“Surely, life is not like that. Surely, if life is interesting at all, you can find majesty at the local cigar shop as easily as you can in a Peruvian rain forest.” -From the film, My Dinner With Andre.
A friend of mine had been enduring non-stop anxiety the past few weeks. He had been calling me every day for consolation and/or assistance. His anxiety was triggered two weeks before when he was cleaning out his water filter. He discovered a strange, black sludge like substance all over the inside of the water filter. Immediately he panicked because his daughter, himself and his wife had been drinking water from the water filter for months. He was terrified that he could have given his daughter cancer by giving her the water to drink. My friend had been on the phone with the water filter company on a daily basis trying to get to the bottom of what the strange substance was. He sent them samples. He hired a lawyer. He had his hair and his wife and daughter’s hair tested. He had blood tests run. He was even worried because his daughter’s chronic stomach issues had suddenly seemed to go away! As he put it, “I can’t stop thinking the worst.”
My friend has lived with anxiety for most of his life and all it takes is a tiny bump on his daughters arm to send him into weeks of looping thoughts of impending doom and dozens of doctor visits. Most people I know are similar to my friend. It may not be health scares that cause them to become uncontrollably triggered, but we all have our Achilles heal. Through mindfulness practice what we are doing is learning how to move from a habitual, self-focused place into a more self-aware space. The vast majority of our suffering comes from this place of being self-focused. It’s normally our thoughts about a situation that cause us 95% of our stress, anger, anxiety or depression- not the situation itself. It was not the black sludge that was the problem. It was my friend’s thoughts about the black sludge that was making his life hell. The moment I was able to get my friend to put some space between his thoughts and his present moment experience- he felt immediate release and a calmer, more rational perspective come over him. But when we got off the phone, within an hour or so he started back up again. Within a day we were back on the phone and once again I was talking him off the ledge.
Why is it that most of us (including myself at times) are so committed to suffering? From the moment we are born we are orientated towards thinking. Through education, media, government, politics, parents, psychology and other factors- we go through a lengthy period of indoctrination into thinking. We are indoctrinated into believing that we are exactly what we think. That reality is exactly what we think it is and that our identity is who we think we are. From a perspective of control this makes perfect sense. On the one hand we are taught to control our environment through thinking. This gives us a sense of self-determination, stability and security. But if thought processes can be influenced (which they certainly can and are), then teaching people that their identity and reality are exactly what they think seems like the most effective and simplest way to control people. There is a reason why most of are thought habits are the direct result of the systems (family, society) we grew up within.
Granted, in order to function well in society we need to be able to think. If we did not identify with thought at all we would not be able to be creative, engage in intellectual activities, be in relationships, live our passions, make money, contemplate the meaning of existence and write and think about mindfulness. Thinking is not so much the problem. The problem is the obsessive, reactive, chronic, self-focused thinking that happens when a person is lost in or identified with thought without knowing they are thinking. In some sense a person in this state is no different from a computer or robot- they are continually and unconsciously acting out their programming. More often than not this often creates a lot of suffering for individuals.
Continually living in autopilot mode deprives a person of the ability to grow beyond their negative conditioning in the present. It deprives a person of the ability to be the architect of their own experience/fate by no longer being held hostage by conditioned mental habits and nervous system reactions that were acquired years and years ago. Living well means that we are the ones who have a greater degree of choice over how we want to experience thoughts and emotions right now. Do we want to continue to react to thoughts and emotions in the same, conditioned way we always have or do we finally realize that our habitual reactions to thoughts and emotions are the very thing that perpetuates our own unhappiness in the world? That we are doing it to ourselves.
When we are able to cultivate enough self-awareness in the present moment to notice that we are lost in thought we can then make a choice. Do we continue to identify strongly with habitual thoughts and their accompanying emotional charge (that cause the majority of our suffering) or do we defy our conditioning by responding in a more mindful way? It is really up to us whether we chose to live well enough or not.
My friend called me yesterday. He received the results from the testing of the black sludge. It is an organic food grade charcoal substance that leaked out from the filter and can actually be beneficial to lessening certain kinds of stomach distress.