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October 2021

Mindfulness is ultimately all about emotional intelligence

Everyone experiences emotions. However some of us cope with and manage our emotions better than others. This is not an innate ability. All humans have the capacity to self-regulate their emotions. But like any other skill, it takes practice and requires experienced teachers who can model and instruct on the way to do this.

Meditation and mindfulness is at its core emotional regulation. It's recognizing and allowing all emotions that come up, and then making conscious choices about what action to take—if any—based on the information that emotion is conveying.

Buddhist monks are masters at this. It might appear that they do not experience the same strong emotions as others, but they do. In fact there's a lot of evidence that they experience their emotions more intensely and fully than most of us. The key difference is they have a mastery of all the skills necessary to manage those emotions, process them, and let them go.

A key concept in all of this: we are all each responsible for managing our own emotions. No one else can do it for us. And similarly, we cannot do it for anyone else but ourselves.

So as you practice mindfulness, keep in the back of your mind that it is part of the process for you to become more comfortable with the emotions that come up for you and how you respond to them.

Can you be truly honest with yourself?

I've previously mentioned the book Elephant in the Brain (e.g. here). It was eye-opening for me and I encourage everyone to read it. It lays out a strong case that the human superpower is our ability to deceive—both others but also ourselves.

There is a developmental journey we humans take wherein we are born into this world and process it through the actual input of our senses. Then as we grow up, we start to flex our deception muscle and we learn that we can deceive others. And for many of us, that's where things end. We are sometimes truthful, and sometimes deceptive. And we have various ways of dealing with the situation when we are caught at our deceptions.

But the path does go on further. It is where we recognize that—while we have the ability to deceive—it is not in our or the world's best interest to do so. This is actually a huge step to take. It requires being truly honest with yourself. And if you aren't around people who can model this behavior in a vulnerable and compassionate way, it's practically impossible to get there.

So if you find yourself struggling in life, and you have a lot of opinions and judgements about what's wrong, and who's to blame, and how things (i.e. you) would be better if only X were the case, I invite you to ask yourself, am I truly being honest with myself?

It's a tough step to take, but it's a necessary one to make progress. Your serenity depends on it.

Keep turning the crystal

One of my favorite parables is The Blind Men and the Elephant. It illustrates how any particular perspective can be accurate but incomplete. A real-world example of this is X-ray crystallography.

To figure out what a particular crystalline molecule looks like, researchers bombard it with X-rays and observe the pattern of how the rays scatter when interacting with the molecule. However this is only one view of the molecule—a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object.

In order to construct a complete picture, they rotate the crystal to a different angle, bombard, and get a new scatter pattern. They keep doing this from many different angles until they have enough overlapping data from which they can deduce the correct molecular configuration.

This is a great analog for many situations in life. At first you are looking at a one-dimensional of a large and complex concept. To truly understand it, you need to keep “turning the crystal” to see what it looks like from many different perspectives. 

Keep turning the crystal. More will be revealed.

Life is like a board game; I make a move, others make their move, repeat

I am resonating with the idea that life is like a board game. I have full agency to make my move, then others in their turn can make their own moves. One can judge, cajole, manipulate or otherwise try to influence others in their choices, but ultimately each choice is fully ours to make. And we also bear the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of our actions.