Sunday, June 8, 2008

Only hope

There's a phrase I've seen several times lately: "Don't believe everything you think." It always throws me a bit; takes a minute or two to parse through and figure out what it means, and whether or not I think it's good advice.

I suppose it should be more obvious than that: as a person who endeavors to meditate regularly, I am very aware that my "monkey-mind" is always busy, always churning through what's been done and what's to come. What I hadn't realized, which was pointed out to me in some text recently, is that most of those thoughts have been "thunk" before, and a high percentage of them are apparently negative for most people.

So what does that mean? I guess if most of those negative thoughts are about things done and yet to do, then that would mean the thoughts of the past involve regrets and anger, guilt and loss, and that the thoughts of the future have to do with fear and worry. It seems to me that if our minds are busily rehearsing all those same thoughts over and over again, it's no wonder so much of our time is spent either feeling lonely or busily self-medicating with whatever helps us bury, escape, or quiet those restless negative thoughts.

It sounds awfully discouraging. Maybe that's why depression and addiction, cancer and heart disease are the hallmarks of our society. How is it that some of us manage to escape this cycle of thinkings and feelings?

Last year I read Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book, The Tipping Point, and I remember one study he cited in there that clearly indicated that forming our face into a frown makes us feel negative, and forming our face into a smile can actually elevate a mood. I've also been reading another book called Social Intelligence, in which the author talks about the human tendency to reflect -- with our facial expressions -- the facial expressions of those around us.

So given all this information, you could imagine that getting caught up in our own relentless progression of negative thoughts would then reflect in our faces, and that negativity would in turn be reflected in the faces of others, which would then influence their moods: sort of a depressive domino effect -- ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

What can we do to reverse the momentum? I have two daughters at home now, recovering from difficult years away from home; both in the throes of transition. And I found myself telling one of them yesterday that she needs to channel her energy into something creative, or something physical. Perhaps what I need to also point out is that all her negative thoughts have to do with past and future, and that maybe the best way out of the cycle is to (thank you, Baba Ram Dass) Be Here Now.

Let the negative thoughts go, don't get caught up in the regrets, angers and fears. Focus on what is happening around you right now, on what might give you pleasure right now, right here, with what you have in this moment. Because this moment will be gone soon, and you'll never have this particular set of opportunities again.

I mean, seriously: where would you rather be? Sitting alone in a bar, drowning your sorrows in alcohol? Or out walking the beach with your face turned to the rain; out in the forest drinking in the lush greenness of spring; out in the garden, tilling the rich earth; out walking the city streets, watching the play of light and shadow reflected in the store windows; down at the club, pushing your limits on the weight machine, the stationery bikes or the treadmill?

What would pull you out of yourself more: playing a video game, reading a book, watching TV, writing a poem, taking a photograph, organizing a closet? Or do you want to be pulled INTO yourself? Take the time to look at your thoughts, watch their progression, let them go, see where they take you, and choose whether or not you want to go there.

All of the possibilities have value; it's all about the choices we make, how we spend our time, and what benefits our activities will reap for us in the long run. Surely there is a balance that can be struck, a way of choosing what is right for us at any given time. The trick there is that we have to be conscious in our choices, aware of what the moment offers in the way of challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities.

Maybe, for this particular daughter, now is a time when her job is simply to manage transition: to watch her thoughts and reactions, to sit with and comfort her old self, to welcome and encourage the self that is becoming. Instead of mourning the losses and the missing friends, to befriend herself and rejoice in the moment.

Ah, but that would be me giving advice. And now that she's almost 20, advice from Mom is pretty much the last thing she wants to hear. So my job is to give this advice to myself, rejoice in the opportunities of MY moments, to hug her when I can, listen when I can, and stay in touch with my own joy. Maybe some of the joy in me will form itself into a smile, reflect itself in her beautiful face, and result in a little mood elevation for her.

I can only hope!

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