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|Posted on December 11, 2014 at 11:52 PM||comments (45)|
Noticing Our Thoughts
Scott Lauze MD
11 December 2014
One of my favorite “truisms” or slogans that one hears in meditation halls or in the rooms of recovery is “Don’t believe everything you think.” And we think A LOT as humans beings. Researchers say that on average we have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts each day. We have these amazing minds that are so good at making sense of our experiences. We feel we can think our way out of almost anything. And our ability to think, imagine and predict outcomes, and learn from our past and our memories, has put us at the top of the food chain. This ability also makes us great storytellers.
Jason Gots, from the blog BigThink.com, tells us in his article Our Storytelling Brains that “cognitive science has long recognized narrative as a basic organizing principle of memory. From early childhood, we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is not the main objective – coherence is. If necessary, our minds will invent things that never happened, people who don't exist, simply to hold the narrative together.” I think we’ve all had the experience of having witnessed the same event with someone else (or others) and yet in retelling the story, we notice that we differ, sometimes significantly, in our accounts of the event. We come to each situation in life with our own unique set of past experiences that shape how we look at the world, and create expectations about how the world works. Invariably, our experiences slightly distort the lens through which we see the world. Sometimes this is a good thing -- thank goodness we have artists who can convey their unique perspectives and can tell a story through words, paint, clay or dance that gets the rest of use to look at life in a richer way. But sometimes, this distorted view can color our experiences in a way that can increase our suffering.
Everyday I sit with patients who have experienced terrible losses, traumas, and hardships. Children with their storytelling minds will frequently wonder, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” As an attempt to make sense of their experience, to have an answer that feels like a satisfying resolution to the question, the child’s mind (which is normally egocentric until adolescence) will create a story. Frequently, the story goes something like this: “This bad thing is happening to me because I must have done something bad or wrong.” Or: “I must be bad or wrong.” This is such a common story kids tell themselves, and they hold on to this story, especially if their trauma or loss or abuse happened over a protracted period. They hold onto it, too, because it is easier to blame themselves than risk any disconnection from a caretaker they rely on to live.
We all wrap ourselves up in our accumulated experiences and our accumulated stories about those experiences, and these stories become how we see ourselves. They distort the lens. They become our identity, even though they may be based on stories that are not true. An innocent child is not to blame for the hardships he or she experiences at the hands of adults, and yet these kids can grow up to be adults with a feeling of low self-worth, or of being essentially unlovable, shame-based. The external events, that have nothing to do with who they are in any essential way, have come to define them.
Our definitions of ourselves, our identities, feel very personal, very true, and very important. We hold onto them tightly. Have you ever had the experience of learning that how you see yourself is not how others see you? It can feel eerie, confusing, even threatening. It shakes us to our core. Our storytelling minds want coherence not dissonance. And if we cannot bear to see ourselves as we truly are, then we may develop unhealthy defenses against the truth, like denial.
But if you are reading this blog, then chances are you are interested in seeing yourself, and life, in a way that is closer to true, free of the distortions of our experience. How do we do this? How do we learn to let go of the stories that no longer serve us or that increase our suffering?
There are several ways people do this. Psychotherapy is frequently a very helpful way of exploring past experiences and drawing connections to those experiences so we can see how our past influences our present. Once we recognize our unskillful behavior or faulty thinking, we can then make efforts to let go or change. Mindfulness practices, like meditation, can be a helpful part of that healing. In meditation, we can notice our thoughts as they arise. We notice how automatic our thinking is, how sticky and enticing some thoughts are (we don’t want to let go of those thoughts!) while other thoughts we wish we could banish immediately. With regular practice, we can notice how we have no control over our thoughts arising, nor do we have control over whether the thoughts are true or based in reality. We learn to see that many thoughts are not true. And yet, because we are human and this is what our minds do, we tend to latch onto all thoughts, true or not, and react as if they were true.
Just like how our hearts are organs that pump blood, our automatic or more primitive “reptilian” brains (which include the limbic system) are organs that pump out thoughts and feelings all day long. Fifty to seventy thousand thoughts a day. Normally, we never stop to evaluate those thoughts. We just go along with them. Imagine your automatic mind as being like a train station, and thoughts are like trains coming in and out of the station all day long. Normally, a thought train arrives, the doors open, we get on, and whoosh, away we go on that thought train. Some of these trains take us to places that make us happy, some take us to places that are neutral, and others take us to scary neighborhoods that can make us suffer.
Interestingly, our reptilian or limbic brains are roughly the same size as that of other mammals. Fortunately for us, around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, our ancestors began to evolve and develop the neocortex, the most recent part of the brain to evolve. And this was the birth of the thinking or observing mind. It’s the part of our brains that receives all of our sensory input, and makes sense of them. It attaches feelings to memories, it connects the visual cortex to vestibular input, it allowed Proust to have his moment with the madeleine cookie, and to experience the flood of memories, thoughts, feelings and words brought on by one visual cue. But most importantly (for the purposes of this blog) it allows us to observe our outer and inner worlds. Our neocortex allows us to observe, to notice our thoughts as they arise. It allows us to slow down a process that used to be automatic, and allows us to step out of autopilot and be less reactive. Slowing down the automatic process just a little allows us time to choose more skillful responses to our thoughts. Now, we can observe the thought train pull into the station, reflect on where it has taken us in the past, and choose to board the train or let it go. This is incredibly liberating, and allows us to have a healthy skepticism about our automatic thoughts and feelings. We become far less reactive, more thoughtful. Most importantly, I think, is that we begin to unwrap the mummy-wrapping of our stories and let go of them. Slowly, we get closer to our true selves, and regain a sense of ourselves as essentially good and worthy of love.
|Posted on December 4, 2011 at 12:44 AM||comments (0)|
“Question: If one has no thoughts, no ideas, no reflections, and no mental processes - how can one have a Buddha's knowledge of everything in all its aspects?Answer: Once the false ideas no longer arise, as soon as one abstains from all of them, the true nature which exists within the core of our own being reveals itself and omniscience together with it…. The Buddha-nature which is ours from the very beginning is like the sun which emerges from the clouds, or like a mirror which, when rubbed, regains its original purity and clarity. (217)”--Ho-shan Buddhist Scriptures
"If those who lead you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, andyou will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." –thewords ofJesus Christ according to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (3)
“Know thyself.” --Socrates
"Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution.
It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it."
--Neils Bohr, Nobel Laureate and father of quantum mechanics
December is upon us, the season of gift-giving is here. As Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza , and the Winter Solstice approach, I have been thinking about the most precious gifts I have received this year, and pondering on how to engage in skillful gifting. I hope that the quotes above from some heavyweights (you may have heard of them) in the fields of spirituality and science will not scare people away – it is my goal to keep this site as secular as possible. However, the frenzy around “gifting” this time of year can get overwhelming, and the emphasis on creating happiness through materialism begs for a moment of mindful contemplation of the essential and fundamental gift we all carry inside of us, and the priceless gifts to humanity that have come from the teachings of our most enlightened spiritual leaders.
Most days I think I have the best job on the planet. As a psychiatrist I have the opportunity, every day, to sit with people who share with me their suffering, their joy, their experiences, thoughts and dreams. To be sure, there are moments when their suffering is so great that the risk of suicide fills me with worry and stress, but fortunately these moments are relatively rare and they pass away, like all phenomena. There are many days when I am the armchair traveler, seeing and experiencing more of the world than I ever could by myself, and the ride can be thrilling, inspiring, and humbling. And on the days when a client has a major insight, experiences a breakthrough, or “wakes up” --their mind no longer clouded by the delusions, “false ideas, thoughts and mental processes” described in the quote from the Ho-shan Buddhist Scriptures-- I am filled with tremendous gratitude. In those moments I am keenly aware of the transformative power that comes from knowing oneself.
One of the pearls of twelve-step recovery is that happiness is an inside job. It does not come from all the external things we try to acquire, hold onto, desire, crave, or fantasize about. A new relationship, a new car, finally becoming a homeowner, finishing college, losing 10 pounds, winning the lottery – all these things bring moments of happiness that rise and fall, and eventually pass away. A more lasting happiness is achieved when the change that happens is internal to us. A spiritual change. By paying attention in meditation, we learn how to see ourselves and the world more clearly. We discover that long held “truths” – about ourselves, others, life – may not be true. We begin to see life as it really is. And we do this not by distracting ourselves from the problems we face, but by looking at them square in the eye, leaning into sometimes very painful feelings and experiences, and from the crucible of that experience (to borrow from Jon Kabat-Zinn), from all that pressure and heat, a new awareness is created, like a diamond from black coal. As Neils Bohr observed, the solution to a problem is frequently revealed when we pay attention and look closely at that problem. Psychotherapy facilitates this process, just as meditation does. Combine the two and then “you’re really cooking with gas”, as my father used to say. I have observed that my patients who combine the two tend to make great progress.
The keys to the kingdom of a lasting peace and happiness are found within us, and we unlock our bound and constricted experience of life by knowing ourselves fully, and by changing our thinking. Many of my patients come to therapy thinking of themselves as somehow defective, missing something, lacking an essential part which, if acquired, will “fix” them. I recently saw the wonderful film “Hugo”, from the book The Invention of Hugo Cabretby Brian Selznick, in which the main character, a plucky orphaned boy named Hugo, says: “I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and types of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason, too (p. 378).” Rather than allow all of the tragedies which have befallen him to make him feel less than, broken, or superfluous, he is able to hold onto a view of himself as being just as he should be in the grand scheme of the universe.
In my early days as a therapist, I thought it was my job to “fix” people, revealing an underlying false belief that (1) the patient was broken and (2) the solution resided in me. And of course it was my belief in my own broken-ness, my own low self esteem, that needed the boost I thought would come from healing others. I could prove to the world (and myself) that I was worth something. I based my own happiness and self-regard on my success at getting others to change. Talk about false ideas, thoughts and mental processes! What a recipe for disaster! Or burnout, which is what happened to me.
The solution turned out to be better than anything I could have hoped for. After reaching my own personal hell, from the heat and pressure of that crucible, sprang the gift of desperation. I needed that desperation to motivate me to try something different. I had to admit to myself that my old ways of thinking about myself and relating with the world were not serving me well; they were only bringing me more suffering. I was desperate enough to let go of old thinking, to surrender my old defenses.
A friend who had begun meditating brought me to an insight meditation group. The talk that night was about Buddha nature -- the belief that within each of us resides our true nature which is closer to our true self, as perfect and as capable of enlightenment as any Buddha. That the version of self I was most familiar with was a false self, filled with delusion and false ideas about just about everything. I heard that we wrap our life experiences around us as we grow. We add layer upon layer of external events and phenomena --that have nothing to do with the original self-- cloaking ourselves in experiences and stories which become so tightly associated with “us” that we come to believe they are “us”. They become our identities, and we cling to them, and cherish them, and suffer because of them. We feel threatened when our view of ourselves is challenged by others. We feel empty and unsatisfied if we have had empty and unsatisfying experiences. We mistake our experiences for ourselves, and forget about the perfect being which has been waiting, patiently, under all those layers for all these years.
This was a revelation. It felt true. It resonated with something deep in my body which said “Yes! This feels right! Pay attention!” It sparked hope. For Buddhists, an everlasting happiness, nirvana, can be achieved by knowing oneself. By seeing the true or ‘Buddha nature’ of self we see that we are actually one with all perfect beings. The layers of identity, the boundaries of self, that keep us separated from one another fall away. And there is a suggested eightfold path that guides us in this process. That the greatest teachers and spiritual leaders of humanity, separated by centuries and continents, arrived at similar conclusions about the path to lasting happiness is no coincidence, in my opinion. Rick Hanson says this is his book The Buddha’s Brain:
Or, as a patient of mine recently said in a moment of insight, “It takes a lot of work just to be.”
This revelation about our true nature and the path to happiness has been the greatest gift and comfort in my life-- a balm to my soul. And mindfulness meditation has been the tool which has allowed me to know myself. I know longer see myself or my patients as broken. My job now is not to fix people, but to shine a light on the path that leads patients back home to themselves, to re-discover their true self and develop a sense of compassion and forgiveness for their experiences, and to begin to let go of their stories. My job as guide frequently includes being a gently reassuring and encouraging presence as patients face down some long-held fears. It is easier to stare into the abyss if you have someone by your side.
So as you contemplate your gift list this year, remember that you already possess the greatest gift. It’s been hiding inside you all along. And my gift to you is my heartfelt wish that you find your way home to your true nature, to freedom, to living with ease, and to lasting happiness.
|Posted on November 4, 2011 at 12:02 AM||comments (44)|
Dear Friends: I am resubmitting this blog posting from last year. Hard to believe a year has gone by! I am hoping you all find some peace and serenity during this season of giving thanks. -SL
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and my affection for it grows as I age. Perhaps it’s the relative lack of commercialism associated with it, or the fond memories from childhood of an idyllic feast at my grandparents’ house, a day when for a few hours at least we could relax into the moment, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, a Charlie Brown TV special, and forget the stress and pain of life at home. My grandmother’s house was a sanctuary, and for that day, all was right with the world. I can still smell the turkey roasting, and the smell of the wool rugs in her house, and hear the crackle of a wood fire.
Today, though, it is not a holiday completely free from stress: I have to confess I am stressing a little about getting that perfect free range, hormone- free, guilt-free, heritage organic bird for the crowd of people coming over this Thanksgiving day! I italicized “perfect” because therein lies the source of my stress – this belief that my happiness and the success of the day depends on something external to me (and out of my control) being perfect. Remember when the only option was a Butterball and we were all really happy with that?
I have also noticed that my cooking has never come close to duplicating what my French-heritage grandmother, who we called “Mémère”, was able to turn out. The preparation of the turkey, dinde (pronounced “dahnd”) in French and the special French-Canadian pork stuffing that went with it, was a two day affair and a labor of love for my grandmother. She would attend to its preparation like a mother would attend to a new born. She was not rushed or hurried. She would slow roast a 20 or 25 lb. bird overnight, waking up every hour or so to baste it. It was melt-in-your mouth moist, and the drippings created the most flavorful gravy I have ever tasted. Being greeted at the door by her with a hug and kiss and a blast of hot air, fragrant with cooking smells, is something I can still relive if I close my eyes. My siblings and I have tried to replicate the meal, using my mémère’s recipes, but something is always, somehow, missing – not quite right. Did she leave out an essential ingredient in the recipe? If I had her 1950’s stove would the outcome improve? Was I just not showing enough devotion to the bird? Did I really need to get up every hour and baste? Was the food just more flavorful back then in rural Maine?
Or perhaps my mind is simply engaging in phenomena that the Buddha described many centuries ago. He described this feeling of pervasive unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha, of things being not quite right. My mind clings to wanting things to remain the same, as they were in my youth, with memories that become embellished with story and imbued with meaning and which are sweetened and romanticized over time. My mind tells me “You want that! You want to recapture that wonderful feeling!” -- a feeling which may never have been all that wonderful to begin with, and which may be entirely fabricated, a “story” I tell myself. It is the phenomenon of craving, that unavoidable feature of the human condition.
My inability to recreate that experience of childhood is not because of the quality of the turkey, or the stove, or my own lack of skill as a chef. It is because this is how the mind is – we want and are never quite satisfied, or, if our desires are met, the feeling of satisfaction is short lived and we are soon pursuing the next thing in an effort to fill the void inside, to satisfy the cycle or wheel of craving, known to Buddhists as samsāra. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out in his forward to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, we live in a capitalistic society that understands this at a deep level, and enables our wanting with a never ending supply of the new, improved, must-have shiny objects.
It may also be that my grandmother’s “superior” turkey was the product of her being patient, and fully present during the process of cooking. I may be totally fabricating this too, but the pace of life felt slower back then, with fewer LCD screens demanding our attention, fewer distractions. My grandmother cooked mindfully, with a Zen-like focus and patience, knowing it took time to create a meal properly. She used no blender or Cuisinart chopper to cut the onions for the stuffing; she grated each one by hand on a special tool that led to much shedding of tears but also much shredding of onion with the correct consistency. Spices were measured out in her hand, not with a measuring spoon or cup. This process required careful attention – attention was needed to avoid grating one’s knuckles or overdoing the pepper. I know that when I cook (or do anything for that matter), I am frequently focused on getting through a task as quickly as possible so that I can move on to the next task. Am I really cooking (or doing anything) at my best if I’m already on to the next thing?
In addition to being propelled by wanting more, I have learned that I am also propelled by an inner disquiet, a nagging thought that I am not quite right or not quite enough. The inner dialogue and logic goes something like this: If I can be perfect, or make the perfect meal, or raise the perfect kids, then I will finally feel like I am enough, that I have arrived, and that others will appreciate me in the way that I desire to be appreciated. This faulty logic and way of viewing myself leads to perfectionism, narcissism -- and exhaustion! Perfection is an impossible goal and a merciless taskmaster. And experience has showed me that no matter how many flawless dinner parties I orchestrate, I will still be left with that nagging doubt about whether it (or I) had been good enough. Tara Brach, in her teachings on radical acceptance, calls this the “trance of unworthiness”. And many of us walk around in this trance, bearing the heavy yoke of samsāra, all our lives.
Sometimes we are lucky and wake up from the trance. Through my mindfulness meditation practice I have learned to recognize these moments of feeling not quite right or enough, and better yet, I have learned to chuckle and smile at myself when I catch myself feeling frazzled or stressed to produce something “perfectly”. I have come to a somewhat tentative understanding that I am enough just as I am, and worthy of love just as I am. The perfect turkey or spotless house or fashionable wardrobe cannot do that for me; only I can do that for me. Happiness and self-esteem are an inside job, and not dependent on external things. And practicing loving kindness (metta) with myself, helps me recognize and open my heart to others who are also suffering in our oh-so-human way.
And I do not practice self-acceptance, mindfulness, and loving kindness perfectly. Instead I have learned to see beauty in the imperfections around me, and to learn from my mistakes. Without my mistakes I do not grow and learn. I owe a lot to my mistakes, and so have come to love and accept them, too.
So as Thanksgiving approaches I give thanks for this practice of mindfulness and for my teachers’ wisdom. I feel gratitude for the ability to sometimes recognize when I am telling myself “stories” or engaging in wanting or craving. I feel gratitude for this new ability to be with myself in a loving, compassionate way. I feel grateful for the lessons in mindfulness that my grandmother taught me, that life is worth savoring like carefully weighed out handfuls of spices. I am grateful that I can celebrate my favorite holiday with friends and family and have food to eat, however imperfect it may be. Grateful that I am and have enough – actually, I am blessed with such incredible riches in my life, I just need to stop and take notice. Through mindfulness the act of stressing about the turkey seems so unimportant. That I HAVE a turkey and friends with which to share it is extraordinary, and for that I give thanks with a very, very full heart.
And with any luck I’ll remember this when I start planning that perfect Christmas tree.