Generally speaking, western culture pays little attention to people’s inner world, and its potential for development. Our focus and energy goes primarily towards mastering the material world. We have developed sophisticated means of shaping and controlling our environment, and for putting natural resources to our use, often without regard to the consequences for future generations. The inner world of people, and our psychology, is addressed mainly in terms of predicting or controlling human behavior, and dealing with disorders.
Traditional eastern philosophies are more apt to go beyond the study of human behavior, and are based on the assumption that we people have the potential to change and grow as individuals, and as a species. The objective is to acquire knowledge of the self, to better understand our inner processes and to see the forces and impulses that drive our actions. This knowledge comes from impartial observation of our changing inner states, and both the desirable and undesirable elements of our own nature. At a minimum, such understanding is useful for ordinary human interaction in whatever environment we find ourselves.
The inner skills methods of the Skills-for-Life program aim at working towards this knowledge of the self through contemplation, meditation, inner exercises, and group exchange. Our overall inner states can be looked at as composed of three elements. The state of the body, the state of the emotions, and the state of the thinking mind. All of these need to be studied separately, and together.
The state and wellbeing of the body can be experienced through body awareness, through a method called sensing. This is a practice whereby the body gets scanned from the inside with focused attention. In this way physical tensions can be found and released and contact with the physical body can be established. This practice, like any other skill, will improve over time through repetition.
Focused attention is also used to bring awareness to the emotional state, in order to observe and understand our positive and negative emotions. Again, with practice, deeper layers will be discovered and subtler changes will be detected. Much of our emotional life is automatic, with triggers and reactions that can be known and understood. To acknowledge our inner states of fear and anxiety, for example, can be enough to undo their grip on our life and our actions.
It is clear that in a society that puts increasing demands on all of its members, the ability to be aware of one’s inner emotional states is a necessary skill to navigate through meetings, for example, and to work effectively in teams and organizations. In such situations, conflicting agendas will create stress and tension, and it is helpful for the team, and for the aim of the undertaking, to see and control our emotional reactions.
The mind has been compared to a wild monkey randomly jumping from one tree to the next. Although great thinkers have produced great ideas, and scientists and engineers have made great achievements using their minds, the reality of ordinary life is that the mind is at least in part an uncontrollable random thought machine. When we try to sit down and concentrate on a particular task, our mind often wanders, and only after several minutes will it return to the task that we set ourselves.
The mind is a story spinner. It lives either in the past or in the future, but seldom in the present. To know the nature of the mind, to be able to watch it and to disassociate from memories of the past and dreams of the future, should be considered a useful skill for ordinary life. Neither the mind nor the feelings can be controlled by our will as easily as the body and its functions can be, but to understand these processes, and to see them in action, may give us the ability to have more control over them.