Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there. You’ve probably heard many of these: think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.
For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk. But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort. Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy. And I started wondering: is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?
From Rejection To Curiosity
When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change. What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body. For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back. (These words may mean different sensations to you.)
Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore. Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.
But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly. And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it. For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.
Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier. When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body. Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.
I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy
Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness. No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me. I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently. But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.
Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you. Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people. But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.
When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach. What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy? Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling. Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity. And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.
Link Love: I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing. I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.
I have a friend who, until lately, always seemed upset about something. If he wasn’t complaining about how someone in his personal life frustrated or let him down, he’d be angry about some current event in the world. If someone asked why he was so upset, he’d usually insist that any reasonable person would be angry about what was happening, and that if the other person knew what was really going on they’d feel the same way.
Recently, my friend had a sudden shift in his perspective. He was talking to his girlfriend, and—not surprisingly—complaining about something going on in local politics. Eventually, she became fed up and rather pointedly suggested that, if he had a problem with what was going on, he should do something about it. Otherwise, if the issue didn’t mean enough to him to inspire him to act, he should forget about it.
On one level, my friend later told me, he realized the truth of his girlfriend’s words. He wasn’t accomplishing anything by bemoaning what was going on in his life or the world except making himself and others unhappy. At a deeper level, my friend had a strongly negative reaction to what she said. This was the part of him, he recognized, that was firmly attached to his habit of complaining. The reason, he realized with disturbing clarity, was that complaining made him feel smart.
Somewhere along the line, my friend saw, he’d developed the belief that people who were happy and satisfied with their lives were either ignorant or kidding themselves. After all, he thought, there are so many things in the world worth getting upset about, and anyone who isn’t angry about them must simply not be paying attention.
Because he wanted to feel and look intelligent, he adopted the habit of constantly griping about some event or problem in the world. His girlfriend’s frustration reminded him he had a choice in how he reacted to life, and armed with that knowledge he decided to change his attitude.
This story started me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which human beings get attached to being negative. Although most people wouldn’t admit to wanting to feel unhappy, many of us have adopted patterns of thinking and behavior seemingly designed to keep unhappiness in our lives. Whether we criticize ourselves, create drama in relationships, hold onto grudges, or something else, each of us seems to have a unique and long-standing strategy for holding onto our negativity.
As my friend’s example illustrates, many of us have had these habits for so long that they’ve become unconscious and automatic, and we’ve forgotten there are other possible approaches to living. When someone with a fresh perspective makes us aware of the ways we’re bringing negativity into our lives, often just having that awareness is enough to start loosening the grip our habitual patterns have on us.
In the interest of fostering this kind of awareness and change, I’ll describe several common ways of acting and thinking we use—often unconsciously—to keep unhappiness in our lives.
1. Trying To Change A Situation Through Mental Resistance. Some part of our minds seems convinced that, if we get irritated enough about a situation in our lives, we can change it for the better. The frustration we feel and express when our cars break down is a common example of this tendency. When we have a flat tire, for instance, some of us kick the tire or pound on some other part of the car, in the seeming hope that we can beat the car into submission and make it work properly again.
To most of us, it seems “normal” to react to events in our lives with annoyance, even if there’s no possibility that getting annoyed will help and all we’re doing is making more suffering for ourselves. We may even be so accustomed to behaving this way that we no longer see ourselves as having a choice, or don’t even consciously notice we’re doing it anymore. As psychologist and shaman Serge Kahili King writes in Urban Shaman, “criticism is such a subtle thing when habitual that it can race across your mind before you notice.”
Our perspective quickly changes, however, when we start observing ourselves as we’re reacting to situations we dislike. By observing yourself, I mean getting a clear idea of the sensations arising in your body as you start becoming irritated, and the behaviors you usually engage in to express that irritation.
For instance, perhaps irritation manifests for you as a sinking feeling in your chest, a tightening in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else. As for the behaviors you do when you’re irritated, perhaps you yell at people, withdraw from contact with others, clench your fists, and so on.
When we gain an understanding of how we normally tend to react, often we suddenly feel a sense of freedom in how we respond to our circumstances. Once we recognize the ways we usually behave, feel and think, we begin to become conscious of that our way of being isn’t the only possible way. Equipped with this knowledge, we can choose a more constructive and less stressful way to respond to situations we encounter in life.
2. Making An Identity Out Of Our Negativity. It seems human beings have a deep-seated need to create an identity—to incorporate certain things we do, think and have into our idea of who we are. We get feelings of security and power from thinking and saying things like “I’m a computer programmer,” “I’m a father,” “I’m a member of this or that political party,” and so on—as if programming computers, raising children and having a party membership were aspects of our being or essence, rather than just activities we do from time to time.
Sometimes, consciously or otherwise, we treat our craving for an identity as more important than our happiness. This occurs when we make an identity out of unhappy situations in our lives. For example, perhaps we get into the habit of telling ourselves and others “I have an illness,” “I lost a loved one,” “I was mistreated as a child,” and so on, and deriving a feeling of safety or uniqueness from saying these things.
We limit our growth and happiness when we treat these events as part of who we are rather than simply experiences we had. Instead of letting our pain pass away, we cling to and even celebrate it. As Buddhist teacher B. Alan Wallace sagely writes in Tibetan Buddhism From The Ground Up, “identification with depression obscures the fluctuations that are taking place from one moment to the next, replacing them instead with a sense of homogeneous continuity.”
Awareness, again, helps us end our identification with our difficult experiences. To gain awareness in this area, we need to watch ourselves for those moments when we get perverse satisfaction from telling people how unhappy we are, or how terrible past events in our lives were. These are places where we’re deriving a sense of self from our painful experiences. Simply recognizing where we’re creating an identity out of our misery helps us see that we have choice in how we define ourselves, and that we can leave behind the aspects of our identities that no longer serve us.
3. Feeling Superior For Being Unhappy. As Bertrand Russell observed in The Conquest Of Happiness, we often meet people who “are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man.”
Some of us, like the friend I discussed earlier, derive a feeling of superiority from being perpetually unhappy or dissatisfied. We might, like my friend, complain constantly because we associate negativity with intelligence. Perhaps we adopt a jaded, cynical attitude toward the world because it makes us feel well-informed and cultured. Maybe we relentlessly criticize others to feel morally righteous. And so on.
While we may get a temporary high from judging and condemning people and circumstances in our lives, this attitude ultimately holds us back. Our negativity keeps us in an unhappy, unproductive place and damages our relationships with others. When we watch ourselves carefully for places where our negativity has us feel better than other people, we take a significant step toward restoring peace and focus to our mental lives.
“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” says a popular bumper sticker in the United States. If you aren’t angry about the current political situation, in other words, you must be uncaring or ignorant. But is this really true? Isn’t it possible to understand, and work to change, what’s going on without getting “outraged” and bringing extra suffering into your life? Just considering this kind of question can do much to free us from our habitually negative patterns of thought and action.
Much of today’s personal development literature is about how the type of thoughts you think influence your reality. Some authors focus on how what you think about tends to appear in the world. For example, in their view, if you constantly visualize a beautiful house, you’re likely to eventually live in one, and if you’re focused on how hard it is to pay the bills, you’re likely to stay broke. Others talk about the way your thoughts affect your emotions, observing how positive and negative thoughts impact your mood.
While I agree that the kind of thoughts you think can affect your quality of life, I think it’s also important to recognize how the amount of thinking you do shapes your experience of living. There’s a growing recognition that too much thought of any kind, whether positive or negative, can bring needless suffering into your life.
We need our minds to survive and thrive in the world. Like anything else, however, thinking when it’s overused becomes self-destructive. Some psychologists estimate that on average we think one thought per second, for a total of about 60,000 per day. As I suspect many of us will attest, a large portion of those thoughts aren’t helpful at all. Most of the worrying, fantasizing, reminiscing, judging, and so on we routinely do is nothing but repetitive and distracting.
I’ll discuss some of the ways excess thinking takes away our ability to fully participate in and enjoy life, and make some suggestions about how to stem the constant stream of thought.
Thinking Takes Our Attention Out Of The Present
One often recognized hazard of excessive thinking is that it makes it hard for us to effectively respond to our present circumstances. When our attention is on what happened in the past, what might happen in the future, how others perceive us, and so on, we can’t deal with the challenges we face right now.
For instance, as many of us have probably experienced firsthand, accidents happen when we get “lost in thought.” It’s when our minds are “somewhere else” that we crash our cars, slip and fall, make errors in projects at work, and so forth. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Miracle Of Mindfulness: An Introduction To The Practice Of Meditation, “the person who practices mindfulness should be no less awake than the driver of a car; if the practitioner isn’t awake he will be possessed by dispersion and forgetfulness, just as the drowsy driver is likely to cause a grave accident.”
Similarly, overthinking also removes our ability to enjoy what we’re doing right now. This issue arises for many of us in the work context. At work, our minds tend to be on how others will receive the projects we’re doing, how much money we’ll make this year, what we’re going to do at the end of the day, and so on.
When our minds are fixated on the possible future, anxiety about the outcome of our efforts strips us of our concentration and our capacity for joy. Those of us who lack passion for what we do often assume it’s because the projects we’re working on are boring and frustrating, but sometimes the real problem is that we aren’t paying enough attention to our work to be able to appreciate it.
As I see it, excess thinking is most destructive in our relationships with people. So often, whether we’re dealing with loved ones, colleagues or strangers, our minds are occupied with the image we’re projecting to others and our anxieties about other areas of our lives, instead of focused on listening to and being with the other person. This deprives us of our ability to enjoy the conversation, and doesn’t allow the other person to feel heard and acknowledged.
By contrast, listening with a clear mind to another person produces fulfillment and depth in our relationships. As psychologist Charlotte Kasl writes in her enjoyable book If The Buddha Dated, if we relate to others with a mind unclouded by thought, “we listen intently, becoming attuned to the other’s experience and not pasting them into our story lines,” and “we reveal ourselves in the interest of making an authentic connection, not impressing or placating someone.”
Positive Thinking Is Good, But In Moderation
What about positive thinking? How can it be harmful to visualize improvements you want to make in your circumstances? How can it be bad to remember enjoyable times in your life? As I mentioned earlier, too much thinking of any kind, no matter how positive, takes away your ability to enjoy and respond to the present moment. But another problem with excess positive thinking–as with all thinking–is that it makes the mind louder.
I’ve noticed, both in self-observation and working with clients, that each thought we think seems to increase the intensity and intrusiveness of the thoughts that follow. The more we feed the mind with our thinking, the more it interferes with our ability to live life right now. It’s as if the mind is a ravenous animal like a pig, and each time we think we feed the pig and make it bigger. As the pig grows, the amount of care and feeding it needs increases, and it puts more demands on our attention. When we quiet our minds, we put the pig on a diet and it takes up less space in our awareness.
This aspect of the mind becomes particularly pronounced when our thoughts abruptly shift from empowering to discouraging. For a little while, we take a pleasant trip through reminiscing about the “good times,” fantasizing about amazing things we’ll accomplish, and so on. Our mental journey keeps occupying more and more of our attention until we’re almost completely immersed in a fantasy world, but that’s okay for the moment because it’s making us happy.
Suddenly, one of our thoughts hits a sour note. We remember a difficult interaction with someone, how we aren’t getting what we want in life, how many obligations we have, or something else. With the mind at peak volume, the blast of negative thinking plunges us into despair. As Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “positive emotions generated by the ego already contain within themselves their opposite into which they can quickly turn.” For instance, “what the ego calls love is addictiveness and possessive clinging that can turn into hate within a second.”
One important lesson to take away from the mind’s tendency to get “louder” as we feed it is that positive thoughts aren’t always the best way to escape the trap of destructive thinking. The conventional wisdom has it that, if we have a disempowering thought like “I’m weak,” we should immediately counter it with something affirming like “I’m strong” to keep ourselves out of a downward emotional spiral. Sometimes, however, all positive thinking does is turn up the mind’s “volume,” so that our mental negativity hits us harder when it eventually returns.
Next time you find yourself mired in negative thinking, I invite you to simply allow the thoughts to be, rather than coming up with more thoughts to “defend yourself” and thus feeding the mind. Gradually, your thoughts will likely fade away, leaving you again at peace. As meditation teacher Bill Scheffel puts it in Loving-Kindness Meditation, “mindfulness means calm abiding. Calm abiding is a way of letting thoughts subside. It is not an attempt to stop thought—just relax our involvement in the constant stream of thinking most of us do.”
The Key To A Mental Diet Plan
There are many strategies out there to help us free ourselves from excessive thinking—whether they’re meditation techniques, physical exercises, special kinds of music or something else—and there isn’t space to address them all here. However, I think the key point to remember is that most of these techniques seem to emphasize keeping your attention on your sensory experience. In other words, staying in touch with what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling and so on in this moment is an effective way to curb unnecessary mind activity.
The technique I’ve found most useful in holding my attention on my sensory experience is simply to focus on the pressure of my feet against the ground. If you haven’t tried this before, take a second right now to notice what your feet feel like on the floor.
You may be surprised by the richness and breadth of the sensations you experience. These might include tingling, warmth, throbbing, prickling, and a lot of other feelings that words don’t exist to describe. What’s more, you may notice as you pay attention to the feelings in your feet that they change over time, arising and subsiding like ripples on the surface of a lake.
Bringing your awareness fully into the body, and the amazing variety of sensations you can feel in it, is often enough to absorb much of your attention and direct it away from the mind. As Drs. Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson put it in Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach To Stress Management, Exercise And Nutrition For Heart Health, “your mind quiets and negative thoughts fade as you focus on your body,” and “if you quiet the body, you can calm the mind.”
After a while, a thought may arise. When this happens, either allow the thought to occur and pass away, leaving you again focused on your sensory experience, or visualize the thought flowing out of your body into the ground. For the latter exercise, look at the thought as if it’s an electric charge, and you are “grounding out” the charge by directing it through your body into the floor. You’ll likely find that the thought subsides into the emptiness from which it came.
It’s also helpful to recognize how much we can accomplish in our lives without using our minds. In fact, there are many things it’s impossible to do effectively while our minds are active. When we’re doing an intensely physical activity like playing basketball or rock climbing, allowing thoughts about the past or future to cloud our awareness strips away our skill and enjoyment.
In these and other activities, we have to essentially turn off our minds and let our bodies operate on instinct. We need to enter what psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi famously called a state of “flow,” where our attention is entirely on what we’re doing and “out of our heads,” to perform well and have fun.
If you haven’t experimented with reducing the amount of thinking you regularly do, I invite you to try it, if only for a few minutes or hours at a time. I think you’ll be surprised by the peace and focus this practice can bring you.
Many of us harbor deep-seated negative ideas about ourselves that nothing we accomplish out in the world seems to shake. No matter how much money we make or possessions we accumulate, how many degrees we earn, or how ideal our lives look on the outside, we’re plagued by the nagging suspicion that something is wrong with us. In fact, what we do in the world often feels like an effort to disguise what we really are—“worthless,” “losers,” “disgusting,” and so on—and we worry that some day our true natures will be “exposed” for all to see.
What we don’t usually consider is who we’re talking about when we think something like “I am worthless.” In other words, what do we really mean by “I”? I’ve found that regularly asking myself this question has done much to give me a sense of peace and composure, and quiet my negative thinking.
To many people, this will seem like an absurd or meaningless question. “’I’ obviously means ‘me,’” you may be thinking. “What’s unclear about that?” But if you probe a little deeper, I think you’ll see that the answer isn’t quite that obvious.
To illustrate, see if you can physically pinpoint who you’re talking about when you say “I.” Take your finger and point to what you mean by “I” when you have a thought like “I’m incompetent” or “I’m not good enough.” The people I’ve done this exercise with tend to point at their chests, or perhaps their heads. (This is based on an exercise described by spiritual teacher Richard Moss in The Mandala of Being.)
If you, like most people, pointed at part of your body, let’s take a closer look at whether you actually have your body in mind when you say “I.” Try raising your arm and putting it back down. Notice that, when you did this, you had the experience of causing your arm to move. You may even have had a thought like “I am moving my arm.” You didn’t have the thought “I am moving myself”—in your experience, you were moving something outside of yourself.
In other words, you experienced yourself as the controller of your arm’s movements. And if you’re in control of your arm, you must be separate from it—just as the driver of a car is in control of the car but separate from it. You are not your body—you are in control of it, in the driver’s seat. You can also grasp this point if you imagine how you would think and feel if you lost your arm. Even if your arm were gone, you would still think of yourself as “I.” You wouldn’t think of the lost arm as “I.”
But even the idea that you are the “driver” of your body doesn’t completely express the truth. After all, there are functions of your body, like breathing and circulation, that you don’t have the experience of controlling at all. So really, you are not in full control of your body—you are something with partial responsibility for your body’s activities, and something else takes care of the rest.
Some people, as I said, point to their heads when doing this exercise, and say that they are their brains, or at least some part of them. However, this idea doesn’t fit with our experience either. The brain, as we know, is an incredibly complex organ, with more than 100 billion neurons that constantly interact through the exchange of chemicals called neurotransmitters. But these things don’t come to mind when we say “I.” For example, when we say something to ourselves like “I can’t do anything right,” we don’t mean that our neurons or brain chemicals are incompetent.
The truth is that it’s very hard to pinpoint what we mean when we say “I”—most of us, myself included, can’t do it in a satisfying way at all. At first, this uncertainty about what we really are seems frustrating. But when we hold our attention on the uncertainty—when we allow the fact that we don’t know what we are to simply be—we start to feel inexplicably calm. It’s actually comforting, I think you’ll discover, to accept that you don’t know who and what you really are. Personally, when I allow this uncertainty to be without judging it or forcing it away, I sigh or laugh with relief.
Accepting this uncertainty leads us to peace because it helps us see how ridiculous the things we think about ourselves are. We have all these negative beliefs like “I’m not smart enough,” “I don’t relate well with people,” and so on, but we don’t even know who we’re talking about when we say “I.” To really get how meaningless and comical this is, try making up a nonsense word, and then making some negative statements about that word.
For instance, you might try saying something like “Grum is a loser,” or “Grum is worthless.” This statement is, of course, laughable, because in saying it you’re putting “Grum” down without even knowing what he, she or it is. And if this statement is absurd, the beliefs “I am worthless,” “I am a loser” and so on are equally so, because you are just as unaware of what “I” really means. In short, you have no business calling yourself names when you don’t even know who or what you are.
I’ve found that holding my lack of knowledge of who I am in my awareness gives life a sense of freshness and adventure. The possibilities open to me no longer seem so limited by negative beliefs. When I keep in mind that I don’t know who I am, those beliefs can have no power over me. In some ways, it’s as if I’m a child again, full of curiosity and wonder at the world and unrestricted by harmful ideas about what I can’t and shouldn’t do. As Lao-Tzu wisely put it, “to know that you do not know is best.”
In The Intuitive Way: The Definitive Guide To Increasing Your Awareness, Penney Pierce aptly describes the sense of freedom and awe that comes from being willing to accept how little we know about ourselves and the world:
Truly successful students possess a natural “beginner’s mind” and can temporarily suspend what they know to listen, act, receive, and process new data with childlike innocence and directness. With a beginner’s mind you will not be threatened by not knowing or by having personal experiences that vary from the norm. You’ll feel fresh and sincere. You’ll trust yourself, trust the process of learning, and trust that whatever you need next will be revealed in a way you can understand.
The next time you start beating yourself up, I invite you to see if you can return to this calm, receptive state of “beginner’s mind.” Simply ask yourself “who is this ‘I’ that I am being negative about?” Who is the “I” that is supposedly bad, unattractive, unsuccessful, and so on? Notice, and cherish, the blankness and emptiness that come up in response to this question. Regularly bringing this question into your awareness can gift you with a deep sense of peace and freedom.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-62/.)
Many of us have developed ideas about ourselves—what we might call identities—that artificially limit what we can accomplish in life. For instance, some of us have come to think of ourselves as shy or meek, and thus we avoid conflict and let others take advantage of us. Some of us identify ourselves as unmotivated, and thus we hold back from pursuing the education or careers we want for fear of failure. Still others see themselves as unsociable or unattractive, and have decided it’s hopeless to try to meet someone they’re attracted to.
We often forget what prompted us to buy into these identities, and even that we existed before we had these beliefs at all. When asked how they decided that all of these hurtful notions about themselves are true, many people will simply respond “I just know” or “it’s always been that way.” But there must have been some moment when we decided, or some period of time in which we gradually concluded, that certain beliefs about ourselves are true. At the very least, when we were embryos in our mothers’ wombs, it’s unlikely we were suffering from self-esteem problems.
I used to have many painful ideas about myself—most notably, that I was too shy or strange to deal with people, and that people generally just wanted me to leave them alone. Although I was attached to these harmful identities, on some level I knew I couldn’t have believed in them all my life. There must have been some point in time when I decided they were true. What was life like before I started thinking these terrible thoughts? I wondered. But each time I’d try to remember my experience of the world before these beliefs, my mind would simply draw a blank.
A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes “show me your original face before you were born.” Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was “that makes no sense—I didn’t exist before I was born.” But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like “before I was born,” I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind. Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there. For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.
I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning. One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization. In the words “before you were born,” “you” means your identity—the beliefs you’ve formed about yourself and who you are in the world. You “gave birth” to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were. The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed—we had an “original face”—before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves. We are not our beliefs, in other words—we are their creator and believer.
When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves. As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives. At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we’re “drawing a blank,” not coming up with anything. However, we only see it that way because we’re so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don’t arise. In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.
I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my “original face.” Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs. This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia—it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.
In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality. Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away. Spiritual teacher Osho‘s description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well: “Just be what you are and don’t care a bit about the world. Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart. This is what Zen people call your ‘original face’—relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave.”
As always, I’ll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me. If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following. When some harmful idea about yourself arises—for instance, “I’m too scared to do this,” “I’m not an interesting person,” “people are going to mock me if I try this,” and so on, pause what you’re doing for a moment. Ask yourself when you decided that this was true. Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.
You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has “always been true”—that you’ve “always” been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else. If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or—if those two questions yield the same answer—before you existed. As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you’ll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank—where you can’t come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.
Don’t give up here simply because you don’t think you can remember anything—allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it. As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you. This is the experience of your “original face”—your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways. You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.
A while back, I wrote an article on the oft-revisited issue of how to deal with a negative “self-image.” I suggested we’re actually at our most joyful and empowered in moments when we’re not conscious of any self-image, or mental picture of ourselves, at all. In my experience, self-images, whether negative or positive, are a source of frustration and distraction. I’ll expand on this issue here by discussing ways to transcend our self-images, and allow our full awareness to enrich what we’re doing in each moment.
When your attention is on your self-image, it’s as if, while you’re doing whatever activity you’re doing, someone is videotaping you and you’re watching the video on a screen. In other words, it’s like you’re watching yourself doing what you’re doing in real time, as you’re doing it. If you’re having a conversation with someone, and your attention is fixated on your self-image, it’s as if you’re simultaneously having the conversation and observing it from a third-person view. Not surprisingly, this diverts your attention from what you’re doing and makes you less effective at accomplishing your goals.
For example, a while back, when I was rock climbing with some more skilled climbers, I’d occasionally worry about falling on relatively easy courses in front of my friends. In other words, I was paying attention to the image I was projecting to my fellow climbers while I was trying to climb the rock. Of course, watching this mental movie distracted me, and had me fall in exactly the embarrassing ways I wanted to avoid.
Sometimes, we get so accustomed to holding our attention on our self-images—to trying to get a sense of how we look from the outside as we go about our lives—that we forget we’re doing it. Recently, a friend told me a story that nicely illustrated this point. She’s been taking a yoga class for a while, and for a long time she was frustrated with her lack of progress at mastering the poses she’s learning. This changed when, one day, her yoga instructor half-jokingly reminded the students to pay attention only to their own movements, and not to how they looked to others.
When her teacher said this, my friend suddenly realized how self-conscious she’d been about the way her yoga poses appeared to others in the class. She’d become so accustomed to worrying about how others saw her that she’d started doing it constantly and unconsciously. Once she gained this awareness, my friend started practicing holding her full attention on nothing but her movements. Ever since, she’s been surprised at how quickly she’s been learning.
My friend’s experience calls to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s theory in his well-known book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. People enter a state of flow, or peak performance and fulfillment, when their attention becomes so focused on what they are doing that they temporarily forget they’re the ones doing it. They lose all concern, in other words, for others’ opinions of them and what they can get for themselves by doing the activity. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, in a flow state,
One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.
Similarly, because my friend shifted her focus away from how her yoga poses looked to others, and brought it entirely to her body’s movements, she greatly improved her performance.
How do you become aware of those moments where your fixation on your self-image is harming your joy and fulfillment in life? One meditation technique has helped me develop this awareness, and it’s pretty simple. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, and carefully observe the thoughts that arise. At certain moments, my thoughts become absorbed in my relationships with other people, and I find myself wondering what another person thinks or feels about me. In other words, I wonder what image I’ve projected to the other person in my interactions with them, and thus focus my attention on my “self-image.”
I’ve noticed that, when I place my attention on my self-image, I feel a mild, ugly sensation in my upper back, just under the shoulder blades. It’s not just distracting for me to focus on how I’m appearing to others—it’s actually unpleasant, and has a specific uncomfortable feeling associated with it. When I’m going through my daily routine, I’ve got too much on my mind to notice those moments where I slip into “image-consciousness.” But when I’m sitting alone in silence, those moments stand out very clearly.
As I practiced, during meditation, noticing when my concerns about my self-image came up, I started becoming able to observe when my attention would fixate on that issue during my daily life. I began noticing that the same unpleasant sensation I’d felt in my back while meditating arose in specific situations out in the “real world.”
When I went to the gym, for instance, I started noticing that ugly feeling creeping into my back—probably because, like my friend the yogini, I was unconsciously fretting over how my body looked to others. The good news was that, as with my friend, my image-consciousness quickly began to dissolve when I became fully aware of it. By becoming conscious of the situations where I’d start fixating on my self-image, I’ve brought much peace and focus to my life.
To do this exercise, simply find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed and close your eyes. As you sit there, your thoughts may drift to what the people in your life think of you, and how your actions and inactions may have affected their opinions. When this happens, notice any sensations you experience in your body. Perhaps you will feel tingling, tightness, pain or something else. These sensations, you’ll find, are signals that your mind is drifting into self-consciousness—that you are putting your attention on your self-image.
As you reenter your daily life, pay attention to how your body feels in the various situations you find yourself in. On occasion, you’ll likely notice the same sensations you felt during meditation coming up. When you feel one of these sensations, gently remind yourself that you are becoming absorbed in your self-image, your appearance to others. This awareness is often enough to loosen your self-image’s grip on your attention, and return you to a state of composure and concentration. As meditation teacher Rohit Mehta says in The Secret of Self-Transformation, “to see the self-image for oneself in the mirror of life is to see its destruction.”
It seems like there’s no idea people will defend more fiercely or passionately than the notion that they aren’t good enough human beings. Many people, when talking about how inferior or inadequate they supposedly are, undergo an amazing transformation. People who usually shy away from conflict or seem apathetic suddenly become champion debaters when arguing that they haven’t achieved enough with their lives. People with generally positive outlooks on life suddenly become incurable cynics and pessimists when they’re convincing you of how badly they screwed something up. And so on.
A recent conversation with a friend reminded me of this quirky aspect of the human personality. My friend is a highly-skilled and well-paid biotech researcher. “On paper,” as they say, he’s got everything going for him—he has a first-rate education, he’s in great shape and he’s got a nice house and car. Unfortunately, however, he and his girlfriend split up six months ago. Since then, he’s been insisting to me that he’s not a successful guy at all—in fact, he says, he’s a “loser.”
This hasn’t been for lack of trying on my part. Every time he’s called himself a loser, I’ve reminded him of all his great qualities and everything he’s accomplished in his life. But for every positive thing I say about him, he’s got a reason why it’s irrelevant, unimportant or exaggerated. If I remind him of how well-liked he is at work, for instance, he’ll tell me people are just pitying him. If I remind him of something he has fun doing, like playing tennis, he’ll insist it doesn’t matter. If I tell him he’s a kind and generous person, he’ll tell me those are weak qualities that he wishes he were rid of.
As flattery was getting me nowhere, I decided to take a different tack. I asked him how he would feel if he didn’t think he was a loser. (This was inspired by Byron Katie‘s process of undermining negative thoughts by asking yourself, among other things, who you’d be if you didn’t believe your thoughts.) Of course, like any good friend, I was hoping he’d experience a life-changing epiphany when he pondered this question, never feel down on himself again, and live the rest of his life in a state of undisturbed inner peace.
However, I didn’t quite get the reaction I’d hoped for. Instead, he became angry, telling me I was missing the point because he obviously did think he was a loser, and lecturing me on how I was being unrealistic and needed to “live in the real world.” But when he calmed down, he acknowledged how fiercely he’d been defending the idea that he was a loser, and how strange, and maybe even amusing, that seemed.
This conversation got me wondering: why do we hold on so tightly to negative thoughts about ourselves? Why do we defend ourselves against giving up those thoughts, despite how painful they are? I’ve come to believe it’s because, consciously or otherwise, we see these ideas about ourselves as part of who we are. We need these ideas, we think, to be complete human beings—losing them would be like losing some part of our bodies, or even being completely annihilated.
In discussing a client who, like my friend, harbored the belief “I’m a loser,” psychologist Betsie Carter-Haar aptly describes this sense of identification with our ideas about ourselves:
A positive experience is simply not acceptable to the ‘Loser’ because its quality is different from, and inconsistent with, that of his self-image. But it goes even further: a positive experience is actually threatening. What if he were not really a Loser? Who would he be then? . . . . [H]is fear of loss of identity, of a deep void of inner emptiness, if not correctly understood is often too overwhelming to be faced. In such a situation it frequently seems less painful to have a negative sense of self than no sense of self at all.
When we persistently have certain thoughts about ourselves, these thoughts eventually become so familiar and constant that we conclude they’re actually part of us. Our beliefs become as comfortable and familiar as our bodies, homes, jobs, and so on. For instance, if we believe—for whatever reason—that we’re bad and inadequate for long enough, we become identified with that belief, and protect the belief by arguing tenaciously with anyone who tries to convince us otherwise.
How do we detach ourselves from, or end our identification with, our ideas about who we are? How do we dispel the need to defend our “loserhood” to the death? One helpful technique, I’ve found, is to regularly experience being in a state in which you aren’t thinking anything about yourself. Try sitting alone, closing your eyes, and focusing your attention entirely on some sound or sensation—either within yourself or the outside world. You might, for instance, focus on the feeling and sound of your breathing, or on the sound of birds outside your window.
When your awareness is entirely fixed on a sensation, rather than your mind’s memories, interpretations and judgments, you are not thinking. Nonetheless, you are the same being you’ve always been. Even when you have no ideas or beliefs about yourself or anything else, you remain you—ceasing to think, or perform any other mental activity, doesn’t destroy you at all. This realization helps weaken your attachment to the ways you think about and perceive yourself.
Recognize, as well, that you existed—you were the person you are today—before you had a single thought. Up until some point in your early development, whether in the womb or after your birth, you hadn’t thought about anything. You didn’t see yourself as a “loser,” “winner,” “doctor,” “mother,” or any of the other labels you’ve since attached to yourself. In fact, you didn’t see yourself at all—you simply were yourself. Regularly reflecting on this is a great way to liberate yourself from negative thinking.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-57/.)
If you’ve read self-help literature, you’ve probably heard about the “inner critic”—the mental voice that constantly tells you that you’re not good enough, and bombards you with memories of difficult events and visions of nightmarish possible futures. There are many schools of thought on how to deal with the critic, and most focus on developing more positive beliefs about oneself or using techniques to quiet one’s mind.
However, I recently had an idea about the critic that hasn’t received as much coverage: what if we actually created what we call the “inner critic” to please ourselves? What if, on some level, we actually enjoy the suffering it causes us? What if the critic were like an addictive drug, and we could stop using it, go “cold turkey,” and kick the habit completely?
I’ll start explaining this by observing that many of us seem to enjoy feeling like we’re “right” and others are “wrong.” We crave the sense that we’re more assertive, convincing, prudent, logical or moral than someone else. For this reason, many people seek out and create conflicts in their lives—whether they be adversarial business negotiations, shouting matches between spouses, or, in extreme cases, physical fights.
Many of us crave that feeling of “rightness” so strongly that we’ll use even the most minor mistakes by others as opportunities to loudly proclaim how much better we are than them. We see this on the highway, where people scream obscenities at and threaten to kill each other for driving too slowly; or in crowded places, where people will take someone slightly bumping into them as the gravest and most personal of insults.
Not everyone seeks that feeling of rightness by putting others down. Some of us feel uncomfortable with telling others they’re wrong or attacking them in some other way, but we still want to experience the high “being right” gives us. Thus, we create someone to fight with in our minds. We create a mental adversary, an “inner critic,” who constantly attacks us for our perceived shortcomings, and we fight back against it. This is very convenient. We don’t have to look for an “outer critic,” an opponent in the outside world, to fight against—we’ve got one right here in the comfort of our own heads.
We can recognize this in the ways we respond to the inner critic. Many of us shout down the critic, telling it to shut up or yelling profanity at it. Others debate the critic, reminding it of all we’ve accomplished in our lives and defending ourselves against its accusations. Still others complain about the critic—“oh, if only I didn’t have this mental voice keeping me from getting what I want!” People whom our society considers “mentally ill” may physically attack themselves, trying to beat the critic out of their brains. In each case, we’re trying to feel like we’re more “right” than the critic, or that we’ve “defeated” it in mental combat.
Unfortunately, just as picking fights in the outside world can get us hurt, constant battle with the inner critic can wear us out. Putting the critic down, reasoning with it, complaining about it, and fighting it in all the other ways we do is physically draining and creates tension in our bodies. When you’re locked in constant battle with the critic, you feel like what rock band Blue Oyster Cult called “the veteran of a thousand psychic wars.”
The key to stopping this inner conflict is to kick your addiction to feeling that you are “right,” and that someone else, even if it is a mind-generated entity, is “wrong.” You can do this, I’ve found, by staying alert for those moments when you start craving conflict. The habit of conflict-seeking has probably been an unconscious one for most of your life, but if you hold your attention on it, you can see it for what it is.
As I described in an earlier article, in those moments, you experience a sensation as if your mind is an attic through which someone is rummaging. The attic contains embarrassing pictures, letters and drawings from your childhood, and the person rummaging through them is looking for something to humiliate you with. Eventually, the person finds something, and shows the embarrassing document to you. This is when the criticism or difficult memory pops into your head, and you start fighting against it to feed your conflict addiction.
If you watch this mental process carefully, you’ll likely come to the surprising realization that you have at least some control over it. You are the person rummaging through your mind, looking for compromising information to use against yourself. You are searching for a memory or other thought to resist, to fight with. But you probably don’t feel that you’re in complete control of this process. Your search for conflict has become compulsive—much as a smoker just can’t seem to quit.
When you feel that craving for conflict, see if you can simply allow it to be. Just acknowledge that your mind is seeking something to fight against, without looking for something to satisfy that urge with. If you’re unable to keep yourself from seeking out thoughts and memories to attack yourself with, bring the same acceptance to those thoughts and memories. Simply allow them to be, without suppressing, belittling, or arguing against them, and you will not feed your hunger for internal strife.
This practice seems difficult at first, but it rapidly becomes easier, and the potential gains are tremendous. Abandoning the habit of seeking mental conflict, of creating an “inner critic,” can bring you closer to the inner peace you’ve desired but may have had trouble achieving.
My life has taken a few twists and turns recently, and many outside observers would probably call them “turns for the worse.” My car won’t run for some reason, I haven’t been able to sell my condo for three months, and my investments have taken a beating. Five years ago, I definitely would have lost some sleep worrying over these events, particularly because they all happened in a short time period. But today, I’m taking them in stride.
One of my friends couldn’t understand why I’m not worried about these setbacks. “I’d be worried if I were you,” he said.
“What would you be worried about?” I asked.
“I’d worry that things weren’t going to get better.”
“You’d be imagining what might happen in the future?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’d be imagining that, in five years, none of those problems would be solved.”
I found this conversation very enlightening, because my friend pinpointed the exact reason why I no longer find myself stressing about the setbacks in my life. When a problem would arise, I used to do exactly what my friend described—I’d form a pessimistic mental picture of the future. In this imaginary future, the problems I face in the present have exploded to fearsome proportions.
For example, if I were creating mental pictures of the future based on my current problems, I’d be imagining myself being flat broke a year from now because I never sold my condo, repairs for my car ended up being massively expensive, and the stock market never picked up. I’d be preoccupied with fear of that imaginary future, and that fear would have harmful physical effects—my chest and back would be tensing up, and I’d be grinding my jaw and giving myself headaches.
Why did I have this habit of conjuring up negative possible futures in my mind? Like I said, those mental pictures were painful to experience, and creating them didn’t have many practical benefits to me. Constantly worrying about a problem didn’t motivate me, or help me come up with ways, to solve it. To the contrary, all that anxiety about bad possible futures would paralyze me.
Because the imaginary futures seemed so threatening, I’d hold off from making a decision, for fear of doing something wrong and making my mental movies “come true.” Often, I’d try absorb myself in some other activity to avoid thinking about them. Instead of learning the valuable lessons the problems in my life could teach me, I refused to face them because I associated them with frightening mental images.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I had this habit for the same reason many people enjoy watching horror movies. Quite simply, on some level, I get a kick out of getting scared. Because I have a fairly vivid imagination, I don’t need to watch a movie to satisfy my craving for anxiety. I can generate limitless nightmare scenarios from the comforts of my own mind. The problem is that, although watching mental horror movies gets me my “fear fix,” it distracts me from actually dealing with my problems and creates physical discomfort.
People compulsively worry about the future for different reasons. Some people, for instance, don’t do it because part of them likes being afraid—they do it because, consciously or otherwise, it has them feel righteous. To them, their constant anxiety about the future makes them mature, responsible people. Making mental horror movies, in their view, is just part of being an adult. Similarly, some people worry about others’ safety all the time because it makes them feel caring and protective. If they weren’t constantly fretting about others’ well-being, after all, they’d be selfish people.
How do you get your mind out of the business of making horror movies? For me, the key is to stay alert for those moments when your mind starts imagining a negative future scenario. When you sense your mind doing this, simply remind yourself—whether internally or out loud—that your mind is feeding its fear addiction. Further, remind yourself that you don’t need those pictures to address the problems in your life. In fact, if you’re relaxed and composed when you’re solving your problems, you’ll do a much better job at it.
When you come to see them for what they really are, your mind’s nightmare scenarios don’t have the same emotional impact. What’s more, when you can detach yourself from the illusions your mind creates when you run into problems, you’re far more able to calmly and effectively address those problems.
I used to go through life without really seeing or hearing much of the world around me. Instead, I was mostly seeing images and hearing sounds created by my mind. Rather than seeing what was happening in the world, I was watching mental pictures of past events from my life—usually ones I regretted, and of possible future events—usually unpleasant ones. Instead of hearing the sounds occurring in the world, I was listening to songs I’d heard in the past, and to mental recordings of criticisms people had leveled at me before or might make in the future.
I wasn’t hallucinating, or otherwise “mentally ill”—at least, not by our society’s standards. I could tell the mental images and sounds apart from reality. Like many of us, I’d simply chosen to live almost entirely in my mind. This would have been all right if my mind were a decent place to live. However, as I suggested earlier, it wasn’t. The pictures and sounds I created with my mind were almost always painful, and physically tiring, to experience.
Unfortunately, over the years, I completely forgot I’d consciously decided to fill my life with mentally-created pictures and sounds. I came to believe living in my mind was perfectly natural, and that humans were simply created to live that way. In fact, it was an addictive habit I no longer remembered how to break.
I had an experience that changed my perception one night when I was lying in bed. I tended to play music in my mind to help myself sleep. This particular night, I became frustrated with the songs I was hearing. As the saying goes, I couldn’t get some song “out of my head”—I seemed to have set my mental CD player on “repeat”—and I wanted to listen to a different one. I’d be successful at changing the music for a few moments, but then the new song would fade out and be replaced by the old, irritating one again. After trying in vain for a while to change my mental radio station, I gave up and decided I wanted the darn thing turned off completely.
Startlingly, when I had this thought, my mental radio actually did switch off. I heard nothing but the minimal sounds in the room, and the sounds of my pulse and breathing. At first, the emptiness was frightening—it was as though, if I didn’t leave the radio on, something would leap out of the silence and attack me. I suddenly remembered I’d experienced this emptiness before, as a young child. I recalled lying in bed, feeling alone and scared by the silence. And, with surprising clarity, I remembered deciding to turn my mental radio on, and leave it on, so I wouldn’t have to feel alone or frightened. The music in my head wasn’t a natural part of being human—I had consciously chosen to create it.
This time, however, I tried leaving the music in my head off. After a few minutes, I began feeling a peaceful warmth in my body. The silence started to feel natural and welcoming, like an old friend I was finally reuniting with after many years apart. I fell asleep shortly after that realization.
When I woke up and had to return to the outside world, I found that I still had access to the peace I’d felt the night before. All I had to do, even in a busy city with loud noise all around, was to focus on turning off the mental radio and listening to what was actually going on around me. Simply hearing the real world, rather than the music in my head, was a very soothing experience.
To be sure, I wasn’t completely free of mental images and sounds after that day. Like I said, living in my mind was a habit I’d constantly indulged for most of my life. Initially, I felt an almost irresistible urge to switch the music back on. I had to pay close attention to my thoughts to make sure this urge didn’t overcome me. If I wasn’t alert enough, I’d unconsciously turn on the music—or, worse, I would dive into a stream of negative, destructive thinking. But with practice, my alertness increased, and my tendency to automatically turn on the radio lessened.
If you find yourself plagued by unwanted mental images and sounds, I have a recommendation for you. The next time you have a moment to sit by yourself, whether you’re in a quiet or a noisy space, simply focus on the world around you. See and hear what’s really going on in the world, without watching mental movies or listening to mental voices or music. Just let your senses take in reality, without mentally commenting on it or imagining things that happened or might happen in it.
At the outset, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep the mental images and sounds turned off. You may find them creeping back into your awareness, no matter how you try to sustain your focus. When this happens, don’t shame yourself—just hold your attention on the real world, and the images and sounds will gradually subside. You may also feel the urge to fight back against your mind, particularly if it’s constantly replaying painful experiences. I used to do this a lot myself—I’d yell at my mind to shut up, because I was trying to concentrate or enjoy my life. However, this only makes your mind into an enemy, and intensifies the negativity of your thoughts.
As you work on stemming the flow of mental images and sounds, the state of peace and emptiness will start to feel more natural. And, in fact, it is. You’ll come to see that directly experiencing the world, without constant mental chatter, is your natural state. It takes effort, and it is tiresome, to operate TV and radio stations in your mind that are constantly broadcasting, and you don’t need to do it. Switching off your mental TV and radio can bring a peace and aliveness to your existence you may never have felt before.