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Two ways of viewing the world

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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


Alpa June 24, 2014 at 2:09 am

A succinct and introspective piece. Really liked it, thanks. We need to revisit the inward-outward ways of looking many times a day- This requires an ever-present mindfulness. That is a state of being. And as you say, it takes years of disciplined meditation, yoga, what-you-may to reach it.
But articles such as this help to strengthen the resolve to continue the walk down that path.
So, thanks!

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:25 am

Thanks Alpa. It might take years of meditation practice to master, but it is something anyone can begin to do on purpose, some of the time, right away. We all do it frequently, just not on purpose — usually something has to capture our attention.

Ragnar June 24, 2014 at 2:16 am

Great post David, and love the saying.

I’m in the middle of constructing a life for myself where I am able to focus on simply “observing” and “experiencing”. However, as a freelancer just starting out, there are lots of judgement calls I have to make, and lots of potential for disappointment caused by hope and the like. I am trying to get more gigs as a steady contributor, which will allow me to avoid that whole part of freelancing, at least to a certain extent.

But even outside of work, I still often catch myself passing judgement on the moment. Often frustrated with my own emotional response to some outside influence. (A bit ironic, I know!)

Look forward to seeing what you choose to do with your guide, and hopefully learning a lot from it!

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:28 am

Hi Ragnar. We can’t expect to suddenly see everything in a non-judgmental way, and we really don’t need to. Introducing even a small amount of inward-oriented time in your routine (when you go for a walk, for example) makes a huge difference.

Ragnar June 24, 2014 at 8:53 am

Glad to hear I’m not too far gone, haha. I suspect that I am getting better.

DiscoveredJoys June 24, 2014 at 2:31 am

This is thought provoking stuff. Especially when I have just been reading about Gregory Benford’s way of describing people: Those who see the universe as a subordinate background to their interests (human centred view) and those who see their interests as a subordinate part of a much larger universe (universe centred view).

The inward/outward views you describe seem to me to be a further exploration of the human centred view (nothing wrong in that). Perhaps those who practice Buddhism to attain non-attachment and loss of individuality are working through their ‘Inward’ to get to the ‘Universe Centred View’? It’s a puzzle.

(Old joke warning) There are two types of people: Those who think there are two types of people and those who think that it is more complicated than that…

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:34 am

Thank you for the old joke warning :)

I can’t really comment on how this relates to Mr Benford’s dichotomy because I don’t quite understand what he means. It seems like we are all both. In Buddhism there is a concept called Anatta, which means “self as process.” I wonder if that’s what is meant by universe-centered view.

Sandra Pawula June 24, 2014 at 2:45 am

In my world this is very similar to mind turned outwardly lost in projection or mind turned inwardly seeing its true nature as expressed by a wonderful Buddhist teacher.

Not sure how much we really need the outward bit! :)

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:37 am

I’m not sure either. But it does seem to be a huge part of our lives. In Western Buddhist circles they often call it “Selfing.” Instead of seeing the car you see “My car” or “A greedy rich person’s car” or a “Uninspired product made by the Ford company, who has reduced benefits to working class people like me since the automotive industry’s heyday in the 1960s.”

BrownVagabonder June 24, 2014 at 5:37 am

That is a different slant on the mindfulness topic that has been floating in the blogosphere. The effects of mindfulness on peace and calm are well-documented, but most people find it hard to understand exactly what is mindfulness. They might not want to meditate as it seems too hard. But this article lines up the outward and inward way of looking, thinking, observing, etc perfectly. All you need to start doing today is focus on an inward way of being, and you are going to be one step closer to the mindfulness that we should all be aspiring to everyday.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:39 am

That’s right, it is simpler than we often make it sound. Are you bringing the world in, or projecting your Self on it?

Ed Herzog June 24, 2014 at 7:39 am

As others have said, this is a well written, thought provoking piece.

I am curious about your use of the words “inward” and “outward”. Personally, I’d use them in the opposite way. Since things like judgments, opinions, etc. are things that happen inside of us, I’d describe that as “inward”. Whereas an “outward” orientation, would be using your senses to experience “what is” outside of us without using opinions or judgments to interpret the situation. Anyway, just my perspective. :)

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

As I was writing this, I had the same thoughts, because with an inward orientation, you could say your attention is actually going out.

I have used the word inward to remind myself how to be mindful, because it describes the sensation of being receptive, being capacity for the world rather than an object in it. The bottom line I guess is to use whatever vocabulary reminds you to put observation above evaluation most of the time.

Free To Pursue June 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

What I struggle with nearly every day. I’m happiest when my focus is internal but I constantly push myself to the external by listening to and acting on societal cues. At least I feel I’m aware of it and working to change the balance. I would be delighted to reach a 50/50 state. Lofty goal…maybe the struggle to try to get there will be just as rewarding.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 8:56 am

Hi FtP. I wouldn’t worry about reaching 50/50 or a particular ratio. We are very highly conditioned to be unmindful and spending even 5% of your waking time in a mindful state would represent an incredible positive transformation for most people. But it’s probably not helpful to think in terms of ratios, because we have no way of measuring it, and it must develop as a series of very small habits anyway.

I think you will like the guide I’m working on. There’s a link at the bottom of this post. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be a struggle. It sounds tricky and esoteric but it can be developed by applying small changes to how we do the things we’re doing already.

Free To Pursue June 27, 2014 at 10:52 am

Thanks for your thoughtful reply though it was hard to read, mostly because it’s what I didn’t want to hear but realize is true. I’ll be sure to check out your guide.

Leigh Shulman June 24, 2014 at 10:32 am

“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.”


I love that idea that it’s the little things, the not fabulous or particularly noteworthy moments in life that allow us to really experience and be in the present of our lives. It’s a theme that I come back to over and over again in my own writing. I like to call these things the everyday ordinary joys.

Lovely piece, as always. It reminds me once again to perhaps be more diligent about a daily meditation and yoga practice. :)

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Thanks Leigh. The greatest thing about opening up to non-fabulous moments is that the other 99% of life is actually really interesting when you’re there for it. Even taking out the garbage can be a tiny adventure when I pay attention to it instead of glossing over it. Which reminds me…

Susuruss June 24, 2014 at 11:23 am

Great help! Once again the universe has conspired to give me that which I didn’t even know I needed. Thanks David.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:19 pm

I like this conspiracy theory

George June 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

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.

Enjoyed the article.

I guess “inward” and “outward” aren’t mutually exclusive, though, or having both is the point of mindfulness? That you can attend to the outward world while also – specifically – keeping part of your attention in the centre of your body, so you are both acting and attending, and indeed acting from your inward knowing.

(Like techniques such as “active listening” using the ‘Focusing’ approach of Eugene Gendlin, or just centring/including in your attention on your lower abdomen or whatever, Zen-style.)

Outward is okay, but you need to hold onto something to stop you getting lost in the trinkets of outward experience.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I guess the big implication that I didn’t want to get into in this post is the notion that the “self” is just another thing to observe. There’s no distinct inside world and outside world.

Douglas Harding wrote about a fascinating idea called “two-way attention”, where you keep your attention on both the object (the thing in the outside world you are conscious of) and the subject (the consciousness you evidently are). There’s an experiment here exploring that: http://www.headless.org/experiments/2-way-pointing.htm

George June 25, 2014 at 12:22 am

Yes, I like those! Took me a while to get it originally, I found the head area a bit busy with thoughts at first, etc; attending lower in the body worked better, later.

George June 25, 2014 at 7:09 am

I don’t know if you’ve read it, but one of the best books I found on mindfulness was The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams. Regardless of your depressive status or not, it’s one of the clearest books around on it.

Anyway, it goes through various approaches – feeling this and that, attending this way and that way – but culminates in a section called ‘Beyond Thoughts and Feelings’, where it describes essentially ‘letting go’ to awareness. The book leads you to that ‘identify with space and awareness’ state, but in a very natural and unforced approach that other books lack (too New Age or too ‘practical’), saying “It’s always possible to jump to choiceless awareness at any moment, simply by letting go of any and all objects of attention”.

Partial quote, minus instructions and background:

Choiceless Awareness

…then, whenever we feel ready to, we see if it is possible to let go of any particular object of attention… and let the field of awareness be open to whatever arises in the landscape of the mind and the body and the world… We simply rest in awareness itself, effortlessly apprehending whatever arises from moment to moment…

As we engage in this practice, we may become increasingly aware of the distinction between the objects to which we can direct our at­ tention, if we choose, and the space of awareness in which all our experiences arise.

We may even make the curious, but profound, discovery that aware­ness is already free, intrinsically whole, and deeply knowing.


David Cain June 25, 2014 at 3:03 pm

That sounds like a great read. Mindfulness has so many applications.

Catherine June 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I have been enjoying your mindfulness writings. I am at this moment at a Starbucks in downtown Portland Oregon, where I am visiting, and I am in the starbucks because I am being outwardly focused. I am at a loss as to what to do here in Portland today and I am angry with myself for being so…so…boring. So I do the only thing I can think of to sooth myself…get a sweet something to ingest. Time to start imagining I have died! There’s a small park across the street. I’m off to practice inwardness.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Have fun! The pretending you’ve died exercise is truly incredible and I’ll write about it again soon. It’s so revealing to see a moment as it would be if you weren’t there. It makes you realize the incredible weight we place on each moment with our personal interests, just out of habit.

Emily June 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm

This is incredible writing and I hope you know that. Don’t stop.

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Thank you Emily. That means a lot to me, and I can assure you I’m not stopping any time soon :)

Randy Hendrix June 24, 2014 at 6:22 pm

“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”…brilliantly stated!

Thanks for the opportunity to sign up for updates on “You Are Here”…sounds like it will be an incredible read.

Another great article, David!

David Cain June 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm

I think you’ve picked out the most important line here. Apply attention alone, as a rule. If you need to do something else to the moment, it’ll be obvious.

Fred Bement June 25, 2014 at 1:15 am

You respond to each post. That’s remarkably respectful.

My three blog subscriptions are yours, Bob Lefsetz’ and Seth Godin’s. The difference between theirs and yours is that I must set aside 3x the time to ponder, to let it sink in.

David Cain June 25, 2014 at 3:05 pm

I’ve been following Seth Godin forever, but thank you for introducing me to Bob Lefsetz. I’m a huge music person and I’m really loving what I see so far.

Mike June 25, 2014 at 4:51 am

“But we do those outward things ultimately so that we have an easier time living inwardly later.”

This statement rings true for me. Being naturally introverted, and with a burning desire to be financially self-reliant, much of the time I engage with the world reluctantly, because some degree of engagement with the world is necessary to survive socially and financially. Personally, I often suffer from having to engage outwardly, enduring people and situations that I otherwise would want to avoid. Although I love people and being with others, I wish it was more on my terms, rather than out of financial necessity (e.g. work). As I gradually move towards my goal of being financially independent, I believe I will have greater freedom to focus inward and greater autonomy in deciding when I want to engage with others.

David Cain June 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Money is a hugely disruptive force in our lives. I hope you’re able to gain ground in the mean time, by being inward with things you resist more often.

Luke June 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm

This strikes me as a very clear breakdown of what may be the two most important modes of conscious, human existence. I’ve found that many people seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of being “inward” without an external excuse to do so.

Awhile ago I was given a gift card for several classes at a really nice yoga studio in a pretty ritzy neighborhood, and I noticed this phenomenon a lot during that time: many of the people who also took these classes seemed as though they were treating the yoga studio as a sort of resort… it was as if they had to pay money in order to deliberately travel to this immaculately designed, beautifully furnished room just to be able to let their guard down enough to breath naturally.

It was weird, and was in a way very contrary to my understanding of what yoga is really supposed to be about – as far as I can tell, its supposed to mostly be about cultivating your ability to breath well wherever you are.

David Cain June 25, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Right, there are two totally different ways to approach something like yoga — as inner work or as a kind of play.

I’m all for the expansion of yoga though. The more people exposed to any possibility of learning some aspect of mindfulness, the better. I doubt anybody can do yoga for long without getting at least a hint of the power of bodily mindfulness.

Luke June 25, 2014 at 7:10 pm

I agree about the awesomeness of yoga, but I personally wouldn’t quite draw the binary distinction between “inner work” and a “kind of play” – I say that not to be nitpicky, but only because I really think that “inward” mode that you describing is, in my experience, often very playful. This is especially true with yoga – with yoga its as if “work” and “play” turn into the exact same thing.

Its seems like the people I mentioned, when they did yoga, weren’t doing inner work OR playing. They seem to see the yoga studio, and the time they spent inside it, as more of an exclusive retreat from all the unpleasant parts of reality – a really nice-smelling, nice-looking room filled with natural light and soothing music, where there were no unpleasant or abrasive stimuli. And I got the sense that to them, the actual yoga practice seemed to be like an extension of that environmental exclusiveness. Like, “okay, now that we’ve gotten all the less-than-serene things out of this external space, we’re going to do the same thing to our own internal movements”. It was almost like yoga as a form of censorship… which I guess would be a form of inner work, but it also seems like exact opposite of the inner work that I’ve always tried to do with yoga. I’ve always tried to sort of relax my filters, not increase them, and sort of work at cultivating and strengthening the state of mind that is most conducive to acceptance and playfulness (I guess that’s what I meant earlier about “work” and “play” becoming the same thing with yoga).

George June 26, 2014 at 3:47 am

This is slightly off-topic, but relevant to mind-body and the self. Have you heard of John E. Sarno? See Forbes article here. He’s Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU. Anyway, his idea is that most back/neck/body pain is mental in origin rather than physical, and do not correlate with herniated discs and so on (people have them without pain, people with pain have them or not). Rather, the pain is the body effectively distracting you from / indicating something else – e.g. emotional issues and so on, held in the body. The cure? Effectively, just accept the pain as mind-like in origin and get on with life; the acceptance and inclusion and letting go allows the pain to stop being relevant/subside, stopping focusing and analysing it – which I guess is a form of growing/fighting it.*

Relevance? When we are constantly ‘outward’ focused, we wrestle and fight and ignore our emotional aspects and push against the subsequent pains, push away the ‘inward’. Things get worse, we distract ourselves or wrestle with things more, and we explain them with ’causes’ and identify with them.

I wonder if this is why many people resist the ‘inward’, and even find their two-weeks-annual holiday stressful: they are left open to it all. They holiday enough to relieve some of the accumulated tension, but not enough to release the underlying things.

*I have had some success with this for lots of things. You discover that, like persistent thoughts, body sensations are often not actually very solid or even ‘located’; they are like ideas. Only when you turn inward to try and find them, or you leave them alone, do you realise this transparency.

David Cain June 26, 2014 at 5:30 pm

It’s remarkable how modern medicine still seems to resist the idea of a mind-body connection. It seems so obvious! We’re going to look back on this dark era the way we do today with the days before they acknowledged germs existed.

Asbel June 26, 2014 at 10:14 am

Thank you for the reminder… it’s indeed the only way to take life. Love your blog so much. Glad I stumbled upon it.

Vishal June 27, 2014 at 1:04 am

Both inward and out ward perspectives have their place. Neither one of them is better than the other. Just do what feels necessary in the moment.

I believe you generally have a better outlook of life when you are in better mood. For a fresh new perspective on happiness, Check out: http://gameligit.com/lasting-happiness-fresh-perspective/

Fatma June 27, 2014 at 10:50 am

So many nuggets of gold in every article I’ve read so far. You so poignantly expound on topics that have been loosely floating around in my head but have barely stirred any dust. Thanks for the direction and kudos on some awesome work!

kleio KECHAGIA June 28, 2014 at 6:35 am

All this is so me!!! And I live at the other side of the planet in Greece. It’s not just thinking the same but doing the same, exactly? Can we skype? I can’t write a novel in comments?

George June 28, 2014 at 3:44 pm

You should totally write a novel in the comments, in real time – however, we get to choose the topic, the favourite Raptitude article of the protagonist, and the Haruki Murakami novel it most resembles. Also, at end, the main character celebrates his triumph with a Cornetto. Them’s the rules.

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Sebastian Aiden Daniels September 4, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I agree that inwardness as you put it, is so important. Practicing mindfulness has changed my life. I am surprised that many people don’t even know what it is. It helps me get more in touch with my emotions and helps me label them and cope with them in more effective ways.

It does help you in outward situations too. It allows a calming disattachment where you aren’t so focused on the results or expectations. I also love that my mind quickly judges something and instead of going with it, I will look at it and just say that is interesting and let it pass.

Inwardness practice can help you slow down, which many of us need in this fast paced life in the 21st century.

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