How to find the way

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Being sick is one of the circumstances in which the higher functions of my mind start to go dormant. I often feel like I can’t write about anything other than being sick, or some peripherally related topic.

My whole human experience sinks to the low end of something — some kind of spectrum. As it does, I get duller and less compassionate. My mind turns inward, becomes self-absorbed. My self-consciousness grows and my consciousness of others shrinks. Mental chatter increases and takes more of my attention.

Even when I’m in the throes of its dysfunctional lower end, I am quite aware that I’m always somewhere on this spectrum, and that I have been on farther-flung parts of it (in both directions) in the past, and I’m sure I will be in the future.

I don’t know what to call this spectrum, but I do know I want to be closer to the other end of it as much as possible, which I know from experience is more likely to happen under certain circumstantial conditions: not being sick, being on top of my responsibilities, eating mostly whole foods, and taking my time whenever I drink tea or walk across parking lots or do anything else, to name a few.

There’s a problem with the words “higher”and “lower” though. They imply that one direction is definitively superior to the other, the way gold medals are superior to bronze medals. I want to avoid that, for reasons explained below, even though I obviously think one end is vastly preferable. So maybe “north and south” are slightly less-misleading words to label the two directions on this spectrum. They have nothing to do with geography, at all. I just need some poles in order to talk about it.

I know I’m being vague here. There’s a reason for that. Traditionally when people talk about subjective inner states they wade into semi-spiritual territory, where explanations start to sound hokey and assertions become unprovable, because there can be no second observer of what’s happening inside you. In an attempt to describe your current condition you might hear yourself saying something like, “Wow my energy is in disarray today,” to which your hippie friends may nod knowingly and your science-head friends may roll their eyes. 

The problem is that once you model something conceptually — that is, give it a vocabulary and relate it in terms of a concrete analogy — we all lose track of that something and end up talking only about the analogy. So inner states have always been problematic to talk about, especially between people of different religions or worldviews. It’s historically been done with vague concepts and cryptic stories.

This stifles the whole conversation on this particular topic, even though the inner states of human beings really is the most important and relevant topic in the world, because these states are exactly what quality of life is made of, and quality of life the only thing every single person on this planet cares about.

We can’t ever have a proper scientific look at our inner states, because science requires corroboration — multiple angles and observers — and nobody else can get a direct peek into what your first-person experience looks and feels like. Psychology is supposed to be the study of the mind, but it’s really mostly behavior that is studied, from which conclusions are drawn about the mind. As we all know, the human mind is an utterly different thing when looked at from the inside, and you only ever get to see one of them.

Therefore understanding the workings of your inner experience is always going to be a personal hobby, if you make a hobby of it at all, and a certain inability to explain what you find is always going to be a part of that.

So I’ll try. This spectrum — I never really explained what it was — doesn’t quite equate with mood, or with happiness even. It has more to do with how reactive you are, how self-absorbed your view, how much you are in your own way, in any given moment.

This is how movement along the spectrum manifests itself, in my experience.

As you move south:

  • You become more self-conscious, more easily embarrassed, and more concerned with how you are perceived by others.
  • Thoughts have an increasingly strong influence on mood. You can slip into a bad mood just by having a thought about something negative, even something that happened years ago.
  • You feel more inclined to take thoughts at face value. For example, if you have a thought that a problem of yours is unsolvable, you’re more likely to believe it and stop seeking solutions.
  • Increasingly, you regard everything that happens in terms of how it affects your own interests, which means external events become more distressing and you become more anxious about controlling them.
  • You become less inclined to see others as equals. You tend to regard them as either better than you or worse than you.
  • You become more likely to wish for solutions to your problems, and less likely to believe you are capable of solving them yourself. You feel like a small part of a big world.
  • You become more reactive. If you are very far this way down the spectrum, you may even react violently.
  • An increasing proportion of your attention is taken by your thoughts, which leaves less attention for sense perceptions.
  • Cravings for gratification and comfort increase in frequency and intensity, and appear to be the only possibilities for fulfillment. You grow increasingly less likely to feel peace or joy in ordinary moments.

As you move north:

  • Personal criticisms seem less relevant to you and you’re less likely to react to them emotionally.
  • It becomes easier and more appealing to relinquish control over external events, particularly over what other people do.
  • You naturally put a greater proportion of your attention on the physical world around you, which leaves less attention for following your internal dialogue. Inner dialogue becomes less persistent.
  • Ordinary details of the physical world become more beautiful, and feel like they somehow make more sense, and you feel less inclined to tell others this. Private experiences of beauty make up a greater proportion of your day.
  • You evaluate external events more in terms of their overall good in the world — how much joy they bring or suffering they relieve — than in terms of your own interests.
  • You come closer to being able to accept undesirable events in real-time. You lose interest in talking about how the situation ought to be.
  • Other human beings (and, farther north, animals) appear more individualized. They seem more delicate, interesting, and worthy of care and attention. Walking among them begins to feel more like walking in a china shop.
  • Self-consciousness fades. You feel an increased willingness to let things be. Farther north, you cease experiencing yourself as an opaque object moving in the world and instead feel like a transparent subject through which the world moves. You may feel like you are watching the world without being there at all.


I don’t know if there’s a specific quality the spectrum reflects. It’s not important. The best barometer for your current position on the spectrum is probably how much peace and ease you feel during in-between moments. By in-between moments I mean moments in which you’re not getting what you want and not getting what you don’t want, which is most moments.

We move north and south along the spectrum throughout our lives. A swing can happen within a day, especially as a reaction to the arrival of exceptionally desirable or undesirable circumstances: major setbacks, major insights, major gains or major losses. You may be in one place one day and quite another a few days later.

It tends to shift in wide arcs though, like the tension in a storyline does. You may spend an arc of a year or two quite farther north than normal for you, if you’re doing something that serves your deepest values, or something that requires exceptional levels of attention or effort from you. You might have an arc in the other direction corresponding with a rough period, like a divorce or an illness.

But generally, if you have a persistent interest in personal growth, you’ll find yourself gradually moving northward over the years.

You move north by doing the things that seem to result, for you, in the “northward” qualities above. You only get a firsthand look at your own inner states, so it’s necessarily a solo practice. Spiritual golf.

For me, what has helped most has been practicing mindfulness informally, reading, simplifying my life in terms of possessions and commitments, confronting long-running fears, and writing.

You find your own best practices by trying things. If you never try anything new you never find them.

“Follow your bliss” is how Joseph Campbell put it. He always knew what he was talking about, but I have trouble with the word bliss because it’s been hijacked by Duncan Hines and other gratification-peddlers. Someone’s “bliss” may be heroin, after all. But if you get a good sense of where north is from the list above, then a personal practice of self-education can’t help but move you gradually northward.

I suppose it’s possible some people have done well at the south end, mastering the arts of controlling others, avoiding risk, finding constant gratification, and justifying their reactions. But I don’t know how happy they really are and it’s probably the harder road.

So head north. But keep in mind that the intention to move north is entirely different from pursuing the desire to reach the North Pole. At a glance, spiritual practices seem to focus on figures that have reached the Pole, so to speak — Jesus and Buddha come to mind — as well as the possibility of doing it yourself. But I think the North Pole was always meant to be a lot less important than simply heading north, and even just knowing which way it is. After all, most of the actionable passages in those doctrines describe the smaller habits that gradually move you farther north: being kind to your neighbor and washing your bowl.


Photo by David Cain

Learn to live in the present

Everyday mindfulness has transformed my life, and has for countless others. You can use it to reduce stress, deal calmly with trouble, and experience joy and peace throughout each day. Making it a habit is easier than you probably think. Learn how.


Joe April 1, 2013 at 6:02 am

I have reread this post already before getting to this point. It addresses something I have been pondering this morning. Our first thoughts and experiences occurred before we had a basis of judgement or any vocabulary to express them. There can be no analogy for the new born child to express how it is or who it is. The analogy struggles within the limits of intellect and vocabulary to describe the experiential basis of judgement. I realise that this is just scratching the surface of understanding self

marian April 1, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I just finished re-reading A Room with a View, and being in a Southern state sounds a bit like what Mr. Emerson describes as being “muddled.” Your conception is more developed–in fact, it gives me some interesting new perspectives on that book. But more to the point–and as always–it gives me interesting new perspectives on my life. Thank you for that.

Sharron April 7, 2013 at 10:59 am

David, I love this post. It is a wonderfully written reminder that life, health and consciousness all occur on a continuum. There is no clear border between north and south, just many points on the continuum. Understanding this has helped me not to constantly judge every occurence, experience,day, person etc in my life as good or bad.

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Website Domain July 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm

You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation
but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand.
It seems too complicated and very broad for me.
I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

Laura February 28, 2014 at 11:49 am

David, you have such an amazing way with words. I read them and I say yes!, I totally get what he’s saying and have thought of it many times, but could never have articulated it so well. And, you have such insights….love your writing. I got walloped by an illness back in October and have been moving North ever so slowly since then. Just before seeing your post in my email, I was lamenting the fact that the medication I’m on zaps my energy and motivation. I feel like life is in slow motion and passing me by some days. It’s temporary – as everything is of course, but I couldn’t help but wish for my old level of equilibrium “north” back again. One thing I’ve found that has helped is an app called “super better”. When I play it, I head farther north. You get points for taking certain actions like drinking a glass of water, or meditating for five minutes. Perhaps if you have other readers that are working though something, and they like games, they could try the app. It’s $5 well spent.

Thank you again for your writing.

Duška Woods February 28, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Hi David, this is the first time I am commenting on your blog. I am in full agreement with your view of ones journey to self actualization, a process that never ends, but goes on leaving the forest behind and leading us to ever clearer views and vistas. It’s rather interesting that you use north/south guide to describe ones personal journey to ‘knowing thyself’. I have been heading North for as long as I know myself…it’s like I had no choice. From the time I was a little girl sitting on tree looking at the sky and wondering…something I loved to do as a child…about the world that was around me, the sky, how deep it was, Universe, and how come it has no end etc. My quest never ended, instead it took me from my native Yugoslavia to Rome, Naples, Toronto and Philadelphia. All along I kept learning about cultures, social movements, people, what makes them do thing that they do etc., until finally the road naturally lead me to Buddhism. Reading, learning in retreats and on my own lead me to Alan Watts and that truly was like coming home for me. Alan Watts more than anybody else understood and lectured on ‘inner wholeness in the age of anxiety and what it really means to live a life of purpose’. Let’s see where am I going with this? ah yes, your blogs are a natural segue to my constant movement to the North to which there is no end, just a bold and daring road that gets clearer and more inviting as we continue to travel it. David, I salute you and thank you for your willingness to share yourself with us making us feel part of a human tribe on a quest and all gazing in the same direction. I would like to finish with the following, I hope it’s relevant:
The man of Tao Remains unknown Perfect virtue Produces nothing No self is true self And the greatest man Is Nobody Chuang Tzu

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