Monday, June 14, 2010
It's All in Your Head
Dear Nobody in Particular,
How are you? I hope that you’re doing well and this letter finds you in good health and spirits, perhaps even smiling at my corny introduction. If not, that’s fine too. I think many people I meet on a day to day basis are not in good health and spirits, to be honest. Personally, I’ve only begun to be consistently healthy and happy in the last two years or so. My hope is that the letters I write will offer some insight as to how I became this way; please feel free to take what information and suggestions I have to incorporate them into your own lives. I’ll do my best not to seem “preachy,” because one of the first things I learned about change in general is that you have to want it. And I don’t mean “want it” in the everyday, colloquial sense—I mean really want it. Almost to the point where the desire to change becomes a dire need, an unquenchable thirst. There has to be an urge deep within you to be willing to accept the cost associated with great personal transformation. It’s not easy, it certainly takes time, but it’s not impossible.
Have you ever seen The Matrix? It’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time. I know that may seem like an odd question to some of my older readers, but I felt it needed to be asked because only about half of my students have ever seen it (can you believe that?). If you haven’t seen it, rent it. You don’t need to watch the other two because they are all eye candy and no story. The original film, however, has a great plot and is loaded with philosophical questions and religious symbolism. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen the film, or if you haven’t seen it in a while, all you need to know/remember is this—our world is an illusion. Not an illusion in the sense that it’s not really here or unreal, but an illusion in the sense that it is a product of our minds. I know to some of you that may sound like crazy talk, or that I’m being abstract, but I’m not. The world as we know it would not exist if it were not for our minds. Think about it. We name objects, people, events, et cetera through the use of language, which is a shared product of the mind of many people. And if our universe were devoid of people, or more specifically our minds (perhaps consciousness is a better term here), it wouldn’t exist. Existence itself is in some way wrapped up in our observation of it. In quantum physics this is referred to as the observer’s paradox, which essentially states that the observation of the event or experiment is subject to the interpretation of the observer. Essentially, our consciousness creates the world in which we live.
Let’s come back to the film. The protagonist, Mr. Anderson/Neo, intuitively knows he must transcend this illusory world. How does he do this? By first admitting to himself that he has the power to change (think of the “jump” program); until he realizes that actual, genuine change is possible through mental discipline, he thinks the rest of his compatriots are nuts (you might even feel that way about me at this point). Once he comes to grips with the realization that personal transformation begins in the mind/consciousness, he blossoms. Now, this is the point where the movie and real life diverge greatly. I really wish we could just “plug in” and download the programs that we need, but it is nowhere near that easy. But as I said earlier, it’s not impossible either. So, like Neo, you must begin by making the concession that life is very much a product of our minds. This realization, though, is only the beginning of what’s to come.
The second step in this process is to discipline the mind. I don’t know about you, but until I started to seriously discipline my mind, that thing was like a zoo. My brain would often be teeming with thoughts, all running wild in various directions, bouncing off one another, and rarely giving me a quiet moment. It was hard for me to stop thinking. And even when I thought I wasn’t thinking (if that makes sense), I still was. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is not wrong or bad. But untamed thinking is. You want to know why? It’s that destructive little voice inside your head. Do you know that one I’m talking about? The one that tells you not to take those necessary steps toward personal growth, or that you’ll fail if you try something new. That little negative chatterbox. One of the first things I learned to do was to SHUT THAT OFF. I mean, I can’t be the only one who has that—and if you’re reading these letters I’m guessing that you want to make changes too and perhaps even have a little negative voice of your own. It won’t come easy, nor will it ever go away. Sometimes it tries to kick up some dust in my head, but I’ve gotten to the point now that when I hear that voice I squelch it immediately. It’s no good for you, so get rid of it. I don’t know where it comes from, but my guess is that it’s a by-product of acculturation or peer pressure or both. No matter what it is or where it comes from, it can be tamed and controlled.
How does one do this? Well, for me, it’s meditation. I think some people get the wrong idea when they hear that word. They assume that it is strictly a religious practice from Asian regions of the world. It’s not. My meditation is quite simple and devoid of any dogma. I mediate for 30 minutes, every day. Do you know what I meditate on during those 30 minutes? For most of it, nothing. And when I say nothing I mean that in the most literal sense. I do my best to empty my mind. Some days are better than others. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to stem the mental chitchat. Believe me, if you don’t stare into the emptiness with complete vigilance, your mind will wander very easily. On days when I am having a difficult time completely vacating my mind, I focus on my breathing. Just feel the sensation of the breath entering and exiting your body. You might not want to start off with 30 minutes, either. Getting through 5 solid minutes without a single thought is still an accomplishment for me, but if you start in shorter increments and build up your endurance you’ll be up to 30 minutes in a few months. After you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll start to notice an increased attention span and focus. Even better, you’ll notice that after a while all that noise in your head—those thoughts that are always swirling around never giving you a moment’s rest—begins to quiet down. You’ll have more control over your thoughts. My mental discipline has increased so much that sometimes my mind will shut down in certain moments. People will see me staring off into space and ask what I’m thinking about. I look up, smile, and say “nothing.” And you know what? It’s wonderful.
So why all this information about the mind and our world being illusory? Because it’s a starting point. Once you realize that you create the world in which you live with your mind, the rest will come a lot more easily. I’m not saying that great personal change isn’t possible without mental discipline, but it will be a more arduous task without it. Nor am I prescribing meditation as the only way that a person can achieve mental balance. This is simply what has worked for me. I’m a pragmatic person by nature, so if you have an alternative route you’d like to try, go for it. Just make sure it doesn’t hurt someone else in the process. I’m sure I’ll return to this topic soon, because changing your mind is foundational to the entire process of personal growth. I’ll close with the same final message I gave to my students this year—as cliché as it may sound…you are what you think.