Yossi is a client of mine. He came to therapy for help with his marriage and to deal with his high stress levels due to his business. Because of his marital woes and stress, Yossi was always irritated, impatient, and overwhelmed and had difficulty enjoying anything.
When discussing his goals in therapy, Yossi wistfully shared how all he wanted is some inner peace. “On the drive to your office I was looking out the window at the beautiful weather and the view. It made me really sad. I wish I could live with some inner peace and joy that would allow me to enjoy these moments. I know it’s a long journey to get there, there are so many problems to resolve first”.
Yossi was making a big mistake. Many people have the perspective that being content and at peace is a goal that lies at the end of a long, arduous road. They perceive that road to be one that entails resolving problems, eliminating stressors, fixing their marriage, working through their childhood issues, and all the other obstacles to finally arrive at joy and peace of mind. This perspective causes many people to give up, or to become cynical to the idea that anything can be different. Life’s got so many problems, there’s no way to get rid of them and be happy. Why even try?
The truth is that the inner peace that Yossi is seeking is not at the end of a long dark road. It’s right here, right now. I don’t mean this as Chizuk or as an inspirational quote, but as a neurological reality. Any experience, emotion, or thought that we’ve ever had is encoded in the brain’s neural networks. The brain will then recreate these experiences, thoughts, and feelings again and again. That is what creates our experience of life moment to moment. All of us have had negative experiences in our life. However, all of us have had at least some positive moments as well. How does the brain decide which ones to recreate for us? The brain actually takes its cue from us. Our attention and focus is what guides the brain. The thoughts and feelings we repeatedly focus on is what the brain will give us more of.
Imagine someone who grew up in a third world country in which they did not have cars. Would that person desire a car to get him around? Of course not! He doesn’t know what a car is so he cannot even desire it. If Yossi never experienced inner peace he would not be seeking it. He may have only had it for brief moments, but he experienced it nonetheless. That’s how he knows what he’s missing. When Yossi drove to my office, noticing the view and weather, in that moment he was experiencing the inner peace and joy he sought. Yossi needed to learn how to nurture that small flame into a fire that burns bright. Obviously, a crucial part of Yossi’s growth involves learning new ways to deal with himself and his struggles. However, Yossi doesn’t need to have a stress free life in order to live with inner peace and vitality. What Yossi needs is that alongside his growth in dealing with his challenges, he begin to rewire his brain towards inner peace and joy by consistently and intentionally feeding his brain what it needs to rewire; experiences, thoughts and feelings that activate the inner peace and joy already within.
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist with a fascinating story. She had a stroke that nearly killed her. In a now famous talk, she recounts her experience through the lense of neuroscience. The brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The left hemisphere is predominantly thought based, it’s where we analyze, plan and come up with our perspectives on everything.The right hemisphere is predominantly feeling based, its what gives us our emotions, intuition, desires, etc. When Dr Taylor had her stroke, it decimated her left hemisphere, leaving her with only the right half of her brain. In her talk, Dr Taylor movingly depicts her experience of the stroke and the moment to moment deterioration of her brain. The climax is when she lost the ability to formulate thoughts or talk. Dr Taylor then shifted into a state of complete and utter bliss. She describes feeling euphoric, deep inner peace and profound connection. For months she was incapacitated, sitting with a glazed look in her eyes, drooling, and unable to talk. On the inside, however, she was in the happiest place she was ever in. Dr Taylor realized that in the right hemisphere, there resides the experience of life as pure bliss, and that this experience of life is always available regardless of circumstances. She felt a calling to recover and teach the world how to bring this joy and wonder into their lives. Dr Taylor had a complete recovery and set out on her mission to change how we think about life.
Dr Taylor’s experience teaches us something very important. Our positive states are not only there because we have experienced them before. At our core, when everything else that forms our identity is stripped away, we are all filled with profound inner peace, bliss, contentment and joy. Not for any reason at all, it’s just who we are inherently. Underneath all the chatter, thoughts and stories we concoct, our essence is pure peace, joy and connectedness.
Knowing this and internalizing it changes everything. No matter how much suffering we endure, peace is right there, underneath. It’s not a far off dream available only after herculean effort. It’s available to us in every moment if we only tune into it.
This perspective changes the focus of growth for all the Yossi’s out there. Yes, we need to learn how to deal with our issues. If we don’t, our issues blind us to the inner peace and joy within. However, alongside that, we need to open our eyes and our hearts to see and feel the flame of inner peace and joy that always has, and always will be with us, because it’s who we are. We can then allow it to grow into a bright fire by feeding it, nourishing it, and nurturing it.
Chaim Moshe Steinmetz, LISW
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