Attitudes (or mindset)

Before getting into skills and practices, I would like to point out some attitudes, which are aspects of a mindset that I believe can support you in dealing with the inevitable challenges that are part of learning how to apply conscious intentionality. For each of these attitudes, it can be helpful to ask yourself: which person or character do I know who models this attitude well? How would this person likely feel, think, speak, and act in the circumstance I am dealing with? And what is holding me back from approaching the situation in that manner?

I appreciate that it is a long list, and in my own experience with many people I have communicated with, you may have mastered quite a few of these already, whereas others remain a bit more challenging. If you sense some resistance while going over the list, it may be worth exploring where that resistance comes from. Maybe you sense that one or more of these comes with the potential of incurring more risks in communication. And I would indeed not recommend forcing yourself to develop any attitude you perceive as coming with an experience of insecurity.

  • Awe: my current translation of this into more common terms would be the appreciation of beauty, of aspects of life and experience that we intuitively feel are greater than our own, individual self. To fully grasp that everything we see and engage with is the result of billions of years of energy and matter interacting over time—or as Tim Freke has put it, hydrogen atoms teaching themselves to play and listen to the opera—can give you some necessary perspective on how everything is interconnected and interdependent. Even in moments we feel alone, that is our consciousness has an experience of separation, we remain in truth connected, if we can only see it.
  • Compassion: for yourself and the difficulties with this process, and then for the people around you—whether they are joining you in the process or are coming out of whatever other intentionality; for me, this boils down to appreciating that no matter how you and others deal with one of life’s many particular dilemmas, we all are human beings who long for understanding, for someone who can see our side and not flinch at how we show up
  • Courage: in my mind, this is one of the most important ingredients in being able to “switch tracks” from reacting habitually to responding out of a full awareness of how you feel about a situation, after having integrated the many layers of your experience in a given situation. If this is difficult for you, it may be helpful to first inquire what stands in the way of courage. There are probably some very real risks and stakes on the line, and without giving that enough attention, courage may feel like a foolish attitude to have
  • Curiosity: to the extent that you can develop a sense that it is worth learning about the meaning of your own inner experience, and the experience of others, your and their feelings (desires, fear), needs, beliefs, strategies, etc., you will likely have a higher motivation of making inquiry a regular part of your communication process—like asking yourself and the people you engage with what their experience is, and how your and their intentions show up during an interaction. I believe that one particularly important aspect to become curious about is “the Shadow”, the often fairly unconscious reactivity that every human being brings to the table, most of all out of a need to protect us around some vulnerability, thoughts, and feelings we do our best to avoid and hide (from ourselves and others), like a suspected weakness, where protection translates that into anger and aggression.
  • Faith: OK, this one is probably a bit weird for you, if you consider yourself atheist or agnostic. I am not suggesting you need to become religious or particularly spiritual. What I believe is incredibly helpful, however, is a general belief that you can improve your conscious intentionality over time, even if you find it difficult to notice progress initially. It can be quite discouraging to think or experience that you are not as effective as you would like in certain situations. To the extent that you can show yourself compassion, and understand that any disappointment you have is a direct consequence of wanting to be more skillful and not yet knowing how to be, I believe you can, bit by bit, learn to have faith and trust in your ability to improve how you engage with the world.
  • Forgiveness: you and the people you engage with make mistakes. All. The. Time. There is no way around it. And particularly if you are committed to learning a new way of expressing yourself, it will take some getting used to how that feels, and initially you are likely to feel and come across as a bit more clumsy. That’s OK, and in fact it is a sign that you are indeed moving out of your habitual reactivity. I sincerely hope you can generate a sense of not beating yourself up when things go wrong. It’s so much more fun that way.
  • Gratitude: life can be a real shit show, and there are many reasons to feel all kinds of unpleasant sensations as you think about the challenges that come unbidden into your field of experience. Then again, life is a miracle. Consider the fact that you can read this very website now. Thousands (if not millions) of people have worked to make that possible, from the device you are using, the electricity being provided continually to power it, or the network that carries the information, to the clothing you are wearing, the food you probably enjoyed at some point in the last couple of hours, and the fact that you do, so I hope, not have to fear for your safety right this very moment. It’s a matter of perspective. If you can see the many ways in which your life is supported by others, maybe that is something to be grateful for…? Simply imagine any of these things failing. That’s a shit show!
  • Honesty: it’s possibly a scary thought to reveal yourself without any protective gear and armor—what if people take advantage of you or no longer like you once you do that? If this is something that you sense keeps you from disclosing how you feel in certain situations, it might be helpful to practice this with people who in your estimation seem less likely to reject you for sharing the 100 per cent real you. Naturally, some people will indeed not like it. If you are able to muster sufficient self-compassion for the initial sting of not being accepted the way you have expressed yourself, you can try using curiosity and compassion in a process of inquiring: what was the experience for the other person as you were being more honest? It is, however, important to appreciate that it is always OK to then seek for a time-out and request to continue the conversation and relationship at a later time, ideally in a way that does not create any additional feelings of punishment on either side.
  • Humor: while maybe strictly speaking not absolutely necessary, learning how to come from a place of levity and play, appreciating the absurdity of many of life’s situations—like how humans haven’t yet learned to go through life with much less interpersonal conflict and yet managed to build such highly complex technology, working together on projects that require hundreds of collaborators—can be very liberating when trying to create a shift in perspective, looking at a present dilemma “from the outside in”.
  • Openness: this one goes hand in hand with curiosity, and is on the opposite side of the action and perception dimension. Curiosity is more of a drive to explore, and openness is then necessary to take in what you find out. Some of the things you may learn about yourself and others may, at least at first, seem awkward and possibly a source of some unpleasant thoughts. To the extent that this happens, it again helps if you can meet yourself with compassion: accepting that you and others have flaws, from the perspective of a culture that values perfection, may take some time and practice.
  • Patience: learning to change habitual perception and behavioral patterns takes a lot of time—at least if you are going about it without the help of psychoactive substances that can be used to temporarily reduce the pull of the beaten tracks your mind runs on. Assuming for a moment that you are considering patience as something you want to give a try, something I found particularly useful is to approach my impatience with a lot of compassion: I would really want to see progress as quickly as possible, and it simply sucks that it takes such a long time for that to happen. Appreciating that it is somewhat natural to feel like a little child wanting Christmas to arrive already (or tomorrow at the latest), and that it can indeed take some willpower to accept that reality does not comply with our impatient wishes can help by not adding any more resistance. In the end, it takes as long as it takes.
  • Playfulness: together with courage and faith, this is one of the more central ingredients for me. To get off the beaten track of habitual reactivity that leads you to repeat the same dynamics in relationships or in reoccurring situations again and again, it is vitally important to allow yourself to “play” with your behavior. Without the willingness to experiment, it really is very difficult to change. The only way to learn a new trick is to do it. Conscious intentionality, for all I know, is mostly learned through practicing. And as a bonus: playfulness comes with some willingness to forgive mistakes.
  • Resilience: as with faith, this might be a hard one to wrap your head around. What if you do not see yourself as resilient? And there are, from what I can tell, real and potentially biological differences. Some people find it incredibly difficult not to give up when they repeatedly experience that their efforts go unrewarded, let alone when they feel some sort of punishment or active discouragement by others who tell them, “why don’t you just give up?” The best I can say is that people who are able to not give up as easily typically achieve more. To the extent you find this difficult, I hope that you give yourself a lot of compassion for the fact that you may simply have not been as lucky as others in the genetic (and early childhood environmental) lottery. As hard as it is, if you can forgive yourself for not being “super resilient”, I hope you can learn, over time, that bit by bit you can withstand greater and greater challenges. It definitely helps to work in the zone of proximal development, sufficiently above what is “easy”, and somewhat below of what you find hard to tolerate.
  • Responsibility: this one is a bit tricky… relating to my own experience with an attitude of responsibility has been incredibly helpful to motivate myself to see how by changing my beliefs about a situation, I can alter how I feel about certain outcomes. In short, I have come to err on the side of being willing to accept responsibility for both my internal states (what I think, how I feel, etc.) as well as for how my actions in the world have the potential to impact other people. The benefit is that I am motivated to understand and seek change on both ends. This works awesome for as long as the people I engage with are acting in good faith—that is they do not act in ways that make me suspect them offloading what I might reasonably think of their responsibility onto my shoulders. The most important aspect in my mind is to appreciate that I am the only one who has any immediate access to my thoughts and feelings, and so at the very least I’m in the best position to take responsibility for those directly.
  • Serenity: having this attitude will help you see the value of not reacting, of enjoying the calm and stillness that can be part of your experience. For me, one possible path towards serenity is the realization that, “this, too, shall pass.” Whatever is happening right now, it will not be your experience forever. And whenever I can see it that way, a situation that seemed incredibly tense or unpleasant can sometimes even be transformed into something comical or amusing.
  • Spaciousness: this goes hand in hand with serenity in that without serenity it can be quite a challenge to give space to your own and other people’s experience. Other terms that I link to this attitude are non-judgmental acceptance, mindfulness, and resonance. They are based on an understanding that whatever experience you are having, it is more akin to a note resonating within you, without hurting or damaging you in the process, even if the experience is unpleasant or painful. If in a conversation a conflict arises—because either I myself or another person has received some stimulus (trigger) that elicits a strong self-protective reaction—I have found it particularly helpful to take two, three deep breaths to create the space to then receive my own or the other person’s experience without resistance.
  • Vulnerability: related somewhat to openness, but related more deeply to “where it hurts”, being vulnerable for me primarily means not looking away from my own pain and longing. Whenever something my organism experiences as not going well, from going hungry or tired over having bodily pain after an injury to feeling desperate about someone loved who is no longer available, if I can connect honestly with the source of pain, and see the need that is behind it, then I can shift my focus through the pain to the need itself, and mourn that for me, in that moment, it is not being met. And if I can share this mourning through a vulnerable expression, and this can be received, then healing takes place, and almost magically the need can be met after all.

It might be helpful to go through each of these attitudes with an example: imagine that you are on your way home after a long day at work, taking a commuter train. At one station on route, a boy—maybe around 11 or 12 years old—enters the train car you’re in, walks up to you, and without warning or any reason you can make out at first glance, kicks hard against your leg, and then sits down in the row behind you. That’s a real challenging situation, how does each of these attitudes come into play?

Importantly, before ever attempting to apply compassion towards people, I would strongly suggest starting with your own experience. What the heck just happened? That really hurt! You were just sitting quiet and peacefully, and all of a sudden someone is acting in a way causing you physical pain. Without noticing and really appreciating the complex mix of emotions that is going on—pain, fear and anxiety, maybe already anger, confusion, resentment (for instance about the train staff not being present, or the young man’s parents not having taught him better manners)—I imagine it will be difficult to integrate all of that into an action you feel approaches some kind of ideal response.

Next, so long as you are experiencing fear that has not been matched by sufficient courage–imagine in this situation the boy is a young man, age 16 or 17 for instance—it will be equally difficult to