Nothing is a Problem Unless You Make it So

I had a major epiphany last week. You know those moments when you realize everything you thought was true is actually much, much different? I had one of those. And it’s turned my world upside down.

I thought I was loving what is. I thought I was accepting everything unconditionally. I’ve been meditating daily, noticing my thoughts, breathing into the moment, the whole deal. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job. After all, everyone says there is no such thing as a ‘bad meditation.’ You breathe, you notice that you’re getting carried away by your thoughts, and you pull yourself back into the moment. Pretty simple right? You may find your brain shooting out thoughts like crazy one day, while the next you may barely notice a ripple. It doesn’t really matter what you experience as long as you bring yourself back with gentleness each time you notice yourself drifting off. So, really, there is no such thing as ‘doing it wrong.’

Except.

I’ve been doing it wrong.

SO wrong.

In the name of bringing myself back to the present moment, I wasn’t allowing myself to feel whatever it was that was pulling me away. In my day to day life, when I noticed something unpleasant, I would tell myself I was ‘bringing myself back’ when in reality what I was doing was running the heck away. I was sweeping everything under the rug, pretending it wasn’t there, all the while telling myself I was merely being mindful.

Here I am, writing posts for a blog I’ve named “loving what is,” which is based on the principle that everything is okay — that accepting and even embracing what’s going on is a more effective way to untangle oneself from life’s snares than struggling and fighting against it — and what have I been doing all this time? Fighting. Fighting like crazy.

I didn’t realize my avoidance at first because I had cleverly disguised it as mindfulness. And in my defense, technically I was being mindful. So mindful in fact that at the first hint of  an anxious or worried thought, or anything that was even mildly uncomfortable, I sprinted in the opposite direction. I tried frantically to calm myself down or get rid of the anxious thoughts, thinking I was doing the mindful thing. But I wasn’t. And I most certainly wasn’t loving it. Not at all. I’m not going to lie: I hate feeling anxious. I will do almost anything to avoid it. There is no ‘loving what is’ if what ‘is’ is, is anxiety. (Too many is’s?)

So what to do?

And then it hit me: Accept it! Accept the fact that I hate feeling anxious. Don’t fight it, just notice it. Notice how fucking shitty it feels. But — and this is the key — DO NOT MAKE IT WRONG. It’s OKAY to feel anxious. It’s okay to feel shitty. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it’s just how you feel in the moment. Period.

PERIOD.

And that, my friends, is my epiphany: That problems don’t exist except in our own minds. How awesome is that?

So now I’m starting over. Now that I’m aware of my clever escape strategy, I’ll be ready next time to more fully experience whatever it is that comes up without judgment.

Okay, fine. So there will probably be some judgment, but I can be with that too. At least I’ll know the judgment isn’t necessary. And that it’s not a problem.

 

Thinking vs. Being Thought

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?

 

Waving the white flag

For someone who considers herself a pacifist, I sure do put a lot of energy into fighting. If you could peer inside my skull, you would witness an almost constant battle going on from the time I open my eyes in the morning to the time I close them at night. Sometimes I even wage war in my dreams. It’s exhausting.

So what am I fighting against, you ask? That’s where it gets kind of ridiculous: I’m fighting against myself. More precisely, I’m fighting against those pesky thoughts that come at me with amazing speed and from all directions practically nonstop. They chase after me, pressing down upon my shoulders with surprising force. They nag me about things I should be doing or things I shouldn’t have done, criticize me, berate me, . . .  — you get the idea. I swat them away diligently, only to watch them flit up momentarily before coming at me again even harder. Granted, sometimes I don’t fight. Sometimes I simply run the hell away. I invent things for myself to do to stay busy so I don’t notice them quite as much. But they’re still there, buzzing like a jackhammer in the background to remind me that they’ll be waiting when I pause for a breath.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting better at not running. And not fighting. Oh, I still do, of course, but rather than blindly hauling ass or mindlessly flailing my arms at the pesky creatures, I’ve started to catch myself, forcing myself to stop and look the little shits in the face. And you know what? They’re really not all that horrible. Per my intention to “invite Mara to tea,” I’ve been trying to be more accepting of whatever pops up. And believe me, shit definitely pops up. But when I don’t freak out about it and obsess about how awful and disgusting and gross it is but instead just say, “oh, yeah, there’s some shit again. Hi, shit! How ya doin? I’ve been expecting you,” things go a lot more smoothly. It takes away some of the sting.