There are two utterly different ways to view the world around you in any given moment. We can call them Inward and Outward.
An Inward orientation is noticing as much as you can of the moment. It means being receptive to what’s there, being interested in what’s there. Inwardness means you’re primarily observing — bringing the world into you.
An Outward orientation is applying your views and wishes to the moment, by adding your opinion to it, or trying to change something about it, or evaluating whether it’s probably good for you or bad for you. It means you’re seeing the world (or at least this instance of it) in terms of your interests, where it fits in your story. Outwardness means you’re primarily assessing and commentating — putting your interests out into the world.
Talking is an example of outwardness, listening is an example of inwardness.
Watching inwardly is simply observing. Watching outwardly is hoping.
Viewing the world outwardly will inevitably add anxiousness to our lives, because it keeps us looking to judge, modify, improve, comment on, approve of or disapprove of what we see. This creates a background of neediness to most moments, because we’re invested in seeing them change in a certain way, or stay the same in a certain way.
Viewing the world inwardly is simply doing your best to see what’s there before we make any judgments, to simply observe how it looks, feels, and sounds. All you’re applying to the moment is attention.
Neither is a strictly good or bad thing, and we need to employ both to some extent. An inward orientation has the virtue of reducing neediness and angst, because we’re refraining from making value judgments when not necessary. We need to adopt an outward orientation, however, to establish goals, make improvements, build a vision for our lives, or even just to assert things or ask for things.
But we do those outward things ultimately so that we have an easier time living inwardly later. Some unconscious part of us knows that real happiness and equanimity only come when we find ourselves completely inward towards the moment — completely receptive to how it is right now. Our brains know, on some level, that with certain goals achieved and certain arrangements made, it will be easier to do that.
It’s not unusual to work 50 straight weeks in an outward mode to be able to buy two weeks in a place that almost forces one to experience that time inwardly: a place with palm trees, pools, servants, drinks, or anything else that’s hard to find fault with or improve upon.
It’s certainly easier to be inward towards a good setup. Isn’t that why we take on goals or try to improve our surroundings in the first place, so that eventually we can more easily be with the moment as it is?
But our culture is almost entirely preoccupied with nurturing an outward orientation. Career life, school and government policy is almost entirely a matter of getting further along, and consequently many of us have little practice actively being here for what’s already here, which was the forgotten point of our incessant “improvement” all along.
Because of our cultural influences (and probably biological ones too) we tend to slip into an outward orientation unless we’re trying to live inwardly on purpose.
People who cultivate an inward orientation on purpose are still relegated to the “alternative” fringes for the most part. Only a minority of people I know seem to have any interest in mindfulness and meditation, which are really just ways of practicing inwardness so that we can stay receptive in ordinary moments — which probably don’t contain hot tubs or ice cream or cocktails or anything else that’s exceptionally agreeable.
Anyone can become inward when there’s a beautiful sunset or a concert happening in front of them, but can you do it in line at the post office? Can you do it on a Tuesday at 5:50 when you’ve just burned some rice? Life is much easier and more fun if you can.
A simple way to “go inward” for a moment is to pretend you just died, and experience the moment as if you can see every aspect of it, but you’re not there. This is a very revealing exercise. Whenever you do it, it becomes clear that there isn’t anything wrong with the moment at all, unless you’re there to demand something of it. Then your life becomes about that, until something else captures your attention.
There’s a saying that goes, “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets.” Every time we send something out the door, nothing’s coming in.
Clearly an inward orientation makes for a better default, and outwardness a better exception. Outwardness when we need to impose ourselves on the world, and inwardness the other 99 percent of the time.
Conducting yourself with an inward orientation takes practice for those of us whose culture seems to encourage only outwardness — where we’re always imposing instead of observing, doing instead of being. We can begin to recondition ourselves (and our species) the other way by deciding to be inward towards the present moment on a more regular basis.
When you start paying attention to your orientation, inward and outward becomes as easy to tell apart as hot and cold. But at first you might need a litmus test: Am I taking in the moment as it is, or am I imposing my needs and interests on it? When you don’t know what to do, just take the moment in and leave it at that. Be hollow for it, whatever it is.
Photo by James Lee
If you’re interested in living more in the present
I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year. (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )
Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.