Our life is shaped by our words, we become what we think.
–Gautama the Buddha
As we gear up for the thanksgiving holiday, it is a good reminder to contemplate and appreciate all the blessings in our lives. While each of us has things to be grateful for, we also experience pain and suffering. I am currently going through a difficult time with someone I love very much. I experience periods of deep sadness, frustration, and grief. However, these negative emotions pass and the feelings of peace, love, and joy return surprisingly quickly. I attribute this directly to the practice and contemplation of looking for the good that I have been steadily engaged in over the last several years.
According to the book “Buddha’s Brain” we have on average 60,000 thoughts per day. 95 percent of those are repetitive – the same thoughts again and again every day and multiple times per day. 80% of those are negative. That’s about 45,000 negative thoughts per day. Ouch. If we do indeed become what we think as the Buddha says, we had better figure out how to change those numbers.
The desire for freedom and happiness seems to be a universal human desire. Yet we are bound by our thoughts and often resist the very things that will lead to happiness. The term optimist carries with it some connotations of naiveté and folly. We’ve all met people who are relentlessly positive and while they do seem happier than the rest of us, honestly, this trait can be annoying. Trite platitudes like “it’s all good man” seem to lack compassion for the suffering. We don’t want to be fake or shallow, so we stick with our habits whether or not they are actually working for us.
The worldview that I am advocating is neither fake nor shallow. There is room within the scope of optimism for pain, suffering, and sadness. In order for optimism to be real and powerful, we must acknowledge these things and then specifically and purposefully orient ourselves towards the positive. We see it all with a wide angle lens, then sharpen our focus specifically on the beauty. No, we do not ignore the ugly. We address it as needed, as we are called to, and as we are able to. But let us not spend the majority of our thoughts turning over the ugly again and again until we begin to embody it.
Victor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and concentration camp survivor says “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way”. The ability to do this in the face of the extreme suffering that Frankl experienced is beyond my imagination, but it serves as inspiration to me in the moments of my own suffering. In each moment we have the freedom to choose from a myriad of perspectives. Each time we make the deliberate choice to let go of resentment, resistance, and self-pity, we are setting ourselves up to notice and experience more happiness in the future. And each time we do it, it gets a little easier.
A key practice for changing thought patterns is cultivating gratitude. By calling up the humble sensation of “thank you”, we begin to strengthen the muscle of finding a positive perspective on any situation. In order to formalize this practice, you can write down 5 things you are grateful for every morning and every evening. Make them little things and you will increase your ability to appreciate the subtle. Then throughout your day make it a game with yourself to see how often you can remember to say thank you. Let your painful emotions be reminders to this practice – every spurt of hurt, jealousy, fear, and sadness can be a motivation to practice.
Contemplative practice such as meditation is also essential for learning to direct your mind more skillfully. For years, I avoided establishing a regular meditation practice with every excuse in the book. I didn’t have the time, my back hurt, I was too tired, it didn’t work for me… If you’ve been going along unaware of all your negative thoughts and all of a sudden you start paying attention, you are initially going to be very uncomfortable. It is totally normal for us to try to escape an unpleasant situation, so a many people who try to meditate, decide that it doesn’t work for them. This is too bad because what they are really experiencing is how much they NEED meditation. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time with meditators over the last decade or so and their advocacy slowly wore down my resistance. If you’re inspired to begin or recommit to your meditation practice, the practice below is simple and sweet.
The word mantra in sanskrit means a tool of thought. Man means to think and tra is translated as tool (as in tantra, a tool for expansion or liberation). The practice of mantra meditation is repetition of sacred or meaningful word or phrase. First, the mantra replaces some of the automatic negative thoughts with something positive. Second, it becomes a backdrop against which our most pervasive thought patterns become apparent. Finally, the dedicated repetition of this thought begins to shape who you are in a purposeful positive way.
Some people prefer sanskrit mantras, since the words are said the carry the vibration of their meaning. Other people advocate for mantras in your native language since it keeps the meaning closer to the forefront of your mind. If you can get a rosary or mala beads, I find the structure of passing the beads through my fingers as I chant to be very helpful. The mantra that I have been using lately is the simple phrase “thank you”. If you’d prefer a sanskrit mantra that is easy to remember “om namah shivayah” can be translated as “I bow to my teachers within and without” or “I bow to my own potential”. Set a timer or decide on a certain number of times around the mala. Start with a very short, easily accomplished period of time and focus on frequent repetition.
Thank you for reading.