Do you think you really pay attention to your thoughts? Do you ever listen to what your mind is actually saying to you? In my last post I was exploring different ways that we can loosen the grip of thinking on our minds and emotions. Ways like challenging your thoughts or recognising convenient fictions are effective, but something as simple as just listening to what your mind really says can be enough for you to start to see through the illusion.
Thoughts go through our minds constantly, and we go from one thing to the next so quickly that we don’t often stop and notice what our minds are saying. Mindfulness is important to develop because without it these thoughts disappear faster than we can see them, so consequently we never get to see the workings of our minds in detail. When you use mindfulness to listen to what your mind really says it can be much harder to believe it unquestioningly, and the more you uncover the limitations of the mind the easier it becomes for you to not take it as seriously.
The mind has a tendency to exaggerate and be dramatic. How many times have you heard your mind say “I’m exhausted!” but found that you perked up once you stopped doing that boring job you were on? How many times have you thought “I’m starving!” but you only had lunch an hour ago and that slice of chocolate cake is somehow enough to satisfy your appetite? Luang Por Sumedho points out that we find ourselves saying “I can’t stand it!” when we’re in a situation that we don’t like, but actually most of the time we are standing it, because we’re still in it and complaining about it. When we hear our minds being over the top it is usually a good sign to double check how bad things actually are before we act on the impulse.
Most of us (as far as I know) don’t have psychic powers and we can’t see into the future. But our minds frequently present us a version of future despite not having any way to know what is going to happen. And yet if you listen to what your mind is saying you would think that it did; it can be very convincing sometimes. Looking for the times that this happens is a really useful practice, because the more times you see it, the more evidence you have that your mind doesn’t always know what it’s talking about.
I’ve mentioned before that I was in hospital for a planned operation a couple months ago, and I’ll admit I had some trepidations about it. It was the first time I had stayed in hospital before, the first time I’d had anaesthetic before, and the first time I’d had an operation before, so naturally I was a bit nervous about it.
In my mind I was sure that I would be scared before the operation, and while I was sitting waiting for my turn in the operating theatre I was very nervous. But when the healthcare assistant actually came to take me to the operating theatre I wasn’t nervous at all. When I imagined what being sent to sleep must feel like I thought it would be scary, but it wasn’t. It actually it only took a couple seconds and the only thought I had enough time to have was “oh, I must be falling asleep now.” I imagined that having drain tubes coming out of me and a cannula in my hand must feel weird and uncomfortable, but it wasn’t really, I hardly even noticed them.
Once I was actually in the situation and it was happening everything was fine, it was only ever my mind that imagined it wouldn’t be. But my mind didn’t have any way to know what it was going to be like; I had never had an operation before. Any thoughts I was having were based on either supposition or fantasy. But our thoughts seem so real to us, and we can absolutely convince ourselves that something is going to happen exactly the way we think it will. The thoughts I had before my operation were inconvenient fictions, because I believed them and let them unsettle me.
On this note, the wrongness of our thoughts often escapes our attention because we have a tendency to say “oh, it turned out better than I thought it would,” as if we have been lucky. Thinking like this reinforces the idea that normally it would turn out the way we thought. This lets possibility that our thoughts were just plain wrong slip under the radar. So I could have come out of hospital saying “you know, operations aren’t that bad really,” which isn’t an un-useful thing to learn from the experience. The more useful learning point that I came away with was that my mind came up with a lot of ideas about what it was going to be like but they were wrong, and I shouldn’t have believed them so much.
But telling us porkies and making us stressed isn’t the only thing that our wayward minds do. We can often find ourselves doing unhelpful or unnecessary things, even self sabotaging our own intentions, and if we don’t look at our thoughts and find out what is really behind them then we will will be blighted to always wonder why we do things the way that we do. Worse than that we might create a narrative about ourself that is negative and critical, why can’t I just do this thing right for once?
Our thoughts are often a product of our deep rooted habits and fears. An example of how you identify times when this happening is from a book I read called “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal. The book is, as the name implies, about what scientific research suggests helps and hinders our ability to set intentions and stick to them. She talks about one of the ways we sabotage our long term goals by prioritising how we feel now over what we want in the future. She describes it as trying to make yourself feel better now, instead of taking the hit to feel better in the future. So for example, we want to lose a certain amount of weight by the end of June, but right now we are hungry and there’s a chocolate cake in the fridge. If we eat the cake we are choosing to get rid of the discomfort of feeling hungry now, whereas if we don’t eat the cake and tolerate the discomfort now we can get our reward by feeling happy when we step on the scales in June.
So as an example of this, after my operation I could do things for myself but everything was much harder than usual, and took much much longer. I’m quite impatient by nature so this was an extra challenge to deal with on top of the physical discomfort. One day I was saying to myself that I would go for a shower (which was now required a great feat of planning to do everything in the right order), but my mind said “oh but if you do it now then you will need to change into clean pyjamas and it is still daylight out side, so you can’t put your pyjamas on, so you can’t have a shower until later.”
I was just about to believe this line of reasoning when I recognised that I had changed my mind about having the shower, so I asked myself “am I just trying to make myself feel better now?” – by taking the easy option of not having a shower instead of the effortful one of just getting on with it. Yes I was. I realised I was just trying to get rid of the feeling of discomfort that came up when I thought about how arduous it was going to be to have a shower, and that my mind created a story that would give me a logical reason why I didn’t have to.
So having realised this I analysed the excuse my mind had generated and saw that it wasn’t logical at all. I did need to put something clean on, that was true. I did have to be fastidious about hygiene to reduce infection risk, but I didn’t have to put my pyjamas on – other clothes do exist! Logically, it really wasn’t a good enough reason to not have a shower right now but I almost believed it. The real reason was that having a shower was difficult and the thought of doing it created a feeling of discomfort; I was more interested in getting away from the feeling of discomfort than anything else in that moment. Once I had analysed my mind’s story I understood what was really going on, and yes, I did have a shower.
Just trying to make yourself feel better now isn’t a Buddhist way to describe this behaviour, but it does fit with the understanding of the moment by moment experiences of pushing away aversion and leaning towards craving we go through. We constantly experience split second bursts of craving and aversion, and if we aren’t mindful we just react to them blindly. Being able to see it happen in real time is incredibly difficult but it is achievable with experience (some of the time!). But don’t worry if you can’t catch it at that speed, using techniques to stop to question your mind before you act can buy you a bit of time. This will allow you to figure out what is really going on before you do something you didn’t mean to do.
If I had just believed my mind then I wouldn’t have had the shower, and as a single action that doesn’t sound terribly important in the grand scheme of things. But if we are taking actions to avoid discomfort we are experiencing right now, then that is important to recognise because it means that we are acting out of aversion and not out of reason. We are making emotional decisions, not logical ones; and we will never learn how to tolerate discomfort if we always push it away.
But don’t be hard on your poor mind, or yourself for that matter. Often we get caught in the idea that our mind is the enemy and we need to fight it; that it is always trying to trick us, and we are foolish when we get beaten by it. This is unfair on your mind, it is doing the best it can, as are you. Your mind doesn’t realise that it hasn’t got the information it needs to come to the conclusions it comes to, and you can only know the limitations of the mind through investigation- you don’t know what you don’t know.
Our mind is often only helping us to do more of the things we usually do, because we inadvertently trained it to do that. So unfortunately, if our habit is to avoid discomfort then our thoughts will help us to do that, because that’s what we usually do when discomfort comes up. Our poor mind is set up to help us achieve our habitual aims, whether they are good for us or not. If it could, perhaps it would wonder why we are so annoyed with it when it just helped us to successfully do the thing that we wanted to do.
Being hard on yourself is also incredibly unhelpful too. In the practice we develop metta and compassion for all beings, and that includes ourselves. Your investigations are for developing peace and calm, not annoyance and disappointment with yourself. If you fight with your mind and push your thoughts away, you will never be able to observe them. As soon as thoughts come up you will put all your effort into getting rid of them instead of investigating them. Developing the ability to sit with the discomfort or embarrassment you feel at the things you are thinking is an important skill, and being able to view the workings of your own mind and your habits non-judgmentally is crucial. And actually, if you can create a bit of distance between you and your thoughts, some of the things your mind comes up with can be quite funny.
If we had a friend that was as slippery and unreliable as our minds can be we would take everything they said with a pinch of salt. But if we knew they were ultimately well meaning but just a bit misguided we’d have some patience for them, and that’s a useful attitude to develop towards the mind, and towards ourselves too.
So spend a bit of time listening to what your mind is actually saying. Whenever you suddenly feel a strong emotion, or urge to do something or not do something, take a pause and ask yourself “what did my mind just say?” Find out what’s really driving your thought processes, and learn to laugh at your mind when it says something ridiculous. Don’t be hard on yourself or your mind; instead watch the mind with fascination and enjoy the process with an openness and curiosity, always wondering what amazing thing you might find out next.