The Breakthrough Insight (#738)

“All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” – The Buddha
For the past couple of years, I have noticed that there comes a certain breakthrough point in my work with clients and apprentices after which nothing is ever the same again.  They may have been successful and even relatively happy before that point, but beyond it, the very basis of their lives has somehow shifted.  The pursuit of horizontal success (on a line from birth to death) gives way to the exploration of the vertical, with the ironic result that even as life becomes an experience filled with deeper feelings and richer meaning, the trappings of outer success begin to show up with greater ease and frequency as well.

Clients have described their experience of this in a variety of ways, from “So that’s what you’ve been talking about all this time” to “Nothing’s changed, but everything’s different” to the client who texted me from Scandinavia to say “The butterfly has landed.”

What I wasn’t clear about until recently was what exactly happened at that point in our work together.  I was certainly aware that they all had a deeper insight into something; I just wasn’t really sure what that something was.

Then a few weeks back, I was chatting with Dr. Dicken Bettinger, a consultant for Pransky and Associates in Washington State whose transformative work with clients is based on the same principles ashe  much of the work and writing that I do.  Dicken is one of the nicest and brightest people I know, and when I asked him if he saw that same “breakthrough insight” in his work, he immediately knew what I was talking about and suggested that the thing that was most often the real “game changer” with people was the moment they had a deeper insight into the inside-out nature of reality.

The prevailing model in our culture is that our experience of life is created from the outside-in – that is, what happens to us on the outside determines our experience on the inside.  People or circumstances “make” us happy, angry, sad, fearful, or loving, and the game of life (i.e the way to have more of the good feelings and less of the bad ones) is to find, attract, create, or manifest the “right” people and circumstances.

One variation on this model (what I call “empowered outside-in”) argues that it’s not so much what happens to us as what we do with what happens to us that determines our experience.  If we rise up to the challenge, we can go from reacting as victims to responding powerfully to the events of life, making lemonade out of lemons and creating the relationships and circumstances that will bring us happiness and fulfillment.

A second variation (what I call “enlightened outside-in”) says that while people and circumstances certainly matter, even more important is what we think about those people and circumstances.  Everything from Cognitive and Rational-Emotive therapy to the majority of the self-help movement points out that if you can replace a negative thought, belief, or attitude towards people and circumstances with a positive one, not only will your experience change immediately but before long, the people and circumstances will likely change as well – but even if they don’t, at least your positive thoughts and attitudes will allow you to make the best of a bad situation.

While both of these variations certainly promote greater effectiveness in the workplace and more enjoyable experience of being alive, they are limited in their effectiveness not by the lack of discipline or skill of the practitioners, but rather because they are rooted in a fundamentally inaccurate model.

By way of an explanation, imagine the following scenario:


You are in an art studio filled with painters, standing at their easels.Although you cannot see it from where you are standing, they are all looking in the direction of a small platform in the center of the room and painting what they see.As you walk around the room, you notice small and sometimes vast discrepancies between what people are painting on their canvases. Arguments break out in parts of the room as to whether or not the model for the painting is more one color than another, taller or shorter, uglier or more beautiful than rendered.

You begin to become curious about what it is that everyone is painting, so you make your way to the center of the room and discover to your surprise that there is absolutely nothing there. The emptiness of the center is palpable.

Suddenly you realize the reason that everyone is painting things differently isn’t their point of view from what part of the room their easel happens to be placed  – it’s that what they are “viewing” is only a projection of their own thoughts.

The moment you catch even a glimpse of the illusory nature of the world of form, the game of life changes completely and irrevocably.  No matter how scary or oppressive insecure your experience of life may be, once you realize that it’s only your own thinking that you are experiencing, it loses much of its hold on you.  You may still feel uncomfortable feelings, but because you know that what’s causing them isn’t outside you, you don’t feel compelled to change the world in order to change the way you feel, anymore than you would go to your television set to try and convince the characters on your favorite soap opera to change their foolish ways.

The simple truth is this:

We live in a world of thought.  Not a world influenced by thought, where positive outperforms negative and gives us a “competitive advantage in the marketplace”, but a world that is actually created from thought.  And the moment we stop fighting with ourselves and others about what to think and instead focus on the miracle that we are thinking, the details of life begin to work themselves out, all by themselves.

Here’s how I wrote about it in Feel Happy Now!, through the story of a teacher who posed his favourite student a particularly difficult and frightening dilemma…


“Imagine you are dreaming the most incredibly vivid dream of your life,” began the teacher. “In the dream, you seem to be some sort of an adventurer, and each adventure brings with it new challenges and creative solutions. You experience many wonderful things and some not so wonderful.You come to realize that in your dream, anything is possible. On one of your adventures, you encounter a very high wall so you imagine yourself a rope and climb to the top. In another, you are falling off a cliff but before you reach the ground you begin to fly.

Eventually, you begin to look forward to each new adventure. Until one time, for no apparent reason, everything seems to go wrong.

It is dark, so dark that you cannot see your hand before your face. Even before you can hear or see anything, you sense danger. Strange and uncomfortable sounds begin crawling out from the depths of your imagination and coming closer.

Cautiously, you strike a match. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by the most hideous creatures you have ever seen.

You try to run, but your legs will not move. You try to scream, but no sound will come out. Everything you’ve learned up to this point seems to abandon you and the likelihood of a hideous death surrounds you.

What would you do?”

The student seemed lost in thought for many moments and the teacher could see a range of fearful emotions play across her face as she lived the scenario fully in her mind. Suddenly and without warning, she opened her eyes and began to laugh.

“I know what I would do,” the student said. “I would wake up.”

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy creating!

With love,

Related Articles

The Paradox of Results (#860)

Before I gained some insight into the inside-out nature of experience, I used to assume that conditions and circumstances had inherent emotional feelings attached to them. Trading in volatile financial markets or working in an ER were inherently high-pressure, high-stress jobs. Getting what you want would always make you happy. Being rich and thin meant you would be confident…