Don’t believe everything you think

Every time we open the news app on our phone or sign into Facebook or Twitter, every time we turn on the TV, we are bombarded by how bad things are. There is so much wrong in the world, so many people suffering, and it is easy to get agitated or even enraged. But if we allow ourselves to be churned up in response to all the terrible news, we can feel helpless, hopeless. We don’t know what to do or how to help.

Too often, we also fall into the trap of polarization. There’s “my side” and the “other side.” There are blue and red political parties, people who look like me and people who don’t, men and women, straight and LGBT, citizens and refugees. But if we keep on thinking it’s “those other people” who are the cause of our unhappiness, we’ll never be able to figure out how to actually calm things down so that we can all flourish in this world and be joyful and safe.

Happiness and suffering are both creations of our own mind. Of course, the outer conditions play a certain role, but in the end, the real source of our emotions is our mind. If our mind is strong, if our mind is peaceful, no outside situation can disturb us, since nothing external can actually cause us as much pain as our own thoughts. All our sensations of joy and agony, happiness and pain, are experienced by our mind. And they are also created by our mind.

If we can genuinely connect with and understand our own mind, then we can have a better understanding of others, who may think differently from us. And when we have a little better understanding of others, then we can genuinely engage in activities that can benefit us, our families, and the wider world.

No One to Blame

There is no one to blame here. Happiness and suffering, joy and pain, are dependent on whether our own mind is calm or agitated. When our mind is quiet, we have more capacity to relate with our world and our experiences with a sense of gentleness. We feel that we’re all in this together. When our mind is not calm, then everything around us becomes more irritating or infuriating. There is no sense of gentleness or understanding. Our mind becomes more agitated, more distressed, and we completely lose perspective. We’re so focused on the heat of blaming others that we can’t experience the gentle breeze of compassion or empathy. Then we experience more pain or we cause suffering for others.

There’s a story about two couples: one couple was deeply in love and happy, and the other couple was having a hard time. Both couples ended up in the same restaurant, and both ordered the same food. One member of each couple ordered soup, and the other ordered salad. When the dinners came, the soup eaters both started using their forks instead of their spoons. In the couple having a hard time, the salad eater looked at their partner and thought, “What a jerk, eating soup with a fork!” In the other couple, the ones having a good time, the salad eater thought, “How cute and funny, so special, eating soup with a fork.” Was anything different about the external circumstances of these two experiences? No. Both couples were eating the same meal. So you can see how our minds create our world and create our experience of joy or pain. You can think your partner’s a jerk and that gives you pain, or you can think your partner’s cute and that brings you happiness.

First, you have to notice what your mind is doing when it reacts to everything going on around you. Second, you have to take some control over it. You have to tame your jumpy, emotional mind, and then you have to train it, like domesticating a wild horse.

Stop and Look at Your Mind: An Exercise

The key to becoming familiar with our mind is to watch it. How do we do this? It seems as if our mind is too close for us to catch it when it veers off into confusion and unkindness. But with a little practice, we can learn to pause and examine our thoughts. This helps us see situations more clearly. A bit of analysis can stop the wild horse of our mind from jumping to conclusions and stumbling into trouble.

1. Think of a time when you suddenly got upset about something. Where were you and who were you with? Write down your memory in two or three brief sentences.

2. What were you thinking when you got upset? Briefly, write down the first thought you remember having. Don’t write about anything else, just your own thought.

3. Now look at the thought you wrote down, and ask yourself:

  • Is this a judgment, or a critical thought? Is it a fearful thought?
  • Am I certain this thought is true? If so, how can I be certain?
  • If I’m not sure this thought is true, what is a possible alternative?

4. Notice how it feels in your physical body as you look at your mind’s activity. What was it like to try to remember the thought you had before getting upset? Now that you have considered whether your first thought was true, how do you feel about the situation? Is there a difference? As you continue to practice, eventually you will become able to stop and look at your mind, examining your thoughts before you get upset. You might save a lot of energy this way.