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How can I achieve greater contentment by becoming better at using my mind?
This is a question we rarely ask ourselves, yet possibly the most important one we could ever ask.
Your mind, as your helper, is constantly presenting you with options, scenarios, possibilities, most of which arise from your very creative imagination. This process is very easy to observe in one’s own mind.
One key to an enlightening life, is to take time to observe your thoughts and note their characteristics. This way, you are able to make better choices about how you use the thoughts you have.
One common school of thought advises us to attempt to clear our minds of a unwanted thoughts, thereby helping us to focus, feel more at ease, and attend to the present. While the goal sounds simple enough, the process of using one’s mind to clear one’s mind, may not be the most effective or realistic approach.
Our minds are much like the Weather, a vast and dynamic system of interconnected forces. The modern human mind is largely characterized by split second pattern recognition, multiple associations, and cross references between not only thoughts, but feelings and emotions, as well as our imagination. Trying to control it may be one of the most difficult paths to take.
The adept sailor understands that he will never be able to control the wind and the waves. Instead, he learns to move with them, using what is presented to his best advantage. We can use our minds in the same way. It begins with understanding that not all thoughts are equally useful. It begins with recognizing the different thought types and making choices about which thoughts we use and which ones we don’t.
Pay attention to your thoughts for even a few minutes and you will quickly come to recognize that many of them revolve around specific memories. If your past were represented by a series of dots, these events would be exclamation marks. They are the events to which you also have a strong emotional association. These memories become hubs of mental activity. Like giant magnets, they are quickly surrounded with similar thoughts, memories, and emotions-both from your past–and potentially from your imagined future.
This is why some people have very strong reactions to specific types of events. It’s not the event itself causes suffering, events are neutral when it comes to emotional charge. Thoughts and emotions, on the other hand, are always personal. How someone reacts to a situation depends not only on the situation itself, but more so on how he copes with the flood of associated thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
When confronted with an undesirable “Exclamation mark” situation, our minds leap into action in an attempt to help us answer the questions: “Why is this happening?” “How can I fix this?” and often, “Who is to blame?” At the same time, similar events from our past, and the feelings associated with them, are pulled into orbit around the event, multiplying its effect. As our minds scramble to assist us, the storm of mental and emotional activity created often feels overwhelming, which is why some people have more extreme reactions then others to essentially the same situation.
How do we learn to walk the enlightening path?
Accept the current situation.
There are broken pieces of glass and water on the floor. It’s true that a moment ago there was a glass of water on the countertop. Now, there is something else. What is here now? This is the only relevant question. This is the question that will help you live in the present. What is the situation right now and what can I do to improve it, for myself or for someone else?
Accept your active mind.
Not every thought you have it is helpful. Many of the thoughts you experience are pulled into your awareness as your mind tries to solve the various puzzles of life. Many thoughts are there simply because they’re similar. There are likely far more thoughts on a given topic then you actually need. Rather than trying to clear them away, which could be as futile as trying to smooth out the waves in the ocean, accept their presence, be grateful for your active mind, and acknowledge that being human means having myriad thoughts. Yes, you will be reminded of similar events and feelings from your past. Yes, you may lie in bed at night with thoughts racing through your imagination. Rather than trying to push them away, which only creates tension, accept them as part of nature, like leaves falling from the tree. The sky is not falling–just a few leaves.
Accept your own reaction.
However you react to a situation or event is a reflection of your condition. It’s not uncommon that people will become more upset because they have become upset. Feelings of embarrassment, frustration, and anger can be layered on top of an undesirable situation, compounding the negative effects. In an effort to protect our egos, we often look outside of ourselves to identify the cause of our suffering. We point the finger towards others, blaming them for the way we currently feel. We leave the enlightening path, often causing unnecessary damage to our relationships and unconsciously placing ourselves at the mercy of others. It’s okay to feel disappointment. It’s okay to be upset. If this is your condition, then so be it. Take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings. You are both student and teacher. How will you use your thoughts next time? What has this experience shown you about your own condition? This is how we walk the enlightening path.
Music by Greg Ellis, Layne Redmond, and Azam Ali, used with permission.
Episode artwork by Cameron Grey