August of last year was a huge month for me. I had what I consider to be an emotional breakdown. I had been embroiled for years in a pretty heavy existential crisis. I hated doing almost anything for myself because my mind told me none of it mattered; at times I hated myself for having these thoughts but other people had gone through the exact same thing so why should MY struggle matter? I prescribed myself heavy doses of booze to deal with the feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. I hated myself for also using anger as a coping tool. I was fully aware that anything I could do on this earth, for myself or for anyone/anything had already been done before so how was I going to do anything any different? How was I going to make an impact on this life? What was my purpose? Why should I even care for that matter? You know, existential crisis stuff.
At the beginning of the month which would usher in my 36th year alive, Alex gave me a book titled “Anger” by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, or simply Thay (pronounced Tie) to his students. It broke me in to a million pieces. This book expertly dissected my anger and showed me that most of what I was feeling was self-inflicted and needlessly at that. What it also taught me was how to pay attention to my feelings and emotions and keep my inner critic in check. That book led me to another book called “The Mindful Way Through Depression”. One of the authors of this book is a man named John Kabat-Zinn. He is at the forefront of the mindfulness movement in the US and, in my opinion, one of the greatest minds of our time. I promise this is all going somewhere.
I mention these books because they both led me to the practice of mindfulness, a constant awareness of not only your surroundings but of your thoughts and physical body as well. Like any other new idea or hobby I discover, I grabbed ahold of the practice and sunk my teeth in as deep as I could. I read book after book, bought everything authored by John Kabat-Zinn I could find, read all the Thich Nhat Hanh I could get my hands on and began to delve in to the philosophies contained within Buddhism.
Everything I read told me to pay attention to myself, pay attention to my mind, and pay attention to the ceaseless stream of thoughts issuing from it. The practice also teaches that you should not be too upset at some of the thoughts that arise because we do not necessarily have full control over the thought stream. Try to stop it for a period of time. Even when you are actively trying to stop thinking, you are thinking about not thinking. After several months of practicing meditation, mindfulness and studying the many Buddhist texts I had acquired, my practice began to wane. Then yesterday I got a reminder of how shitty I was being.
Allow me to elaborate. Alex and I sent the kids to play with the neighbor’s kids yesterday while we took a trip to the big city HAHA (side note, we are city people at heart and are currently stationed in a rural area of roughly 9,000 people. The nearest city is about 45 minutes away. I always equate our trips there to the Beverly Hillbilly’s packing up their 1921 Oldsmobile Model 46 Roadster and moving to Beverly…hills that is). We spent an awesome afternoon together, perusing the co-op, loitering in the bookstore, going to GameStop to buy the new Fallout Board Game(!!!!!). This is mostly how we spend our time together and it’s awesome for us.
We walked around the entire day commenting on our surroundings, occasionally noting funny things we saw, catching the hell out of some Pokémon, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. We made our last stop at a gas station to fill up with gas for the trip home and bought a car wash as well. The car was covered in salt and grime, so it was about time we cleaned it before the ugly rust started to show up and chew the car apart. Easy Peasy, you can purchase the car wash at the pump before you fill up.
We pulled around the station to the building housing the car wash. There was a truck in the wash and another ahead of us in line so we sat and waited for the cars ahead of us to be complete. As the truck inside the building was pulling out, the car in front of us was simultaneously pulling in. It struck me as weird that the car in front of us was being so impatient. “What an asshole” I said to myself. “The direction lights are not even on yet, why are you pulling in?” So I tell myself this person is a self-important ass and go back to talking to Alex while waiting for our turn. We make a few jokes about what had just happened then we mindlessly listen to music for a while.
The vehicle now inside the car wash is just sitting there, no “GO”, “BACKUP” or “WAIT” lights lit from inside the building, no spray coming from the machine, no movement at all inside. I’m pretty confident at this point that the machine is working because the vehicle ahead of her just left with a clean car and the machine next to my window keeps asking me to insert a card or type in my prepaid code. I start to get just slightly irritated, but I also noticed myself start to mentally slander this woman. “I bet the idiot didn’t even pay, she just wants to try to scam a free car wash.” “Can this old ass person not understand the simple concept of paying then waiting for the car wash to signal you in? I bet it would’ve worked fine if she did.” “Is she just going to sit there all day and selfishly block traffic? What the hell is she even trying to prove?” I went on like that for the full five minutes or so that she sat idly waiting for nothing to happen.
I happened to look off to the left and see one of the gas station employees walking toward the shack. He walks inside the car wash and speaks briefly to the woman, hands her a sheet of paper then walks out towards Alex and I. I rolled down the window and he explained to me that the machine indeed was not broken; however, the vehicle in front of the lady currently sitting in the car wash had stolen her wash from her. So not only was this woman not confused by the process, she had been taken for a small portion of her hard earned money (and even that is an unfounded generalization courtesy of the never ending bio generator that is my head) I know nothing about this woman or her situation yet I’m expounding on her life like I’m living it. As the attendant walked away, he turned the car wash on, we both got our vehicles cleaned and we both went on about our days.
I was gently reminded in that time of the need to be aware of what I was thinking. The author of my thoughts is ceaselessly scribing his magnum opus and it’s not always a happy read. Had I noticed my initial thought was grossly misguided and unfounded I could have stopped the rest of those thoughts from occurring. Nobody was hurt in this exchange mind you, but I spent a lot of energy being rotten for no reason. I feel this happens more often than not in our world. We spend so much time casting our own aspersions on situations we see as we build ourselves little ivory towers from which to throw those judgements. We spend so much time judging books by their covers that we never truly see how beautifully written the prose contained within may be.
I am going to try a personal project starting on the 2nd of April and I would love it if more people would join in. I’m not wanting to record results I just want to see if this could improve peoples individual happiness. Keep a journal or audio recorder with you. Pick a certain period of the day, or all day if you have the time to devote to it. Every time you make a snap judgement (not decision mind you, but judgement), write down a brief description of the situation, what your immediate thought was and if the situation permits, try to get clarification. And be honest with yourself. Nobody but you need to look at this list so don’t fudge the numbers in a misguided attempt to bolster your own ego. For instance, let’s say a co-worker with whom you’re normally friendly starts being rather rude towards you one day. My first thought would be “god what an asshole,” but were I to dig deeper (which I don’t honestly find myself doing very often) I would most likely find that there were other issues causing the rudeness. I could even find that the person didn’t think themselves being rude, merely in a hurry or preoccupied; the rudeness being a projected specter of my own creation. Once you’ve finished a week of writing down these instances, look through all of them and see how many are negative. Try asking yourself why you thought that? Is it possibly some form of societal programming? Do you believe the thought you had? If you’re surprised at all by the results, like I assume I will be, then decide at that moment to make a change.
It has been said recently that habits are formed over the course of roughly 66 days. Would it really be that hard to exercise some control over your thoughts for those 66 days and make the attempt to change those Automatic negative thoughts to positive ones? I know it’s almost naively optimistic to believe that it could be possible, but if every single person on this planet were to try this; if every person took the time to erase pointlessly negative and destructive thoughts from their daily lives, would we not see an increase in overall life satisfaction and happiness? Try it with me.