One way to begin your journey to a more fulfilling life is to answer some straightforward questions. Here goes…
- My life would be complete if_____________________ .
- I will feel secure when________________.
- If only___________________________ then I would be happy.
- I wish I had _____________________________.
- I’d feel OK about myself if___________________.
You’re probably wondering, “How the heck are those simple questions going to shed any light at all on my happiness dilemma?” and you may be thinking, “I’ve known the answers to those questions for years and it hasn’t helped me. If that is the best someone with a Ph.D. can come up with, remind me not to waste any time in graduate school!”
But don’t stop reading yet! Knowing the answers to the questions above will not help you become happier in your life. However, if an answer came to mind, then you are looking in the wrong direction for contentment, and knowing that is helpful. Happiness is an inside-out job, not an outside-in one.
It’s biological (and psychological) not mystical
Sages, yogi’s and spiritual teachers over the centuries have preached, “The answers you seek are within you.” But what does that really mean and how is that supposed to help? It’s just plain mystifying, not mystical!
Nowadays, given advances in neurology and psychology, more pragmatic explanations are available. Simply put, the mind and brain are connected to the body via a vast network of over 100 billion neurons! Although they are nearly microscopic in width, if you put all the neurons in one human being side by side, they would cover nearly 600 miles. Why is that important? Because the mind/brain functions like a projector and that massive array of neurons makes the body the most sophisticated theater system on the planet!
It works like this. In the human system, thought is akin to a Blu-ray disc. In the same way that a disc rotating in a projector displays a movie on a screen, thoughts revolving through one’s mind come to life in the body via the nervous system. For instance, if a person thinks, “I have so many things on my plate, I will never meet my deadlines,” that idea is converted into an electrical and neurochemical impulse that nearly instantaneously is communicated by our wiring to the various systems in our body. As a result, the body responds by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, the heart races, the muscles in the neck and back tense up, and blood pressure most certainly increases. The sum total of those physical sensations creates the emotion most people think of as stress.
The Thought-Feeling cycle is constant – 24 hour a day, 7 days a week. There is no off switch. Scientists believe a human being has upwards of 70,000 thoughts per day and each one comes with its own unique feeling. Anxious thoughts create anxious feelings, sad thoughts create sad feelings, and happy thoughts create happy feelings, etc.
Now consider the questions above. The answers assume something is missing in one’s life. Filling in the blanks for any one of those statements creates a feeling of “lack” or “dissatisfaction” with things as they are. Thinking, “My life would be complete if I had someone special to share it with,” might come with a feeling of sadness AND the feeling I will only be happy in the future if certain conditions are met. Now that could be a passing thought and a fleeting feeling, or a MINDSET and a condition of life. But there is good news…true happiness is independent of life circumstances!
Our Minds are Projectors not Cameras
People stay mired in troubled thinking because we innocently, but mistakenly, believe our minds are cameras not the projectors I described earlier. Cameras take in light and register images of objects as they are. Similarly, without an understanding of how our psychological and neurological systems work, it appears to us that our thoughts, and the feelings that result from them, are a reflection of our life as it is. The consequence of such a view is that our happiness and well-being appear to be beyond our control and subject to the inevitable ups and downs of our life situation. That’s a scary and disheartening prospect…but it’s not true.
Things happen in life and some circumstances persist for a long time, that’s true, but our thoughts create our perceptions and perceptions create our “REALITY.” It’s what we think about our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves that determines our experience at any given moment. Now, we can’t control the types of thoughts that pop into our head, particularly if we have had a long-standing habit of worry or depression, but human beings do have the power to choose which thoughts they pay ATTENTION to. It sounds simple but it’s a SUPERPOWER of sorts. Investing attention and energy into our thinking brings it to life. And like any other superpower, this ability can have both positive and negative effects.
For example, in a eureka moment, a medical device engineer may come up with an innovative idea – which is simply an original thought – for a product that with sustained focus, energy and hard work could become a life-saving device. In her personal life, however, the same engineer may think, “All men cheat.” She may even have evidence from past relationships to support her view. Without understanding how thought creates perception, she’ll likely believe what she thinks and misinterpret the behaviors of her future partners to the detriment of the relationships.
Health is our default setting
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “That sounds great, but what do I do when troubling thoughts pop into my head?” If you are like the rest of us, those troubling thoughts come with troubling feelings that at best make us feel bad and at worst makes us feel threatened in some way. The natural thing to do is to attack the problem by thinking more about it. But unfortunately, that is like accidentally sticking yourself with a pin and then trying to heal the puncture by continuing to poke yourself with it. Not only will the wound not heal, but it will hurt like hell, much worse than the initial stab.
It’s counterintuitive, but inaction is the best action because the body and the mind are self-healing and self-correcting. Continuing with the pin example, pain initially alerts us to the wound, and once we recognize the problem, common sense kicks in, we clean the affected area and then leave it alone. The clotting process creates a scab and stops the bleeding, after which our skin cells regenerate until the puncture is undetectable.
The psyche works the same way. Emotional pain alerts us to the fact our thinking has gone south. If we recognize the pain as a “Thought” problem and not a “Real” problem we can disengage from the reactive thinking that compels us to think more about the issue at hand. By doing so, we “clean the affected area”, so to speak, because without attention, troubling thoughts dissipate as quickly as a child’s soap bubbles. Unlike a child who will eventually tire of blowing bubbles, however, the mind never stops producing thoughts. Human thought is like a river fed continuously by a pristine mountain spring. During storms, the soil on the banks may erode muddying the river, but once the rain subsides, the river will run clean again. Similarly, when we stop bearing down on “problems,” clear thinking and common sense prevail. It may be as simple as gaining a fresh perspective on a problem, or an openness to another’s view which we had previously opposed, or a realization that we need to rest, eat or take care of ourselves in some way. Without fail, as the mind clears, the thoughts that arrive settle us down, increase our sense of security and reconnect us with our innate wisdom and feelings of well-being.
Be the Projectionist not the Protagonist in the movie of your life
If you are human, there is no escaping mental and emotional drama. The human condition is guaranteed to come with the full range of experience, happiness, joy, sorrow, depression, anxiety, love, stress, anger, confidence, self-loathing, regret, fear and hopefulness. I could go on and on but you get the idea. Moment to moment, day to day, year to year, our experience is ever-changing, and we can’t choose to have some experiences and not others. If you are one of those people that signed up for only positive life experiences, that’s the bad news, or at least the not so good news. But a change of perspective makes a big difference. Consider this…
It would be terrifying to go to a horror movie and forget you are watching a movie. Imagine experiencing one of the SAW movies and believing it was really happening to you! The instant you snapped out of that illusion, you would be filled with relief and the onscreen dramas would diminish in intensity.
Now imagine being the projectionist instead of a patron in the theater. It would be hard to get swept up in the illusion of a movie knowing you were the one responsible for powering up the projector and inserting the discs. It would also be heartening to know if you didn’t like a particular movie, in a week or two it would change.
It is possible to change our perspective on our thinking. In fact we do it all the time when we wake up from a dream. Dreams are simply thoughts we have during sleep. Understanding that our minds create our feelings by projecting our thoughts moment by moment puts us in the role of projectionist not movie patron experiencing circumstances beyond his or her control. As the projectionist, we can take our thinking in stride, respond to the real events in our lives as they arise but not to the fictions we manufacture in our overactive brains.
Stay tuned…more to come from Single Works
Although this is longer than most blog posts, my writing does not do justice to the concepts I’ve presented. A deeper understanding of the mind has many positive implications for human beings. This understanding and its implications is discussed at length by my colleagues and others in a wide array of resources. Resources we will be considering together as a community on Single Works! Stay tuned…