It’s funny how we can know something so intimately and yet when asked to define it, we struggle for the right words. Consider the word “think”: What exactly does it mean?
According to Webster, it means “to believe that something is true, that a particular situation exists, that something will happen, etc.” It’s something we do practically nonstop from the time we’re born until the time we die. It’s like breathing — if you’re not thinking, then well, you’re probably not here. I’d even go so far as to say that the quality of our thoughts is just as important to the quality of our lives as is the quality of our lungs. Or as Gandhi reputedly said,
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”
Powerful stuff, right? But also a little scary, considering how many of our thoughts we’re not even really aware of, let alone in control of. According to one source I came across (thanks Google books!), each of us processes roughly 60,000 thoughts each day. A whopping 95 percent of those thoughts are the same ones we thought yesterday, and eighty percent of them are negative. This translates to around 45,000 automatic negative thoughts (the author refers to them as ‘ANTs’) every day. Feeling down? No wonder.
So for better or worse, our thoughts shape our lives. I think on some level we realize this, which may explain the popularity of best-selling author and sought after speaker Byron Katie, who is perhaps most well-known for developing a series of four questions she calls “The Work.” Katie has made a name for herself by teaching that to end our suffering, all we have to do is challenge our thoughts. I’ve read one or two of her books, and while I have a hard time swallowing a few things she says, I definitely think she’s on to something. One thing in particular that she wrote has really stuck with me: “Human beings don’t think. We’re thought.” I could be paraphrasing, but the meaning is intact: that basically, when all is said and done, we’re really not that in control of our brains and the thoughts that spew out of them. Basically, our minds have a mind of their own.
If you’ve ever tried to meditate for any length of time, you know this with certainty. So Katie’s suggestion to question your thoughts and ask yourself if they’re actually true can be incredibly powerful. It’s quite eye-opening when you begin to see how so very much of your life –how much of what you do and believe — is based on simple thoughts. And usually very flimsy ones at that. I definitely recommend checking out her work if this resonates at all for you.
Anyway, I’m not here to promote Byron Katie or to dissect the inner workings of the brain. I only bring this up because my mind has been driving me especially crazy lately. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at uncovering its tricks over the years, but it’s quite a sneaky beast. It has all sorts of devious ways to manipulate and control my behavior without me even realizing it. Sound familiar? I’ll give you the latest example: Since writing the last post, I’ve been more aware than usual of the language I use with myself, (I do have to take my own advice, after all), and have thus been careful not to, as some of my group friends would say, “should myself”. And I must say I’ve been doing quite a wonderful job.
So why have I still been feeling like a pack mule? After pondering this question for a while, I realized that even though I wasn’t verbalizing them, or even consciously thinking them, my brain was still communicating the same old messages to me without my permission. (I told you it was sneaky) Now that I’m on to its subterfuge, I can defend myself against these unwanted thoughts much more effectively. Awareness here is key: After all, you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see. Except since this blog is all about loving what is, I suppose fighting is the wrong analogy to use here. Besides, I’ve tried that route before, and it isn’t very effective. I can fight my thoughts all I want, but it always ends up the same way. That’s a battle I’ll never win. So I’ve had to accept the fact that my thoughts are going to be there whether I like it or not. Now, this doesn’t mean I accept whatever it is they’re saying, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t still try to change them or replace them with more desirable, constructive thoughts, but I think it’s important to recognize that thoughts are slow to change. Until they do, you might as well make peace with them.
Tara Brach uses a phrase “real but not true” to describe the kinds of thoughts I’m talking about here. I find this a useful way to think about them because while they feel real — often incredibly so — that does not necessarily make them true. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m attempting to follow the middle path: I’m not blindly accepting all my thoughts at face value, but nor am I attempting to argue with them or shout above them. I’m greeting them, acknowledging them for what they are (which can usually be described as ‘full of shit’), and then going about my business. It’s like refusing to engage with your unruly two year old who’s demanding you give her candy. It’s hard to tolerate that whiny chatter going on in the background, and often you just want to give in or scream at it to go the fuck away, but you can’t. And you can’t expect your brain to go away any more than you can a determined two year old. Hopefully it will mature with time like that whiny toddler, but occasional tantrums are to be expected. The sooner you realize that and stop resisting, the better. You and your brain are going to be together for quite some time. So you might as well become friends.
Pay attention to what you’re thinking today. How many of the thoughts you’re processing are in line with the life you want for yourself? Which ones do you want to take off the revolving turntable?