When the fictional Dillon Panthers are on the verge of winning a state championship in the final episode of season one of Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor tell his players to stay inside themselves. This seems like odd advice to give to a group of young men facing the enormous pressure of being tested in front of tens of thousands of people. I mean, if people aren’t inside themselves, where are they?
Upon reflection, Coach Taylor’s meaning becomes clear. Very often, most of us are not inside ourselves. Not being inside ourselves is a common and natural reaction to the stresses of life. Life is difficult and when that difficulty finds its way inside us, the natural response is to surrender inner space to the chaos plaguing us, and set out for calmer waters.
What does it mean then to stay inside yourself? It means keeping your mind focused on the actual situation you are in. It means being mindful of the moment and of the goal toward which you want to direct it. It means being aware of your body in its actual surroundings. Staying inside yourself, you can see, is tough for everyone.
It’s certainly tough for me. This post, as is the case with most of my posts, is written as much to myself as to anybody else.
Staying inside ourselves is hard due to both inner and outer factors. It’s like there’s a conspiracy to keep us outside ourselves.
Think of that space inside yourself as a house. Most people have trouble staying inside themselves because that inward house is an unpleasant place. It tends to be cluttered with bits of troubling memories, piles of self-loathing, bits of leftover resentments rotting away in the corners.
People whose inner homes are in such a state need not blame themselves overly much. Disorder is the natural state of the human heart. Just like order must be cultivated and maintained in the external world, so it must be in the internal one.
When our inner world is a painful or even merely unpleasant place to live, we have little motivation to stay inside ourselves. Getting that place cleaned up, aired out and set right would take a ton of work, and it seems easier just to go out. This tendency is compounded by the fact that most of us have lived so long with a messy inner world, we have no idea that it isn’t the only way things can be. We’ve never known different.
This is hard to change because when people whose inner world is a mess encounter people who’ve done the necessary work to keep things inside as orderly as possible, they tend to assume those people, the ones whose orderly inner lives shine through, just somehow got lucky. The inwardly messy tell themselves that the inwardly ordered just haven’t suffered as much as they have, that somehow they got all the breaks. This kind of thinking leads to resentment which does nothing but clutter up the inward space all the more.
Add to the fact that most people are a mess inside the glittering enticements of the world, and it’s obvious why staying inside yourself is so difficult. We carry around within us an environment we want to escape and the world appears to lay open paths for us to do so. Instead of focusing on getting our inner mess cleaned up, we are enticed to squander our energies on whatever entertainments and diversions the world offers up. This has always been the case. It was so in the ancient world. It was so in the 17th century. Pascal complained about it vociferously.
Things are different now, not in principle, but in degree. In previous eras, people had to go looking for diversions. Now each one of us carries in our pocket a distraction machine that once would have existed only in people’s wildest fantasies of the future. We now need do no more than tap a couple of buttons to escape ourselves and sink into an endless stream of digital illusion.
And that’s the point. It’s illusion. The world doesn’t really offer us an escape from our inner mess. All it does is draw us out a little while and trick us into wasting our time or lead us into choices we regret. When we do finally come back to ourselves, we find the chaos inside worse, not better.
Not every means the world uses to draw us out of ourselves is pleasurable. Many of us our driven outside ourselves by the daily travails of life. Worry and anxiety make it hard to stay centered within. Just as we can spend hours oblivious to our inner world by mindlessly clicking around the internet, so too we can lose those hours imagining terrible things that might happen. Both are equally pointless.
Given all this, what do we make of Coach Taylor’s advice?
Simply this: people who can’t stay inside themselves, even in high pressure situations, won’t become all they are meant to be. The key to moving toward that end, toward actualizing that image in your mind, is to spend more time inside yourself.
Describing how to do this would require a full post, maybe a series of posts. Let me just mention what I’ve learned that has helped me more than anything.
The Most Important Thing is to Straighten Out Your Inner Mess.
This is a lifelong process and your gains require constant maintenance. Things inside will never be perfect, but here are a few practices that might make them better:
- Figure out and enforce your boundaries, tell people when they violate them.
- Spend time in silence.
- Make a list of all the unfinished business you have with others. Finish what you can. Let go of what can’t be finished.
- Forgive those who’ve wronged you, even if they won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing.
- Get clear on your values, priorities and your vision for what kind of person you want to be.
- Always be bringing your mind back to the present moment. Focus on the present.
- When you indulge in entertainment or distractions, do so on purpose. Don’t mindlessly consume.
Doing these things can’t hurt and in all likelihood will push you along the way to a calmer, more ordered inner life, an inner house where you will be happy to spend your time. The end result is that you will feel more settled, more grounded, more secure. Then when the pressure comes, you will be able to meet it from a place of strength and greater serenity.
Events in the external world will seem less important than they once did because your foundation is no longer tied to the shifting conditions of the world. You will know your place is inside yourself, and there you will find there some measure of rest. After a while, even when tested, you will carry your silence with you because you will have built for it a proper, inward place to dwell.