Friday, 19 October 2012

You are not your thoughts.


Behind the scenes
Your brain is a lazy asshole. Its only objective is to conserve as much energy as possible, and work on making sure things are going well in the short term. The very short term.
This is why it seems to make more sense to skip the gym, eat a box of cookies, sit on the couch, and watch TV or play video games, than do anything else. It’s easy, and you’re conserving energy. You’re not going to be winded and tired if you don’t go to the gym. Those cookies might not be healthy, but they sure are delicious – and they’re packed full of calories so you have some backup backup energy reserves stored up.
This isn’t your brain’s fault, it’s a matter of evolution. When it takes work to get your next meal, it makes sense to eat as much and do as little as possible.
The Problem
This carries over into every other facet of your life. Your brain is great at convincing you that what it wants is what YOU want.
“If you talk to that pretty girl, you might get rejected – isn’t it much easier to just not approach?”
“Wouldn’t you much rather sit at home than go out? It’s been a long week, you’re tired, it’s expensive to go out… this will be easy.”
Now you’re overweight, unhappy, socially stunted, and lonely. You could take responsibility for this, and totally turn things around, but it’s going to require a lot of work, a lot of time, and effort.
This is when your brain comes back and says “but you’re a great guy! It must be everyone else’s fault! They don’t give us a chance! They’re biased against us because of ______. Guess we’re going to be forever alone, but it’s not so bad, we have each other – and Steam and that gigantic tub of ice cream!”
GET OVER IT
I could say people just need to man up, get over themselves, go out more, and just grow up. Really, this is true, but it’s not very useful advice. Your brain is going to work against you at almost every step. How can you overcome this negative self-talk?
Perception
There’s a concept in Buddhism called “dependent arising.” The basic concepts around this are (1) everything is a result of cause and effect and (2) “self” only exists in dependence upon causes and conditions.
Both of these points are very valuable to us. The first point is pretty straight forward and helps emphasize one of the main beliefs held by our community – if you’re happy, then you’re doing it right; if not, then something needs to change.
The second point is more complicated, and can be difficult to understand. What is ‘self’? Is it your body? Is it your mind? Is it some combination of the two?
Well, it can’t be your body. You shed cells every second of every day, and every 7 years every cell in your body is different than it was 7 years ago. If you lost your arm in an accident, you’d still be YOU, right? Even your brain is made up of cells that are made up of elements that are made up of atoms made up of quarks made up of energy. Bits and pieces that could have been rabbits, or trees, or air, or stars, before they were repurposed into you.
What about your mind, then, your thoughts? Well, sometimes I change my mind about things – either I learn something new, or find out something wasn’t true, or my opinion simply changes over time. If I define who I am by beliefs that I hold, and those beliefs change, then I guess I’m not ME anymore? That doesn’t make any sense. We’re pretty complicated, but we’re never surpised when our thoughts or feelings change.
So if it can’t be the body, and it can’t be the mind, then what is our sense of self?
Thinking
Thoughts are a lot like carbon dioxide molecules – they’re around us all the time, they are necessary for life, and if there are too many they can incapacitate you.
There was a relevant quote in /r/meditation the other day:
Suffering is caused by compulsive thinking. We get lost in thoughts, we identify with them; we “think” we are our thoughts. They are incessant and quite often negative, and they create anxiety, stress, and the problems of everyday life.
You can break your identification with compulsive thinking, however. You can increase awareness that you are not your thoughts. Consider your senses: your brain processes the inputs of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, and the skin. But, you don’t think that you are what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, or what you touch. View your thoughts the same way – your brain processes them, and you use those you need to solve problems and function in your daily life. But the thoughts you don’t need – those that are negative, limiting, critical, and destructive – you simply let float away.
Treat non-useful thoughts like undesirable smells: don’t dwell on them, don’t identify with them, don’t get attached to them, don’t get lost in them – simply let them float away.
This is where meditation can be a great ally in the war against thinking.
You sit, you live in the present, you acknowledge thoughts as they pop into your mind, then you let them go. This is easier said than done, and it takes practice, but that’s really all there is to it. In the activities post from earlier in the week a lot of people said that meditation didn’t stick, that it was boring, or even they did it for months but never had that “AHA!” moment where everything in their lives changed. OF COURSE NOT! If it’s boring, it’s because you’re thinking about what you could be doing, or would rather be doing, or you’re thinking that it’s boring. There is no “AHA!” moment in meditation – some days are better than others and you sit for a long time with only a handful of thoughts that pass immediately, other days your mind is racing a mile a minute and everything you can possibly think about is going to run through your head and it’s harder to let those thoughts go.
But once you do, you are living in the moment. You’re not worried about what’s going to happen later tonight, or if you’re going to say the right thing, or if that hot girl really likes you. You’re not judging yourself, you’re not even judging others. Better yet – you don’t even care, because you aren’t thinking about it. You are just existing, enjoying being alive. If you’ve ever opened a set, had a good time, then when you walked away went “whoa… how did I just pull that off?” you know what I’m talking about.
If you tend towards thinking way too much, it can be terrifying at first. You almost feel like you weren’t there anymore, like you had an out of body experience. But the more it happens, the more you realize how liberating, how amazing, how wonderful it is – and you start to get to know the real you.
Self
And that’s the real you, that sense of self we’ve been trying to find – it’s everything and nothing all at once. That you isn’t scared or nervous – it’s your scumbag brain that makes you scared and nervous. You always say the right thing, because there is no wrong thing to say – it’s your scumbag brain that stops you before you speak, or makes you comb over every word after the fact trying to figure out where you screwed up.
You’re not too introverted, or too shy, or uninteresting, or boring, or ugly, or stupid; that’s all your scumbag brain. You just are.
Conclusion
Your brain doesn’t care about you. Whether you are happy, well adjusted, and enjoying life or depressed, emotionally damaged, and sitting at home alone every weekend, it makes no difference to your brain as long as it gets what it needs to survive. Excuses and negative thoughts are your brain’s way of controlling you, and it’s amazing how much power most of us give it.
Wanting to change is not enough, and it’s never a good time to start, you just have to start.
So the next time you say you’re going to start exercising, or eating better, or talking to women, or doing something that interests you, and you hear that little voice trying to convince you otherwise, ignore it and go about your life.

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