Most of my life I have worked hard to figure out ways to make myself happier and to be a better person. Up until a year ago if you asked me, I would have told you I was pleased with my results . . . but even back then there was something niggling around in the back of my head. I felt some un-ease, and I suspect that un-ease was part of what prompted Hannah and me to uproot our lives and move to Hawaii.
As long as we stayed in our relatively comfortable life in Santa Fe, it seemed unlikely that any significant changes were likely to come about. Everything was in its proper place, so much so that I felt boxed in by my reputation, routines, and the Identity I had worked so hard to establish. The box I was in was quite beautiful, but I had a sense that I was missing something, Hannah too, so we came to Hawaii for a month to explore the Big Island.
We fell in love with Hawaii and we both felt twenty years younger. We were more playful, relaxed and inspired so we crazily decided we’d go back to Santa Fe, sell our home and move to Hawaii. Less than a year later we were living here.
The move was surprisingly hard
All those things that boxed me in—my reputation, my community, and my routines—were left behind. Without those things my Identity was in limbo. Who am I when I have no work to do, no clients to appreciate me, no role to play in a community that I’d been part of for over fifteen years? No kids, grandkid, nothing familiar. Who am I?
I’d always believed in the value of having a clearly defined Identity—you can call it ego if you like. Many people don’t recognize the value of having a healthy ego, but I think it’s essential, and it’s not the same as being egotistical. To have a healthy ego allows me to know and respect myself, my needs and wants, and yes, even my limitations. A healthy ego provides a sense of grounding, which I need because like all of us I live in a world full of uncertainty. My ego offers me continuity, a sense of myself that I take with me wherever I go. It evolves gradually over time, unless I do something radical, like move to Hawaii.
In that case, the “who am I” question looms large because all the things I used to rely on to remind me of “who I am” are absent. So I have a choice. I can either do the things I’d always done to reorient myself—start offering workshops, teaching classes, seeking clients, building my reputation, writing articles for local papers—or I can do something different. But, I more or less know the results I’ll get if I do the same old thing. So . . .
I decide to do something different
The thing I’ve always done pretty well is think. I’ve thought a lot in my life. My thinking resulted in many constructive ideas about how to relate well with people and help other people relate well. My thinking also led to fresh insights and ideas about developing emotional maturity, individuating, parenting, aging and group dynamics. All of these helped me be an effective therapist—because I’d thought so much about human behavior I was able to offer insights and practical tools to the people I worked with.
So . . . I arrive in Hawaii—and even with all the knowledge and tools I have—I’m lost. I’m determined not to do what I’ve always done. Instead, I try something new. I try not thinking, or more accurately, thinking in a different way.
My old way of thinking was born out of safety consciousness. Safety consciousness is about being productive, protecting what we care about, measuring ourselves against others, creating emotional boundaries, and building our lives around things and ideas that feel familiar to us, because familiarity makes us feel safe (even if it isn’t actually safe).
Safety consciousness is also about solving problems—small problems and big problems. If I’m impatient with Hannah and I think that’s a problem, and I work to change my behavior, I’m in safety consciousness. I’m trying to make myself feel safer by being a better partner. If I feel like I’m stuck in the wrong relationship and I need to get out—to feel safer—I make decisions from within safety consciousness. If my bank account gets too low I may seek another job, safety consciousness. On and on . . .
Too much focus on safety
Before I moved to Hawaii I had this budding awareness that almost all the work I’d done on myself over several decades was in safety consciousness. And I’d worked on my self-development in many different ways. There was no question that I was growing as a person, but I was growing in a lopsided way. I was just getting better and better at safety consciousness, going faster and faster in a particular hamster wheel.
How quickly could I resolve conflicts? How could I be a better listener? How non-reactive could I become when I was around people I didn’t like? How clear could I be in my communications with other people? How much space could I create between a stimulus and my response—the idea being that with more space I would be more thoughtful in my response. How maturely could I express my feelings when I felt I was treated unfairly, like when my mother passed away, and had changed her will to my disadvantage without letting me know?
Faster and faster I went, more skills, more tools, more models . . .
And, yet, I landed in Hawaii with all these tools, skills, and models and I was miserable. It made no sense. I was living a dream life with my dream partner, yet I was unhappy. I realized I had a big problem to solve—something was wrong—and for the first few weeks all I did was think about how to solve my problem. Why was I unhappy, what did it mean? Was my Identity that fragile? Did I need a continuous stream of other people appreciating me to feel okay about myself? Was I overly dependent on Hannah, because I was spending a fair amount of time making myself anxious about what I would do if she were to die?
The contrast between how my life appeared—living the dream—and how I felt was so striking that I saw something I might never have seen had I not been in this situation. It was staring me in the face . . . I began to realize that the only problem I had was thinking I had a problem.
Problems everywhere I look
And this is the result of living in safety consciousness; I’m always looking for the solution to my latest problem. At times that’s exactly the right thing to do, and at other times it’s no longer necessary, but I’m habituated. And this is what I now recognize as a flaw in personal growth techniques, counseling, coaching and even some forms of mindfulness. All these tools and models reside in safety consciousness and perpetuate the myth that we are beset with problems.
I vowed to myself that I would not to try to solve my problem; because working to solve a problem validates the fact that there is a problem.
I had a few friends—they were also colleagues—with whom I shared my misery. I didn’t like revealing how poorly I was doing so I downplayed my unhappiness because I was embarrassed, but they knew I was struggling. They would try to help me in various ways, but all their ideas were coming from safety consciousness. They would try to reassure me that things would get better, but all that did was reinforce the idea that things weren’t okay as they were. They would remind me how resourceful I am. That meant, ‘yes, you have a problem, and you can solve it.’ In everything they said, in an effort to be helpful, they reinforced my story—I had a problem.
Until . . .
One day I had a fantastic moment. I remember it vividly. I woke up in the morning and as I opened my eyes I saw Hannah, she had just gotten out of bed and was putting on her bathrobe and when she saw me she smiled. It was glorious. In that moment I said to myself, “You should be thrilled to wake up.” And, yes, I get to be extra thrilled because Hannah’s my partner, but the underlying point of my comment was that I should be thrilled to wake up—period.
Martin Heidegger captured this when he wrote,
One marvels not about the way things are, but that they are.
Just the fact that I am alive is amazing. And, like some percentage of people on the planet—not everyone—I can choose what I want to do in the next ten minutes. I can notice the beauty that surrounds me. I can tell someone in my life that I love them, and I have people who will tell me they love me. I can listen to music, dance, sing (not well), or play with our cat. I can express myself and feel myself and be myself. I should be thrilled to be alive.
For the rest of that day I saw everything from a different perspective. What had happened is that I discovered a way into a different level of consciousness—heart consciousness. In heart consciousness—which is a state of gratitude—everything takes on a different meaning as compared to the meaning I make when I’m in safety consciousness. Heart consciousness was not new to me, I’d been exploring it for some time, but it was the experience of extreme contrast that propelled me into realizing I can actually live from a place of awe and gratitude—most of the time— regardless of what’s going on in my life.
In my life I’ve experienced a few paradigm shifts, but none as significant as this one.
The next day I wake up and the first question I ask myself is, “Am I thrilled to be alive?” My answer—“yes.” Later that day I’m talking with one of my friends, Mike Bundrant, also a counselor, and I tell him about my experience. At some point in the conversation I ask him, “Are you thrilled to be alive?” He hesitates. For the next couple of minutes I remind him of the details of his life—healthy, happily married, successful, doing work he loves, all of his children are alive and healthy. I share with him the idea that in the next ten minutes he is free to do all sorts of amazing things. Whoosh—he lights up—he gets it!
We decide to try an experiment
We agree that for the next twenty-one days we will practice waking up and asking ourselves if we are thrilled to be alive. We agree to share daily emails, checking in with each other and once a week we’ll have an extended conversation to see how we’re doing. We also agree that if either one of us feels lost we’ll call each other.
Well, I’ll be damned if this guy doesn’t take this idea and run right past me. I mean it’s truly revolutionary. I’ve known this guy for twenty-five years and I’ve seen him happy-ish from time to time, pleased with his life from time to time, always working hard on himself, learning and growing and searching—but I’ve never seen him thrilled to be alive, until now. It was truly something to witness.
Me on the other hand—I continued to struggle but to a far lesser degree. Part of the difference is that my friend has every thing in place in his life. In other words, his Identity is solidly intact. His routines are in place. His community is in place. His income stream is steady. So when he drank the rocket fuel of gratitude he started to fly.
My experience is different, and equally or more significant, because my Identity is shaken up, my routines are non-existent, my community is remote and discombobulated, and my income stream is drying up. Yet, when I drank the rocket fuel of gratitude I stepped out of despair and into awe—awe of life. And with this different consciousness my “problems” appeared different. They weren’t gone, but I’d changed my relationship to them.
Over the next twenty-one days my friend, Mike, and I documented our process. Within ten days or so I was flying at an altitude and attitude similar to Mike’s. About two thirds of the way through the twenty-one days, Mike hit some turbulence. We figured out how to navigate those moments that are inevitable—part of life’s turbulence—and carried on. The conclusion we reached is that life includes problems, but it doesn’t need to include suffering (except in more extreme circumstances).
Mike and I identified a key pattern, which is the difference between primary and secondary emotions. The primary emotions are instinctive responses we are born with such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. These emotions don’t last long; the chemicals that produce our emotions have a life span of about ninety seconds. They aren’t the cause of our suffering. It’s the secondary emotions we have that cause our suffering. The secondary emotions are the feelings we have about the feelings we had. These emotions are not in response to life events, but internal dialogues and stories we tell ourselves about life events. Both of us noticed that as soon as we entered a state of heart consciousness we weren’t telling ourselves stories and we were less attached to the stories we used to tell.
We also noticed that we both move easily from heart consciousness back to safety consciousness when necessary, almost seamlessly. However, when working with clients who hadn’t done the necessary growth in safety consciousness—meaning they hadn’t yet developed good communication skills, emotional maturity, and high levels of personal responsibility—we realized that these clients needed more skills to make themselves feel safe and adept in safety consciousness. It seems that we need certain skills in order to travel between levels of consciousness, and both Mike and I had been developing those skills for years, as many people have, but we didn’t know when enough was enough.
So, here we are, two guys who have been dedicated to helping ourselves and other people solve problems—especially emotional problems, and now we are presenting this radically new idea that even if we have problems, we don’t have to suffer . . . not when we live in a state of heart consciousness.
There is more to say about all of this. After the twenty-one days were over we both said, “No way are we stopping now, we can do this for the rest of our lives.” Our process continues and we continue to learn many key insights into how we can live in a continuous state of gratitude and heart consciousness. And we are well aware that this approach isn’t for everyone, some people are struggling to a degree that might make this approach unrealistic.
A thrilling invitation
We will be fine-tuning this process in the weeks and months, and probably years to come. The first thing we’re going to do is invite ten people to join us for another twenty-one day experiment. This will involve the two of us facilitating small group meetings via the Internet and participants partaking in a buddy system, just like Mike and I did for the first twenty-one days.
If you’re interested in joining us, fill out the form below letting us know a little about yourself and what you hope to get out of being part of this group. We will offer more groups in the future, but the first group, the beta-group, is often very special as we all learn and discover together.