My mind is my biggest playground. Since I am quadriplegic, there’s not much I can change about my body, how it works (or doesn’t), or what it does. My body slips like an otter into the pool of “things I cannot change.” I am left with mind and spirit as potential fields for transformation.
“The mind is its own place,” wrote John Milton, “and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
I used to be an expert in negative thinking. Faced with a difficult circumstance, I was good at imagining catastrophe and letting the stories I told myself depress my mood, sap my energy, and leave me feeling stuck. I was letting my mind make hell. These days, I use my mind much more resourcefully. Here are some of the realizations that help me befriend my mind.
Minds make thoughts. I practice breath awareness meditation. As I focus on the sensations of breath entering and leaving my body, my thoughts are like a burbling river. Each time I notice that I am lost in thought, I bring my attention back to my breath, saying silently to myself “thinking.” Whether my thoughts are noble, boring, or “negative,” I label them thinking and return to my breath. This helps me be aware of the movement of my mind. I know not to take my thoughts seriously, but to let them go. They don’t have to mean anything.
Thoughts beget emotions. How I think about things affects my physical reactions, including the neurochemicals that produce my emotions. If I want to feel differently, I can think differently. With practice, I can learn to watch my emotions burble along just as my thoughts do.
Thoughts can be challenged. When I am helplessly ruminating on an unhelpful thought, using Byron Katie’s “the work” helps me move on. Is [that thought] true? Can I absolutely know that it’s true? What happens when I believe that thought? Who would I be without that thought? What if I turned it around?
Minds can be trained. My first attempt at mind training came from memorizing the “just for todays.” Whenever my mind left me in darkness, the JFTs gave me a lighter choice. Lately, I’ve been working with the lojong slogans, which sit at my elbow giving me gentle, wise advice. Just as you might train a vine to climb a trellis, you can teach your mind to cling to useful messages.
Choice sets us free. Our minds are powerful. With our thoughts, we can reminisce about our pasts, plan for our futures, learn about our world and imagine what might be. Our minds can move in any direction. We have choices about where we go.
An example: recently, my monster-mind (traveling in well-worn furrows) suggested that my husband finds my care a burden and that being married to me has ruined his life. As you can imagine, I felt guilty, apologetic, and sad. I turned to Byron Katie. Is it true? It’s extreme. Certainly, my illness has affected my husband’s life, but “ruined” is harsh. Can I absolutely know that it’s true? No. Compare the heavy, defeated feelings that thought carries with the strength, lightness and possibility I feel when I consider who I would be without that thought. Suppose my presence, illness included, has been a gift to him (the “turnaround.”) I imagine the whole cascade of thoughts washing through me and draining away. I know this thought will return. It’s one of my “greatest hits.” In this moment, though, I can choose to leave it behind.
If you find yourself ruminating in dark places, remember that you have a choice. You can train your thinking, challenge your monsters, and change your mind.
Suppose your mind is the sky and thoughts are clouds drifting across it. Sometimes they are dark storm clouds. Sometimes they are harmless wisps. Let the clouds come and go. Dwell in the endless air.