Humans 101

Happiness Comes From Learning to Play the Inner Game

Lessons for a life well-lived

Watercolor illustration of a person standing on a colorful globe holding a globe.
Watercolor illustration of a person standing on a colorful globe holding a globe.
Illustration: Benjavisa/Getty Images

I stared out the window as we passed the train station: Commuters, all men, with their overcoats, suits, and briefcases, like a herd of clones, stood on the platform, waiting for the train to New York. I thought, “Not for me. There’s got to be more to life than this. I’ll be blazing my own trail.” It was the 1960s, and my dad was driving teenage me to high school.

That was my first moment of spiritual awakening. I knew what I didn’t want, but I still had no idea what I wanted or how to go about figuring it out.

I went off to college. I studied just enough to get by. I marched against the war, rode motorcycles, grew my hair out, and did my share of drugs and partying.

After graduating, I found myself on a spiritual path: I threw my stuff into my rusted-out Volkswagen van, headed to Boston, and joined a community of like-minded spiritual seekers.

For the first time in my life, I found something that felt like the real me — a source of peace and happiness, an inner home. I became less concerned about how I looked, what others thought of me, and whether I was outwardly successful. I was on an inner journey.

It was a surreal ride for 10 years as I dug deep into the experience of meditation. I lived in various ashrams in the United States and traveled throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Africa.

The experience was profoundly transformational. I developed a strong sense of self, the importance of service to others, respect for the goodness within all humans, and more. I was proud of what I accomplished and was happy I wasn’t one of those guys standing at the train station.

But then everything changed.

At 33, I hung up my monk robes and began a new life: I got married, bought a house, taught sales training at a bank, and had my first child.

As my career continued to grow, I did my best to keep my counterculture ideals alive and well. I continued my meditation practice as much as possible. I studied Jungian psychology, joined men’s groups, went to therapy, rode Harleys with Vietnam vets, got tattoos, and played in rock bands.

Corporate America tested me. There were times when the pressures ground me down, chipping away at my core beliefs and values. I was swimming with sharks and, at times, behaved like one.

Gradually, I learned finding my way meant understanding there were two games to play. One was the inner game: knowing my inner self, defining what I stood for, connecting to spirit, and breaking free from limiting beliefs. The other was the outer game: what I did in life and how I behaved. The way I played the outer game was a reflection of how I played the inner game.

I realized the only way to succeed in the outer game was to put as much effort into the inner game as possible. The more I did this, the more I enjoyed the outer game and the less stressful it became. Meditation, mindfulness, neuroscience, diet, health, exercise, and visualization contributed to improving my inner game.

Carl Jung said, “The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego; the second half is going inward and letting go of it.” I think he had it partially correct — in the first part of adult life, we build our careers, prove ourselves, and develop a strong sense of self. But, no matter how old you are, learning to play the inner game will only enhance your experience and help you be even more successful.

These five lessons are what I’ve leaned on many times. They’ve never failed me and have helped me play the inner game.

Be response-able

We have the ability to choose our response in any situation. We’re not accountable for things others do or say; we’re responsible for our behavior.

I learned, through trial and error, to own the results of my actions. I had to apologize once to my teenage girlfriend’s father for something I did. It was the hardest phone call I ever made, but I knew I did the right thing when it was over, and my conscience was clean. I learned that the sooner you face your problems, the better.

Focus on what’s in your control.

There is a direct connection between empowerment and being responsible for our actions. Someone who has stepped into their power doesn’t complain or blame others. They know the ball is always in their court, and they accept the cards they’ve been dealt.

Focus on what’s in your control. There’s no point in wasting time and energy on things you can’t do anything about. We only think we’re in control — until we aren’t.

Maintain a learning mindset

Learning anything new is difficult — it can be frustrating and humiliating. I’ve fallen flat on my face many times. I’ve blown sales calls, presentations, and speeches. I’ve been so embarrassed I wanted to crawl off somewhere and never return. After some soul searching, I realized the way back in the game is to focus on getting better and letting go of the past. Focus on learning — not looking good or being right.

We can only learn and grow when we are curious. I learned the most about curiosity when I was thrown into a job way over my head. I went into survival mode — all I could do was learn as fast as I could. I had to accept how much I didn’t yet know and embrace the opportunity to learn. A curious mind knows it doesn’t know everything.

When we have a learning mindset, we’re naturally more resilient. We want to figure out how to recover. We’re curious to understand what we don’t know. We can adapt more easily because we’re flexible.

There’s a beautiful world inside us just waiting for our attention.

Keep your heart open

Even though I’ve always been a planner and a list maker, I’ve also tried to live from my heart. I’ve followed my instincts and passions, and it’s helped me immensely. I made time to do things outside of work that brought me great joy. The energy and happiness I received from investing in my heart have been profound.

My meditation practice has been central to keeping my heart open. No matter what, the inner experience has never let me down. It’s been a constant source of inner fulfillment despite any chaos around me. There’s a beautiful world inside us just waiting for our attention.

The kinder we are to ourselves, the more kindness and understanding we have to extend to others.

Tell your truth

Every person is entitled to their opinion because we all see the world differently. But problems occur when people think their opinion is fact and impose it on others. When I express my opinion as just my view, it’s powerful and engaging because it invites dialogue. Presenting my opinion as a fact creates defensiveness.

We suffer when we don’t speak our truth, and we flourish when we do.

A dear friend told me once we have to be willing to disappoint others when we speak our truth. Our experience, what is true for us, is powerful. It can inspire, inform, and ignite change. I’ve learned not to sacrifice my truth to appease others. If you have an opinion or a point of view, share it confidently and appropriately. But don’t expect agreement from others — their journey is their own, and it won’t be on the same path as yours.

Notice, and manage, your thought patterns

A fundamental principle of the inner game is understanding that our thoughts become things, as author Mike Dooley says. Our thought process, our self-talk, influences our language, behavior, and mental and physical health.

There is plenty of research regarding the human capacity to rewire our brains. I’ve experienced significant personal breakthroughs as a direct result of changing my thinking patterns. One way to start managing self-talk is to observe your thoughts, emotions, and feelings. They’re here to inform you, not to run your life.

The simple act of just noticing thought patterns will initiate the change process. When you notice something, you can change it. But you can’t change something you haven’t taken the time to notice.

On a cold November morning in Philadelphia, shortly after I left the ashram and had started my job teaching sales training, I found myself in a suit and tie, with an overcoat and a briefcase, waiting for a train to take me to work. I was happy to have a decent job, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we were pretty broke. I looked like every other guy standing on the platform.

I realized I’d become one of “them.”

I smiled at the irony and thought maybe some kid would see me and go blaze their own trail too.

I hoped so.

More great stories from Human Parts

10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America | Connect with me on Linked In- https://www.linkedin.com/in/

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