As torturous as the what-ifs were, the experience of talking back to them taught me something: my mind is not always my friend. Perhaps you already know this; I did not.
As I started talking back to the what-ifs, and seeing that those thoughts were the way in which I was trying to control death and loss, it occurred to me that perhaps I should do the same with other thoughts. So, in the same way I had paid attention to how I treated myself when I was learning about self-compassion, I started paying attention to my thoughts. I have one word to say: Wow.
My thoughts are crazy.
An example: I can be walking down a street, and, seemingly out of nowhere, I’ll be formulating a response to an argument I had with someone 20 years ago. Why? Why do I do this? This argument occurred 20 years ago, it’s over, there’s nothing I can do to change the outcome, I don’t even talk to that person anymore. Yet here I am, carefully crafting a response, which, by the way, is brilliant, and would have totally won the argument if I had thought of it then.
Another example: I’ll be in the market. I pass the ice cream aisle. I start thinking about ice cream, I should get some ice cream. Another voice, of course, says, no, I shouldn’t, but the Ayes win. I go home and eat the ice cream. Immediately, there is unanimous agreement among all the thought-voices that I should never have bought the ice cream, much less eaten it. This cohesiveness among the thought-voices is rare; usually it’s as if there’s this group of people living in my head, each with their own separate and conflicting agendas; well, perhaps with one unifying goal, to drive me nuts.
An aside: you know why that thing called “flow” is so attractive? You know, when you’re doing something, and you’re completely immersed and you lose all sense of time? The reason it’s so great is the voices in your head shut up.
I’ve realized, too, that my emotions are attached to these capricious thoughts, and the emotions feed off the thoughts and the thoughts feed off the emotions. I can think about something that happened years ago and start to get pissed off about it. Being pissed off about it leads to thinking more about it, which causes me to get even more angry, which leads to still more thinking, which… well, you get the picture.
So I’ve started trying to watch my thoughts and emotions, and to question them. I’m realizing that a lot of times I just drift through the day, pulled along by these thoughts and feelings. But especially when my emotions are very charged, I’m starting to stop and ask myself, what is this about? Why do I feel so strongly? What am I thinking about this? Is my thinking accurate? Is my thinking based upon my experience, or is it based upon hearsay? Even if it’s based upon my experience, am I sure that I have all the pieces, or is my perspective limited? And if it’s based on hearsay, am I sure I can trust the source? If it’s based on hearsay, should I be this upset? And if it’s all based on something that happened in the past, how helpful is it for me to get this upset about it? Could my energy be used in a more productive way than getting upset about something that has already happened?
Since I have started watching my thoughts and emotions in this way, I’m realizing how often my thoughts and emotions just run away. It makes me think of the wisdom of the serenity prayer – serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. I’m trying to learn how to sort out the difference, and, in so doing, find peace. I get moments of it, and then I lose it. Over and over. It’s not simple or easy. It’s a struggle, especially when I’m really hooked by something. When that happens, I’m turning more and more to self-compassion, and that is helpful to me.
One of my teachers suggested that our mind produces thoughts in the same way our stomach digests food: automatically. This made sense to me. A difference, of course, is that I can direct my thinking to plan or problem solve or create, whereas I don’t think I can direct my digestion. But there are many times when I tune into my thoughts and they are nonsensical; there is no rhyme or reason to them. I’m just chewing on past events or future possibilities.
So I’ve started making fun of my thought-voices when they start to take over in a way that’s not helpful (which, by the way, usually it’s not). I picture a cartoon or comic strip, with animal characters who are each thought-voice. There’s usually a duck. I don’t know why, I just think ducks are funny; I think it’s the way they walk. And that they quack. There’s often a giraffe too. I imagine the duck and the giraffe arguing with each other about one thing or the other. Or sometimes I just make the thought-voices sound like the teachers from the Charlie Brown cartoons — wah wah wah wah? Wah wah wah wah wah.
I know this is ridiculous and silly, but it helps me lighten up and not take myself so seriously, which I find to be quite helpful. It’s kind of like having Monty Python doing skits about my thoughts. It’s weird though, isn’t it? That I can use my mind to make fun of the thoughts it produces?
This has all helped me see how fully I’ve been identified in the past with my mind and my thoughts (and my emotions, for that matter). How I’ve just let it pull me along, without question. I can see now that my mind and my thoughts and emotions are part of me, but I can question them. They aren’t me, they’re just part of me.
This business of being human is very strange.