The hidden benefit of this approach to mindfulness… or, how to figure out what you want
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

“What do you want?” said the professor, glaring at me through the rearview mirror.

I met his eyes and then looked away, out the window at the stormy night.

“What do you want?” he repeated. “Look, I don’t care what dark corner of the universe you have to visit to figure it out, but you have got to find out what you want.”

When I didn’t respond, he raised his voice.

“Tell. Me. What. You. Want.”

Each word landed like a heavy left hook.

Feeling pummeled, I collapsed into the back seat. I thought, What do you mean, what do I want? I’m supposed to know what I want? I have no idea what I want.

Seeing my sunken figure, the professor’s wife reached over from the passenger seat, touched her husband’s thigh, and silently issued a cease-and-desist order.

It was a low moment.

That was September 11, 2013.

There would be many more low moments over the years as I tried everything I could think of to answer the professor’s question.

Why Was It So Hard?

What I didn’t understand at the time, what I hadn’t learned in my first 40 years of life, is that there’s no way to think your way into knowing what you want.

What you want doesn’t live in your head, it lives in your heart. In your body. In your gut. In the tingling sensations of your skin. In the sweat that spills from your glands.

What you most wish for is not utilitarian in nature. It’s not Kantian either. It can’t be arrived at rationally, at least not directly.

What you long for exists in the unconscious parts of you. 

Super head-centered people, like me, have a hard time accepting this. It’s because we have a hard time accessing this kind of body-based data.

That’s why my approach to mindfulness uses what people like us are good at — writing and reflection — to get at what we’re not — understanding our inner experience. 

Of Mind and Metaphor

Over the past century, psychology has discovered a great truth about the human mind: the mind is made up of parts that are capable of working independently and sometimes even at cross-purposes.

System 1 and System 2

While there are physical divisions between the left and right sides, and between the new and old parts of the brain, the most crucial division is between the automatic and the controlled parts of the mind. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls these parts System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast. It’s automatic, requires little or no effort, and has no sense of voluntary control. It’s the part of us that does the living.

On the inside, it takes care of beating our heart, digesting and metabolizing our food, responding to potential infection, healing our cuts and fractures, cycling ovaries and replenishing testes, guiding pregnancy, and orchestrating embryo growth.

On the outside, System 1 automatically detects that one object is more distant than another, orients us to the source of a sudden sound, and puts that look of disgust on our faces when we smell something rotten. It does all of this effortlessly, endlessly, and without conscious intervention. Most of what keeps us alive happens here.

“Our thoughts and actions are guided by System 1,” writes Kahneman, “and generally they are on the mark.”

System 2, m . . e . . a . . n . . . w . . h . . i . . l . . e, is slow.

It’s the conscious, analytical, verbal part of the mind that is associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. It’s the part of us that does the thinking.

System 2 looks to the future, makes plans and expends a lot of effort deliberating decisions. When it’s not worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, System 2 helps you to pick out a particular voice at a party, monitors the appropriateness of your behavior as you make the approach, and delivers your pickup line.

“When we think of ourselves,” says Kahneman, “we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs and makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.”

Tell me about it.

I’m a System 2 kind of guy.

But what I’ve discovered is that the more in touch with System 1 I get, the better my life gets.

But who can remember such sterile terms? Wait, was that System 1 or System 2 that just said that? Who has a clue?

What we need is a story.

Something we can work with.

A metaphor.

The best one I’ve found is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider metaphor, which he introduced in his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis. From here on out, we’re going to give shape to our frenemies within by recasting System 1 as the Elephant and System 2 as the Rider.

The Rider Evolved to Serve The Elephant

Picture a sixty-pound girl astride a six-ton elephant. With arms that strain to reach the elephant’s ears and legs half as long as the beast’s ivory teeth, the girl occupies a precarious position.

She’s recently arrived on the job. A fast-evolving addition to the team, she’s still sorting out how to add value to this ancient, majestic, glorious animal.

Because of where the Rider sits, the Elephant is often hidden from her view. She has the false impression that she’s in charge.

“Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does,” writes Haidt. He continues:

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

So identified are we with the Rider, we fail to honor the Elephant.

Creating a better, more meaningful life requires becoming mindful of these sometimes-conflicting parts.

Living a mindful life means getting into right relationship with ourselves first. And that requires becoming a better Rider.

How to Become a Better Rider

The first step of becoming a better Rider is to learn how to listen to the Elephant.

A simple and effective way to start listening to your Elephant is to become mindful of three things: your emotions, intentions, and energy. Each is in the domain of the Elephant.

  • Emotions — it’s your Elephant who feels
  • Intentions — she’s the one who longs, who dreams
  • Energy — she provides the power to get you where you want to go

By bringing your awareness to your emotions, intentions, and energy, you can use your Rider to better understand the Elephant.

When you do, you’ll make better decisions.

For Instance…

As I write this, I’ve been living in Southeast Asia for a year and a half. I came here to lower my cost of living, increase my quality of life, and give myself as much runway as possible as I work to establish myself as an author.

I’ve spent ten months here in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. But I’ve also spent three months in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and four in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

My ego (read: Rider) loves the affordable luxury high-rise apartment buildings of KL. The pools, the gyms, the views… they make me feel better about myself. Like I’m already a success.

What I’ve discovered, however, is that my Elephant doesn’t like living inside those concrete boxes in the sky. He’s not happy when he can’t feel the natural environment around him.

For a kid who grew up in the concrete jungle that is Manhattan, this has been a revelation.

My body desires nature?

The shiny big buildings my eyes lust for are anathema to this Elephant?

Can’t I force it to love them?

Having been there and done that for too, too many years, I’m trying a different approach.

The question I’m asking myself now is: Where can I get the benefits of civilization while being embedded in nature?

When I ask the question that way, it becomes obvious why I keep coming back to Ubud.

It has what I want.

If you want help figuring out what you want, give my journal a try. In just a few minutes a day, The Mindful Life Journal will help you begin to knock down the barriers between you and a happier life.

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