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EAL #18 – The Golden Buzzer Effect

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Why People Cry When They Get the Golden Buzzer

Have you ever noticed how people react to getting the golden buzzer on America’s Got Talent? Much of the time, they have a strange reaction: they cry.

Why? You would think they would be so happy at such a peak moment. Smile, laugh, or dance, but why cry?

We all harbor the belief that we are flawed, unworthy. Sometimes this manifests clearly as verbal thought and rumination. But often it shows up as a certain feeling energy hovering at the periphery of consciousness, an energy which exercises very powerful control over our behavior because of its subtlety. If you’ve gotten up to speak somewhere and felt your heart palpitate, your blood rush, and palms sweat, you know it. It is not verbal thought that has you, but this feeling-thinking that is afraid you will be found wanting.

There are moments in our lives when something cuts through this doubt with such clarity, that it vanishes, even if only for an instant. Moments where we see our own beauty so clearly, that all our doubts melt. When we are seen this way, our fears burst and we cry with relief that we no longer have to hold the world at bay. I once heard from a friend that when he introduced his wife to a meditation teacher of his, she spontaneously started crying. His teacher’s mere presence and friendly attention was a golden buzzer.

A golden buzzer is just such a concentrated moment of recognition, a laser that incinerates the clouds of self-doubt. And so people cry because their illusions about their own worthiness have been so utterly shattered for a time.

You’re Superpower: Golden-Buzzer Attention

I like to think of mindfulness as the cultivation of golden-buzzer attention, this open-hearted, receptive mind that is fully present to the people we meet with a fresh attention that is free of all our preconceived ideas about them. It’s the opposite of the kind of mind that is looking around to see if there might be someone else more interesting when you are shaking hands with someone at a party. How rare is this kind of attention, this oxygen for the soul? Are not all our attempts to build our castles really attempts to be seen in this way?

You have a superpower. You can see people in this way. You have eyes that can look at someone without any agenda, without any attempt to influence or shape them, but just to see their personhood, their experience of the world.

This person in front of you is the center of their world just as you are the center of yours. There is no difference between the two of you, no need for separation. Life is not some beauty contest where there can be only one winner. Just as a baby has no need to be better than some other baby, this is not a natural need of ours either. It is one we are inclined to and learn to adopt very easily, encouraged in so many ways by a world that constantly measures us relative to each other. But it is nevertheless a construct, a thought lens through which we view the world rather than our inherent nature.

See Yourself So You Can See Others, See Others So You Can See Yourself

It helps to first see yourself in this way, to be willing to look at yourself with golden-buzzer attention. The more you can see beauty in yourself, the more you will be able to see it in others. But if you doubt your own beauty, your importance to other people, you can start the other way too. Try looking at other people in this way. See how your relationships shift. See if maybe people you encounter start to take you more seriously when you take them seriously. See if maybe you start to see your own beauty when you can see that of others.

When I was studying in Jerusalem in my early twenties, I was hunting for a meditation teacher, and I went to visit this random fellow in his Jerusalem apartment. He was a slender man with a small beard and little side curls with a gentle demeanor and we sat and chatted for a bit. He could tell I was bothered, seeking, and he told me to prioritize figuring things out now — he felt he was only just starting to live his life then in his 50s. At the end, he offered me a hug, a sincere, paternal one, not the backslapping ritual thing. I froze. My nervous system didn’t know what to do, I felt like a deer in the headlights. When he hugged me, I just burst out crying.

At the time I thought that was pathology, something I needed to solve in a therapist’s office. Today I know it was beauty, recognition. I know that letting go of things we have bottled inside is blessing. Having it together means letting life flow through you, not some repressive stoicism we’ve adopted as a pretense. Life will not subject itself to the particular social conventions of your time and place. It does not do to distinguish between that which you are allowed to feel and that which you aren’t. Your body has its own language. When we are seen, it gives the body permission to speak.

You walk around with a golden buzzer. Use it.


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