The mind. It’s a beautiful and a cruel place to be, depending on the moment. (A.K.A.“brutiful.”)
The mind is part of what makes humans so amazing (Innovating! Creative! Unique!); it allows us to learn from our experiences, solve problems, plan for the future. We can use it to be self-reflective, self-evaluating, and bring awareness to how our “selves” affect other people.
But what about when it starts to suffocate us? What about when reflecting on our past becomes rumination (“I shouldn’t have done that…”) or planning for our future becomes worry? What happens when the same prefrontal cortex that allows us to analyze and act becomes the inhibitor of action...you know, analysis to paralysis?
These moments are symptomatic of an egoic mindset. Self-awareness and reflection can also mean self-focus, and too much focus on ourselves can eventually become harmful. An egoic state (which is a default mindset for most of us humans) can lead us to feeling separate, “less-than” others, and (when intensified) pretty darn insignificant and sad.
So how do we stop it? How do people who rely so fully on their minds get out of…their mind?
Well, here’s one way:
Just like there’s an egoic mindset, there are also hypo-egoic mindsets. (This is the opposite state: being disinterested in the self, less concerned with other’s opinions, present in the moment, feeling “apart” of the whole. You know, the good stuff.) These states are awesome because within them we can let go of our over-analyzing behavior, enjoy the people and the moments in our lives more freely, and just generally…be happier. (Which I think is the general goal, right?)
There’s one way that researchers in a lab have been able to produce hypo-egoic states: by eliciting feelings of awe from participants.
You’ve probably heard the word awe before, and generally know what it means, but just to be specific: awe is a feeling that makes you step back and gasp at the beauty of it all. Awe is knowing that it’s a big world and you’re a part of it; it’s a hard-to-define-moment at which we’re captured by the complexity and power all around us. A starry night, towering redwoods, your child’s eyes…the experiences (different for all of us) that produce a feeling of being struck.
Being struck by what? A hypo-egoic mindset, apparently. In moments of awe, we lose track of ourselves.
It’s hard to be self-centered when we’re enamored with the world around us; we’re less likely to worry about the future or regret the past if we’re captured by the beauty of the Grand Canyon or holding our first born.
So yes, awe is great, but…let’s be honest. We can’t always be at the Grand Canyon. We can’t constantly be staring into the night sky contemplating the universe or walking along the beach.
What can we do to elicit a hypo-egoic mindset from ourselves?
We can put ourselves in the way of awe. We can reflect on times when we personally felt it, remember what it looked like and smelled like, what we noticed and how we felt. We can sit down and write about those moments, re-live them, make them real to us again.
Remember, this isn’t just nostalgia (which is great, but can lead to feelings of longing or sadness.) This is asking yourself what moments have made you do an inner curtsy to the universe, and diving into them. Setting aside five minutes to paint as clear a picture of that moment as possible.
The action of reflecting and writing about a time when we were overwhelmed with the vastness of a moment can itself bring about parts of that moment…as well as the feelings that went along with it. We don’t have to physically be on the beach or at that canyon; we just need to remember (in detail) what it felt like.
This awe-eliciting trick is one to put in your back pocket for a rainy day: or a sunny day, or a foggy day, or a Saturday, or…you get the picture. Escaping an egoic mindset isn’t always necessary (if we didn’t focus on ourselves at all, how would be achieve our goals?) but it’s helpful to be aware of the ways in which our minds work for and against us. A practice like this one is like a lasso for the runaway thoughts in our minds.
So, go ahead. Be in awe. Remember it, write about it, tell me about it in the comments. Reflecting on the powerful moments in life might just remind us of the beauty in the here and now.