Accepting that the path of spiritual unfolding would be a long and arduous one helped me to take one step at a time. As I have related, silence made it easier for me to become aware of both my interior and exterior movements. Confronting my habitual outbursts of anger was a daunting step I was able to take aided by silence. Inner silence helped me to become aware of when these movements began to stir and their likely consequences. I also became acutely aware of what was going on in my mind. I realized that I was not my thoughts and need not continue to be subject to them. It was time that I took charge of what went on in my mind.
A lot of what I became aware of I didn't like. Indeed there were times of creativity and caring, but along with them were loops of negativity into which my thoughts could fall again and again. I had loops of judgment and criticism, whining and complaining, as well as catastrophic and pessimistic ruts that seemed to run on automatic. When my thoughts got stuck in these loops and ruts, the world around me and the challenges I faced were interpreted in the light of their negativity. A missed bus, instead of helping me see how I had created the situation, brought on anger at the public transportation system-anger that soon grew into a thought-cycle including a villainous bus driver, corrupt officials and a terrorist plot.
However, with a simple change of thought I could look forward to reading the newspaper, taking a minute for quiet reflection, or just relaxing after a busy day. Better yet, I could look at my habit of leaving everything important to be done at work until the last minute. I realized that I had allowed myself to become the victim of my own negative thoughts. I asked myself, "Who's really in charge here?"
Taking charge of the mind is not easy. It feels a little like controlling wild horses. You can't just jump on the back of the horse and expect a smooth ride. But wild horses can be trained, reined in and steered in the right direction. I found my mind did not like being controlled at all. If it did not refuse outright to comply, it became sneaky and found subtle ways of taking over. Because of its slippery ways, taking charge of my mind sometimes seemed more like trying to catch a jelly fish than trying to rein in a wild horse. Let me tell you a little bit about my struggle.
The first effort I made in this process was to tune in and listen to what was going on. Even though my thoughts are important because they define the world for me, I began to wonder-am I more than my thoughts? Am I not also an individual engaged in this journey of observing and trying to sort through and control my own thoughts? The question of what this means, actually, and spiritually, became very important to me.
I came to the conclusion: I am not my thoughts. Furthermore, by changing my thoughts I could then also make some changes in the way I experience the world. A situation that appeared hopeless when my thoughts were running on negative could be transformed into a learning experience simply by changing the way I looked at it. Preparing a dinner for 12 could be seen as an ordeal full of imaginary obstacles and certain disaster-a task to get really uptight about. But when I reframed and broke it down into small steps-planning, shopping, cooking, and serving-each step was not so overwhelming. Instead of being an ordeal, it became an opportunity to prepare and serve a nutritious meal and provide a pleasant time for everybody. Wow! Imagine my surprise about how much control I could actually have, if I took the time and the distance to see my life with a little more objectivity.
Once I identified my negative mental habits as part of the problem that comes from my thought-world, I needed a goal and a strategy to turn that way of being around. My goal was to consciously choose an optimistic attitude toward life in general. Not a modest goal, at least for me, but luckily I did have many good examples to draw on. My grandfather was one of them. A cordial "How are you doing?" elicited a whole-hearted, "Plum good, damn fine," followed up with, "Ain't life grand?" And he really believed it. While recovering in the hospital from a bad fall off a ladder, my brother said, "I needed some time to catch up on my paperwork." And I couldn't even get over missing the bus! If they could do it, why not me?
Goal established, now the plan: Observe and replace if needed. This meant that I would observe my thoughts and then choose a brighter outlook until this became my habitual way of responding. This took a lot of practice. Analyzing my thoughts was the first step, the next was to change what I was thinking, if necessary.
If I became too stuck on analyzing my thoughts, the outcome was not always what I wanted. One day, as I was getting ready to leave for the airport, I tuned into my thoughts and found that I was not only expecting the worst-losing the plane ticket and being thwarted by security checks, traffic jams and flight delays-but the anxiety created by this scenario was making getting out of the house more difficult. Delighted with this insight into the negative effect of "catastrophizing," I got into the car and started off, still musing about my great detective work. Then, at the end of the driveway something made me look down at my foot on the gas pedal. My toes were sticking out from my old slippers! At least that would have made it easier in Security! Yes, it could have been worse.
I also noticed that my thoughts responded negatively when I didn't get the "easy ride" through life that I thought I was entitled too. Yes, I had to work for a living like everyone else, why not enjoy it? Yes, I felt like no one noticed my efforts. Why not look for my own internal reward of doing something well? Yes, I didn't always get what I wanted, so why not be thankful for what I had?
And lo and behold, I realized that there's another way to experience the world than the way defined by my negative interpretations of life, and that it was within my own power to live and make choices. There was a "silver lining in every cloud," if I cared to change the way I thought about a situation. It was time for me to become the benevolent ruler and take charge of my mind. I needed to make friends with my mental habits and gently but firmly set them in another direction. I had to accept my apparent failures and patiently try again. With practice and repetition, I could direct my thoughts to another path that would take me in another direction, and finally reach another destination. Thought by thought I could re-interpret my experiences and sincerely say, "Ain't life grand!"
What a huge task I had now taken on! How did I approach it? Here are a few of the practices that I found very helpful and comforting in this part of my journey:
Controlling the mind took long and constant practice. My daily meditation exercise was very helpful. After I was able to discipline myself enough to sit regularly and meditate, then I faced the challenge of keeping my mind focused on what I was doing. I brought to the meditation examples of what I had observed in myself and gradually learned to make my thoughts express the best of me, not the worst. I learned to be patient and bring the mind back again and again.
Another exercise that helped was the "retrospective examination." At the end of the day I would sit and go over the events of the day, starting from that moment and working backwards. My mind rebelled at this and at first it took me quite a long time to go over the last 16 hours. My thoughts loved to wander freely to what was entertaining rather than to focus on a dry rewinding of the day's events. Sometimes I simply fell asleep. But by sticking with it and reminding my mind of who was in charge, I learned to bring my thoughts back again and again. For more information on this practice, click here.
Prayer also helped. When I found my mind trapped in a negative loop, I would start to pray. I could simply repeat an uplifting word like "hope," "generosity," or "love," or recite a favorite prayer such as the Prayer of St. Francis. I could use any positive thought to get my mind out of the negative trap.
4.Observation and practice :
Taking charge through observation and practice, I started to see life differently, thought by thought. If my automatic response was a negative interpretation, when I observed it I could replace it with a more positive interpretation. When things did not work out like I wanted, I was able to look at the situation and find out what was positive about it. Here are some examples.
I didn't get the job I wanted. After the initial disappointment, I was able to feel happy for the person who did get it and to realize there was another opportunity awaiting me. I couldn't be with my friend. Even though I still missed her, I found I was happy to be with the person I was with at the time. Jury duty. This could be a chance to fulfill a civic obligation and maybe learn something besides.
Each situation could become an opportunity to learn more about myself and strengthen my inner reserves and understandings. This process brought me to a greater understanding of what I was living this life for. Isn't it amazing the great possibilities which lie in taking charge of our thoughts?
Other articles in the series "The Peace of a Meaningful Life" by Diana Autumn are