we leave.  When we leave and check out, we become estranged from our emotions and ourselves.  As odd as that may sound, it makes a lot of sense that when we experience emotions or feelings and thoughts arise in us that we do not understand, we feel like we are living with a stranger, and this can be quite unsettling and upsetting.  This book attempts to rectify this by reintroducing ourselves to ourselves in a safe and supportive atmosphere by not being judgmental and by being in control of our feelings, emotions, and thoughts and owning them.  If you asked someone how they felt, someone who has been traumatized, this would lead to an unraveling of horrific thoughts and feelings like opening the doors to hell or a flock of zombie birds.  I feel upset, I think everyone hates me, I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the things I have done, I feel victimized, I feel out of control, I hate the way people look at me, I hate my feelings, I hate the way I look, I feel inadequate and resentful, I’m jealous and envious, I’m a horrible person, I can be petty and cruel, there is something really wrong with me, I destroy all my relationships, I overreact, I’m mercurial, I have panic attacks, etc.  How could this possibly make me feel better?  I think the author fails to recognize that some people think and feel like this, and mindfulness can actually backfire.  What is needed is a gradual and slow approach to reacquainting ourselves with ourselves, just as any stranger might approach someone suffering from PTSD.  You just don’t walk up and go, hey, tell me your deepest darkest secrets and let’s just hash it out.  You must, believe it or not, build trust with yourself.  It all sounds crazy talking about handling yourself by yourself, but there different parts of you, and when a trauma occurs, those different parts go their separate ways like a group of cats being scattered by a loud bang.  You bring them all together again by affirming their experiences, thoughts, and feelings and listening nonjudgmentally to them.  Yes, you do feel inadequate, strange, cruel, unstable, crazy, and damaged.  I hear that.  And you also have to acknowledge that you are capable of great kindness, caring, helpfulness, compassion, friendliness, maturity, and stability.  So let us work together.  Put the past behind us, and work together to be the person we would admire, respect, and like.  Let us remember that we are not our feelings, thoughts, or emotions.  We are not cruel, strange, mean, unstable, damaged, and inadequate, we just feel these states that can be passing.  We can hold on to feelings of kindness, compassion, maturity, and caring and embrace them longer.  Our greatest error when we suffered the initial trauma or intense emotion was believing that it was us, and so we divorced ourselves from ourselves.  What we should have done instead is let those overwhelming feelings pass, to recover ourselves and work together to deal with such intense emotions and experiences by talking about the, acknowledging them, and then letting them move on.

 One of the most powerful concepts in this book is separating pain from aversion or stimulus from judgment.  I heard this a while back that events are neutral and then you give them meaning, good, bad, or indifferent, and this drives your reaction to them.  This means that you have some control over how you react to events or stimuli or even pain.  Fact is, we are all capable of enduring extraordinary pain.  I learned this when I trained for a marathon.  It is mostly in your head.  Pain evolved as this great way of making organisms recoil from damaging stimuli, like another organism trying to rip it apart and devour it.  However, as organisms became more complex, some organisms could endure pain in order to achieve a greater goal.  For instance, animals that put up with the pain of boredom (patience) could outwait prey and ultimately eat it.  Animals that could out-endure a predator could escape it, despite the pain of burning muscles and lungs.  Animals learned to override their pain in certain circumstances.  The reason so many humans no longer work out is that they give in to initial sensations of pain.  The body actually tricks us into believing our knees or back is about to give out when in fact, it won’t if we push past the dull pain.  (Sharp pain is another story).  Likewise, we can also ignore and overcome emotional pains.  When someone does not invite us to a party, we can choose how to react.  It does not necessarily mean we must sulk and feel depressed.  We can reframe the stimulus.  This person did not want the party to get out of hand.  This person simply overlooked us.  This person is not really that important to us, etc.  Like a great athlete that can reframe the pain she feels, we can become great emotional and social beings by reframing the everyday pain we feel when people snub us or we feel humiliated or embarrassed.  Relationships are like long distance running or intense weightlifting.  At first, we will experience discomfort and awkwardness.  We shouldn’t give up.  Then we will encounter the pain and soreness of a social snub, insult, or disappointment.  We shouldn’t give up.  These are all growing pains as our social skills and resilience strengthen.  With sufficient experience and endurance, we are then able to deal with all sorts of social phenomenon and situations which we can gracefully and deftly navigate to our benefit.  Unlike physical mastery, social mastery, as social beings, is the ultimate skill that elevates us above all other animals.  In fact, our wimpy physical capabilities compared to other animals our size indicates that it has always been our social skills that were our competitive advantage in evolution.

 I was reading a book about improving your interpersonal skills a few months back, and the author had the idea that when we talk to each other, we start out with a bid.  “Hey, that weather is crazy.”  or “Man, work was tough.”  It tests the waters to see if the other person is interested in a conversation.  Too often, we ignore the bid, dismiss it, or undermine it.  “Yeah, crazy.”  “Actually, it’s nice and warm.”  “You think you had a tough day at work…”  The same happens with our inner-selves.  Our mind and body throws out bids.  “Wow, I’m uncomfortable.”  “That was annoying.”  [Heart starts racing, palms sweaty].  Too often, we ignore ourselves, dismiss or undermine ourselves.  “Yeah, whatever.”  “No, that wasn’t annoying at all.”  “It must be hot in here.”  As with relationships, this causes distance, lack of intimacy, misunderstandings, and overall a lack of empathy and trust.  Learning to listen to and converse with our bodies seems to be exactly like learning to listen to and converse with other people, and the results are pretty much the same.  When we fail to listen to our inner-thoughts and feelings or other people, they become anxious, unstable, unpredictable, untrusting, loud, attention-seeking, disruptive, and annoying.  They also undermine and sabotage us.  It seems that mindfulness is the art of developing a meaningful, trusting relationship with all parts of our inner-selves, parts of both our body and mind.   

 I would disagree with their assessment of motivation and offer my own ingredients, 1. desire 2. trust/faith 3. discipline 4. progress and 5. bumps.  I think we forget trust.  We must trust ourselves, our abilities, but also the system.  If the system is corrupt and at any time it can take everything you own and love away, why put any effort into anything?  I used to argue that discipline did not exist, that we just do hard stuff because we have greater motivation than misgivings.  But fact is, discipline is an art unto itself that can be practiced and then applied to anything, even things you have no desire for.  Discipline is the simple ability to engage in activities that provide little immediate reward and lot of pain, time, and sacrifice.  But we also forget progress.  Without progress, the body rebels and gives in.  We need to see and feel progress.  This is why people who physical labor are often more satisfied and proud of their accomplishments than people who have abstract goals and progress cues.  Lastly, we need bumps of neurochemical pleasure.  Whenever we engage in boring, difficult, or painful tasks, after a certain sustained period, our body actually releases neurochemicals that make us feel good.  This is the secret of evolution.  Unfortunately, this is also the secret of addiction and attachment to abuse, pain, and suffering.  But evolution has discovered that it’s of greater benefit than cost.  The ability to get bumps of pleasure from lifting weight, endurance workouts, and emotional resistance is what makes us stronger and more potent animals.  Unfortunately, the price is that a few of us get trapped enjoying the wrong types of pain like self-harm, loosing money, and abuse. 

 One thing you do in meditation is pay attention to all parts of your body.  This allows you to identify tension that may have gone unnoticed.  Your body tries to communicate to you through tension.  But what about going through different parts of your mind?  I believe we have distinct parts of our minds we use for different jobs, just as we might use our legs for climbing, hands for grasping, and backs for lifting heavy objects.  These different parts of our minds are sometimes overstressed and can flare up just like a bad back or knee.  Shouldn’t we reach to them just as we reach out to our body?  And wouldn’t this also stop those parts of our minds from flaring up randomly and disrupting our lives?  The author says that we cannot control the arising of unpleasant thoughts, but perhaps we can by getting in touch with them before they arise in us involuntarily?  I don’t know what each part of our mind is or does, but I would guess, based on the different things we do in life, they are like roles.  When we are put in charge of something, we take on a more authoritative, leadership role.  When we are with a loved one, we can take on a more playful role.  When we are hurt, we take on a more defensive, withdrawn role.  When we dealing with a sensitive relationship issue, we can take on a more diplomatic, cautious role.  Is it possible that many of these roles have solidified into distinct characters in our minds that shoot up from our mind when they feel they are needed or being neglected?  Someone cuts us off in traffic and that defensive role comes out, but once it is out, it starts to remind us of all the times we have been slighted, undermined, or attacked.  If we ignore it, it just accumulates a longer list of grievances.  Isn’t this the source of our uncontrolled outbursts of disproportionate or unpleasant thoughts or emotions?  Just like an athlete who has a knee injury and keeps ignoring it by pushing herself harder and harder, don’t we also cause one of those roles to be more disruptive and emphatic when it is being ignored?  Perhaps to envision them it helps to personify them?  The defensive one has armor and a sword and tries to appear intimidating.  The compassionate one has a long, flowing gown and open arms with long, hippy hair, maybe with flowers in it.  The mediator has a referee shirt and whistle. 

 When people suffer traumas, they almost always have an out-of-body experience.  The body has a core, and it seems the mind has a core as well, but unlike the body, the mind’s core can drift away from the brain, away from our body.  It seems to me that when the author talks about compassion and leaving the ego behind, he is perhaps talking about moving this mental core voluntarily away from our brain and bodies and toward another person or group.  When the core is involuntarily moved by a trauma, the problem is, it goes nowhere in particular, just away from us.  We start spacing off to no greater purpose but escaping the present and the body.  But compassion may be the voluntary movement of our mental core toward another person or group.  There is purpose and benefit in that we can better see and feel the other person or group.  When people sense that our mental core is closer to them, they are more likely to embrace it.  It is unattached to us, to anyone.  It is this free-floating form in the air, and it won’t harm them, because there is no body attached to attack us with.  In addition, if we can voluntarily move our mental core around, if it does escape us when we need it, we can also gently bring it back to us and be in the present. 

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