Three people are seated in front of a wide-screen TV. There is a program playing that concerns a timely topic. When the program ends some twenty minutes later, one of the viewers pushes back his chair, takes a deep breath and while shaking his head, lets out a big sigh and says, “Wow…that was unbelievably great. I had never considered that before. Amazing!” The second viewer, who works in a very busy marketing and sales department for a film company, glances over briefly at the first person and says noncommittally, “Yeah, pretty good…it’s okay.” The third person, preoccupied with a recent loss in life, sits up straight and says, “Oh, is it over?”
Three people are gathered at a park in the middle of a busy city. There are people dashing around playing frisbee, while others are jogging, and still others reclining on the grass, heads tilted back with eyes closed, taking in some sunshine. The first person looks around the park with an expression of wonder on his face and says, “This is so nice..I didn’t realize all of this was going on in the middle of our city. Wonderful!” He enthusiastically watches the playful squirrels scampering around, notices the beauty of the day, and smiles at the many variety of shapes, colors and movements of the people in the park. The second person, who has been working a lot of overtime the past week in a crowded office, stares somewhat dully at the environment, checks his phone and fidgets, and says, “Yeah, pretty good…it’s okay.” The third person, in the process of a painful divorce, straightens up from his slouch, and says nothing, but thinks to himself, “How long have we been here? This place is kind of depressing.”
Even though each person is exposed to the exact same stimuli (a TV program or a park on a pleasant day), their experience is radically different. It’s easy for the reader to see in the vignettes the connection between what is going on in someone’s mind and their experience of what is going on outside of them.
In both vignettes, we can see that the first person is immersed in what is going on and he is seeing it with fresh eyes, with openness to the experience, grounded in the present moment. The second person, somewhat jaded, overworked and overstimulated, is only somewhat engaged in what is happening in the world. He is caught up in the process of comparisons and judgements. We get a sense that he has a busy mind. The unfortunate third person is completely in his head, caught up with dismal and debilitating thoughts and not in his life at all. He appears to be disconnected from what is happening in the present moment.
As biological creatures, we have a heart that beats, lungs that breathe and a brain that thinks. The brain is busy 24/7 churning out thoughts, images, memories, and predictions about the future. Even during sleep, the brain is busy creating stories that we call dreams. And try as we may, we cannot turn it off.
All of us have had the experience of having difficult thoughts show up unexpectedly. The thoughts did not arrive by invitation. They are unwelcome and uncomfortable. We don’t like how we feel as a result of those thoughts, so we get busy trying to not have those thoughts.
In the external world, if something isn’t working, we have a pretty reliable formula to get it fixed. The formula goes something like this: get busy, and keep at it until it’s the way it ought to be. If the lamp in my office isn’t working, time to get busy. Check the bulb. See if the lamp is plugged in. Is the electrical wire okay? Does the breaker need to be reset? Worst case scenario, take the lamp out of the room to the garbage and start looking for a new one.
In the internal world, the psychological world, if a difficult thought arises, we may not notice the thought right away, but we sure feel it. No one likes how anxiety or stress feels. No one gets up in the morning and creates a to do list, writing down, “I need to remember to feel disheartened about something today for about ten minutes. I also need to have at least two experiences of feeling insecure. I’ll have to block out five minutes for reviewing how little I have really accomplished with my life. Oh, and I also have to remember to be judgmental or critical of others and myself at least five times.” And yet, these are the kind of thoughts that show up. We don’t plan for them. We don’t like them.
Faced with a difficult thought, we turn to the formula that worked so well in the external world, and we tend to get busy. We use distraction, (who is not familiar with binge watching a Netflix series that really isn’t all that great?). We can try numbing, (alcohol or other substances are pretty effective for this). We can engage in overthinking about our thinking, ruminating with a sense that if we could just think enough, if we could just figure out why we are having this thought or feeling, somehow we’d feel better. We can try avoiding people, places and things because we don’t feel good or don’t want to feel bad. It would be nice if we used distraction, numbing or avoidance and it got rid of the thought or feeling permanently. No matter what we do to get rid of the thoughts or feelings, the thoughts or feelings return.
The rule of the external world, “if something is wrong, get busy and keep at it until it is the way it ought to be,” is simply not effective for the internal world of thoughts and feelings.
Consider this: You have thoughts, but you are not not your thoughts. You are the one who has the capacity to notice the thoughts that arise and move on, replaced by yet another thought. You have emotions, but you are not your emotions. You are the one who has the ability to experience emotions. Emotions are constantly on the move. In the course of any one day, you may have a feeling of gratitude that may be replaced by greed, followed soon thereafter by grief, and on and on.
What would it be like if we were to wake up and realize that our brain thinks and that what it is serving up from moment to moment is not truth and not fact? We can know it is not truth or fact because words, thoughts and images are abstractions, symbols that are used to represent reality. Reality is fact in the most fundamental sense. It is what it is, independent of opinion or descriptive words.
What would it be like to begin to understand that who you are and what you think are two very different things?
Who would you be independent of the nonstop narrative that parades through your awareness?
What would be possible for you if you saw that the brain is doing what it is supposed to be doing, churning out doubtful, insecure or any variety of other difficult thoughts, and there was no need to do anything with those thoughts?
What if you could leave the difficult thoughts alone, letting them stay as long or as briefly as they lasted, and instead get busy taking action right now in the direction of things that mattered to you?
Each one of us, many times a day, has the choice of being one of the three people from the vignettes.
Are we engaging with the world with openness and acceptance, appreciating the richness of what is right here, right now, connected with life at the pace of life?
Are we overworked or overstimulated, with busy minds, only partially present to life as it is happening? What is the cost of that choice?
Or are we completely caught up with our thoughts and not at all connected to the present moment in our life? What is the cost of that choice?
Our moment to moment experience of life is our life. With intention, we can begin to realize that our thoughts about life are not our life. Do we want to be thinking about our life, or living our life?
We can begin to see the value of taking less seriously the nonstop thoughts that arise in our awareness and instead focus on being in our life as it is happening.
Which of the three will you be?