by Lisa Ernst
How many times have you encountered the inner gatekeeper in your life but didn’t let it stop you? Maybe you wanted to get an advanced degree, or change careers, eat a healthier diet or begin a committed exercise program. The inner gatekeeper is the voice that tires to hold you back, tells you that you can’t do it. Most of us have times in our lives when we just don’t listen, move ahead with our intentions and find success.
If we’re not mindful, our inner gatekeeper can impede our dharma practice. Why? Because a key element of genuine practice is becoming aware of habitual and unconscious patterns that run our lives. Through mindfulness, we can gradually see and undo those patterns. But the inner gatekeeper wants to protect the status quo and may try to convince us that we can’t. I believe a lot of people who intend to observe a daily mediation practice, for instance, will sit more consistently if they cultivate awareness of their inner gatekeeper. In my own practice this has served me well. Some mornings, especially if I’ve slept a little later than intended and have a busy day ahead, the gatekeeper will try to convince me I don’t need to take time to meditate. I hear the voice loud and clear and admit at times I feel tempted to act on it. But I don’t – I acknowledge the gatekeeper’s voice and meditate anyway. Once I’m settled on the cushion, I’m always grateful I wasn’t deterred.
Developing mindfulness in daily life is much like building our muscles through repeated workouts. At first our attention is weak and gets swept away in habitual patterns, many of which are ingrained stress responses. Our inner gatekeeper is fully in charge at this point because our capacity to maintain presence in the face of unconscious responses is not yet developed. Our attention is overtaken by habit. The key is not to give up or get discouraged, but to remember that with each “mind workout” we make our mindfulness a little stronger. Even if you can only bring your attention fully into the present for a few seconds during a stress response, you will gradually increase your capacity. As you do you’ll become more aware of the inner gatekeeper’s voice directing you to return to your patterns. Each time you hear the voice and don’t follow it, you take a little power away from the gatekeeper. Slowly, the gatekeeper will lose its sway over you and you’ll begin to undo those old stress responses.
Uneasiness is the inner gatekeeper’s closest companion. (If you’re unsure, take a closer look next time you hear that doubtful voice.) For this reason we are well served to meet the inner gatekeeper with compassion, even as we learn not to give in. The gatekeeper knows that releasing the anesthetizing veil of distraction and avoidance will bring us fully into this moment. With nothing to cling to, we eventually come face to face with a lifetime of evading what appears threatening: the realization that our sense of “I” as a separate, fixed self is an illusion. Even if we feel uneasy initially, however, as our practice strengthens, we can catch a glimpse beyond the illusion of safety and into the freedom of no-self. We have the chance to realize, with joy, that we are nothing, yet also everything.