“Change your thoughts and you change your world.”
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
“Thoughts can be wonderful servants but they make terrible masters.”
Attributed to Socrates
If you recall this is a blog about leadership. For every emerging leader there is an aspect of self-development and self-awareness that cannot be overlooked. This is the dimension of Personal Mastery. But what does “personal mastery” even mean? In this article I want to explore a definition of Personal Mastery, examine what I call “The Big Lie” and then look at some key steps that you can follow to move beyond the lie and find your own personal path to mastery.
Defining Personal Mastery
I’m going to suggest that you open your mind to a new understanding of personal mastery; it is probably different than what you thought. Most often when we think of ‘mastery’ we think of things like skills that we develop through years and years of patient practice. Usually when we talk about mastery, we think of things like sports, music, the sciences, the arts, business skills and similar examples.
Mastery in any of those areas is a by-product of steady, unrelenting practice, putting in the “ten thousand hours” as suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” which is a study of what makes people merely “successful” versus “masterful.” To master the violin, for example, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. But, not merely ‘practice’---practice with focused intention and passion. The mindset of the person practicing and the 10,000 hours are of equal importance.
But beyond the mastery of physical skills, there is another kind of mastery that is developed within oneself, the mastery of one’s thoughts. And for me, it is the supreme mastery because with mastery over one’s thoughts, any other form of mastery is going to be much easier. It isn’t about figuring out which thoughts are ‘right’ or which thoughts are ‘bad’ and then only entertaining ‘good’ thoughts, though that can be helpful. It’s about discovering the awesome power that lies hidden inside of yourself.
Mastery of thought begins with the understanding of the nature of thought and whether we are its’ servant or its’ master. The answer for most people is that they have unwittingly become the servant of their thoughts, enslaved by their own thinking, without being aware that this is so. The worst of these thoughts is what I call “The Big Lie.” Until one uncovers and discards The Big Lie, personal mastery is going to remain elusive, unattainable, a mere dream, out of reach. Regarding the “how to” of mastering our thinking, we will come back to that. For now, just be open to the idea that until we are masters of our own thoughts, we will be cut off from meaningful personal mastery.
Uncovering “The Big Lie”
So, what is “The Big Lie?” In short, it is a core belief that human beings agree to before they are five years old. It has many variations but the essence of The Big Lie is “Something is wrong with me” or “I am not good enough” or “I’m inadequate and so I have to prove myself.”
If you are honest with yourself, you know about this lie…and…many people, most people in fact, believe it is the truth. As a result they spend much of their life energy trying to ‘prove’ that they are good, adequate, capable, worthy, lovable, etc. But remember…it was a lie to begin with…so, why do people spend so much energy trying to disprove it? Because they believe it, deep down, at an unconscious level, and, over time have lost awareness of this belief.
So you will ask, if being wrong, inadequate, unworthy, incapable, flawed, defective…are all lies…then what is the truth? I’m glad you asked!
The truth is that each person is powerful beyond measure. Each person is already perfect at the moment of birth with all the goodness and worthiness and resources they will even need to achieve mastery in their lives.
They receive a free gift from the Universe: everyone is whole and valuable, and that never changes. But because of The Big Lie, they have unknowingly abdicated their power when they agreed with the lie, and then forgot about it.
You may think of The Big Lie as a “thought generator” because it lies in the core of your consciousness. From time to time, thoughts appear in your consciousness and a high percentage of them will be mirroring your big lie. At the same time, thoughts seem so compelling and real, you seldom challenge them. We actually think our thoughts are ‘who we are.’ No, they are not. We are the one who has the thought. But until we discard The Big Lie, it is more accurate to say “our thoughts have us.”
Through an innocent mistake, long ago, we have simply fallen into a trap of believing The Big Lie and as a result we spend our life energy struggling against it and the more we struggle, like being in quicksand, the deeper we sink. When you dig yourself into a hole…the best thing to do is to stop digging! But, amazingly, when we are not aware of The Big Lie operating in the background (like the OS of a computer) we will spend more energy proving it is true, proving that we are right about being inadequate, trying to ‘fix’ ourselves, and very little energy dealing with the real issue: getting rid of the lie!
Here’s the good news: in the end, The Big Lie is just a thought, a concept, a belief, and abstraction and has no power except the power you have loaned to it. Like any other thought, it can be, rejected and discarded and replaced with more useful thoughts of your choosing. The best news of course is that there is nothing wrong with you now and there never has been anything wrong with you. The Universe does not make junk.
Here’s the Catch: The Big Lie shows up in your thoughts in a myriad of forms that may seem ‘real’ unmasked to you because you have entertained the lie for so long, it seems like reality. Seeing this, you can take action to get on the path of personal mastery over your thoughts and false beliefs…if…you are willing to practice the art of attention…focusing your attention on thoughts that serve you instead of The Big Lie that enslaves you.
Your Personal Path to Mastery. Here are three exercises that anyone can practice to begin to regain personal control over their power of attention. Of course, its’ up to you to choose to do the work. And, your thoughts may tell you “Don’t waste your time” or “I’ll probably fail” or “It’s too late for me.” Those are examples of thoughts generated by The Big Lie. My advice: don’t believe them. They are all just small lies, generated by the Big Lie.
Exercise No.1: Mastering Your Emotional State.
There is a saying that “We are always living in the feeling of our thinking.” This means that, when we believe a negative thought, there is a reaction in our body and we experience a ‘negative’ emotion. Thoughts trigger emotional states in the body.
Usually we ‘find ourselves’ in an unwanted emotional state and then we blame our circumstances or other people for our unhappy feeling. The truth is, your emotional state is always 100% in your power to control. You just have to change the thought and your emotional state will change. And, of course you need to ‘see’ that this is so.
The easiest way to experience your power over your state is to learn to focus your attention on the feeling of Being Grateful. Sit down each morning with your journal and start listing everything you can think of that you can be grateful for: your health, your family, your job, your life, you abilities, etc. Then focus on them one at a time and really feel how grateful you are for each thing on your list. Not just ‘reading’ the words but experiencing the emotion of gratefulness inside your body.
Keep doing this every day and do it anytime when you ‘find yourself’ in a bad mood, feeling angry, frustration, self-pity, whatever. Do you have food to eat and water to drink? Do you have air to breathe? Are your lungs working? Your heart? Do you have legs to take you places, and eyes to see things and ears to hear music and the sound of your child’s voice? Many people do not. Practice “The Attitude of Gratitude” throughout the day and you will discover that the power of your attention that you abdicated will return to you. You will regain the power to choose how you feel, not based on ‘circumstances’ but based on your mastery over your own awareness.
Exercise No. 2: Learning to Experience Life “Inside-Out”
Most people still believe that “things happen to them” and then as a result, they feel a certain way. While it is true that “things happen,” how you feel is always a result of your own thought about “what happened” and never caused by the event itself. No one can “make you feel” this way or that way…though it is common to hear people blame others for their feelings “She made me angry” or “He made me feel small.” The truth, again, is that due to The Big Lie, you are ready to believe that you are inadequate, a victim of circumstances, and that other people can decide how you feel. It just isn’t so! Live is lived “from the inside-out” and not from “the outside-in.”
Most children when small have a doll or a Teddy Bear or a ‘security blanket’ that seems to bring them comfort, a sense of safety and happiness when they need it. Did you have something like that? So here’s a question: do you really think your feelings and experience of love, safety, happiness…came from an inanimate doll or Teddy Bear? Of course not! Those nice feelings were created by you, inside yourself…and then you ‘blamed’ the feelings on the object. In the same way, when we feel unhappy, we have the habit of ‘blaming’ other people or circumstances for our bad or unhappy feelings. We even believe that some magical person ‘out there’ can ‘make us’ happy.
This exercise is very simple. Just draw a vertical line down the middle of a blank page. On the left side, draw a person. On the right side, draw a doll or Teddy Bear. Imagine the person is feeling loved, safe, happy, joyful. Now ask yourself: “How likely is it that the person ‘received’ those feelings from the Teddy? Keep this experience in mind each time you ‘find yourself’ feeling unhappy feelings, or happy feelings. Remind yourself that the feelings came from inside of you, not from the outside. Remind yourself that “I am always living in the feeling of my thinking.”
By practicing this, you will be able to refocus your attention to the source of your unhappiness---or happiness---your own thoughts and the emotions they trigger. You can stop blaming others or blaming circumstances, and most importantly, you can stop feeling like a powerless victim. After a period of practice, this pattern will become automatic for you.
Exercise No. 3: “Don’t Believe Your Thoughts are Who You Are”
Remember: you are NOT your thoughts…you are the consciousness that observes your thoughts. “You” are the silent witness. You are the master. Here’s an easy exercise you can do, in your mind and on paper, anytime and anywhere.
1. Think of an unhappy conversation with another person, a colleague, spouse, etc.
2. Now re-imagine the words that were spoken by ‘those people’---what they said, their tone of voice, facial expression, body language and of course the feeling of unhappiness
3. In your mind’s eye, “see” those two people as if you were hovering 20 feet in the air above them and they are ‘way down there’ having the conversation. You can see and hear everything. What is different is that you are not ‘in your body’ but rather you are ‘dissociated’ from yourself and you have the experience (in your imagination) of observing “those people down there.”
4. Finally, in your journal, write about “those people” who had that conversation and do it in 3rd person. You will not use the word “I” at all. You can give them names like “Mr. A” and “Miss B.” Write about how “those people” were feeling and what “those people” must have been thinking. Write about two pages until you have captured the experience on paper and you can really feel some “distance” between you as the observer and that person “down there.” Begin to develop some compassion for ‘those people’ and let your harsh judgments drop away.
Do this every day with one recent personal experience only. Spend 15 minutes each time. After each writing notice how different it feels when you dissociate yourself from the situation, discard the “I” position and simply see and hear the situation as an observer. I promise you this is a powerful exercise and if you practice it daily, it will lead you to a great deal of personal power. Because you will rediscover who you really are. I can’t say a lot more about that because it is something you must choose to do.
What Can you Gain from Personal Mastery
• You can regain a sense of personal freedom and power in your life
• You will discard the Big Lie and never believe it again…it will seem ludicrous to you!
• Your personal self-awareness will continue to grow along with your personal satisfaction
• You will trust yourself deeply, knowing there is nothing that needs fixing
• You will realize that everyone you meet is living “outside-in”---believing that their circumstances cause their feelings and their possibilities, and you can use your awareness in compassionate ways to help them ‘see’ what you now see.
• Once you ‘see’ that you are “always living in the feeling of your thinking’ you won’t be able to ‘un-see’ it again
• You will rediscover that happiness is not a ‘destination’ or a goal…it has always been their inside of you, waiting for you to rediscover it. It was only your thinking that got in the way.
• And you will know that you always have a choice: you can be happy…or you can be ‘right’ about your Big Lie. Which will you choose.
So what’s the benefit of all this from a business perspective? Well I hope it is 100% obvious that happy, confident self-aware people are going to be more productive and more effective in meeting business challenges. And they are going to be better colleagues, team members, collaborators….because they are never going to take anything personally. Instead they will operate from a state of deep compassion, wisdom and…personal mastery. In other words, they will be leaders.
Will it take ten thousand hours? Not likely. Practice these exercises morning and night and in between for six weeks and experience the changes. I’ll be looking forward to hearing about what happens. Most people will simply read this article and forget about it. What will you do?