Perish the thought!

My young, wise coworker (and often, mentor) at NIU, Anne, had a bumper sticker affixed to our office wall: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” As a person who had faithfully believed and sworn by everything I’ve thought, rational or not, for so long, I was rather taken aback by this sentiment. How can I not believe everything I think? I thought to myself. If I don’t believe me, who will? On closer inspection of the phrase, though, it makes perfect sense.

First, let me preface these remarks by admitting that I’ve had a long battle with depression—far longer than the one with cancer—and when money was tight, affording no chance to get professional help, I relied on self-help books. One was David Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Despite reading his first edition twenty-some years ago, certain concepts therein remain indelibly etched in my memory. One of these describes the relationship between thoughts and feelings. I paraphrase, of course: What if, right now, someone you loved very much died? Can you feel grief or dismay until you have heard the news? Of course not. Emotions follow thought, not the other way around. While this concept may be self-evident now, it was not when Burns submitted it in the 80s.

Byron Katie, the author who wrote the book Knate gave me (through his mom), Loving What Is, takes this concept even further. Listening to the Katie CDs Knate’s mom—who doesn’t even know me!—sent, I have had epiphanies that would make James Joyce jump for joy. My life is being transformed before my very eyes. Like Dorothy (and those Red Shoes again!), I’ve had the healing power all along. Our very thoughts, formed as words in our conscious minds, can be turned around.

We are not, as it happens, our thoughts. We can change our feelings from sad to glad; from chaotic to peaceful; from destructive to constructive. And anyone, anywhere, at any age, can do this. What it takes is courage—are you willing to be happy? Healthy? At peace? Would you like to meet every day as I do—full of joy, no matter what the weather’s doing? Delighted with every single thing that crosses your path? If so, read on!

First: We cannot control thoughts per se; they are free-floating, and far, far more common than any of us would like to admit. Katie has discovered that thoughts like “He/she doesn’t love/like me,” “I’m too fat/skinny/ugly/pretty to get/be/have [x],” “I’m/he’s/she’s/it’s awful and should be [x],” “So-and-so has done [x] wrong and I’ll have to do it myself,” and especially, “I’ll never have any money/Things never go right for me” cross all language and territorial borders. Further, and the most shocking concept, at least for me: THEY’RE NOT TRUE. Not one of these thoughts can be proven to be true. Commonality does not ensure truth. (One teeny example: remember the one about the earth being flat?)

Second: Believing thoughts like those just mentioned causes pain and suffering. In fact, Katie suggests that all pain and suffering results from believing our, for lack of a better word, negative thoughts. Wow! I know; I know. It was hard for me to get at first, too, but it actually makes sense. Think of Burns’ can-you-feel-sad-about-someone’s-death-if-you-don’t-know-about-it scenario. If you accept that thoughts are the random entities and feelings are the by-products of entertaining these aliens, you begin to realize you have more control than you thought. If you don’t want to feel gloomy/dirty/angry/ jealous/unworthy/ unhappy—you name it—you can change the thought.

This is Katie’s genius. She not only encourages us to re-examine, to question the thought’s veracity, she shows us how to do so. Be prepared for amazing results.

Third: Katie calls this questioning process The Work. You can find how to do it anywhere—online (this blog, even!), in bookstores, in the library. You don’t need to pay for it unless you want to. You do need to write it down, though. Doing it all in your head is not the same thing. I don’t think Katie mentions this, but I happen to have learned that our brains love the using-a-pen-or-pencil thing; the brain myelinations (little fatty furrows in brain tissue, sort of) that form when actually writing or drawing indicate that true learning (whether for good or ill) has taken place. Each time you travel that furrow, it gets a little deeper, and eventually is so deep that it manifests as habit. (It typically takes 21 days for this to happen, which is why if you want to change a habit, you must not travel its particular furrow for three weeks. The best thing is to make a new furrow, i.e., a different habit, during that three weeks.) The good news is that it takes FAR less time to break an old habit than it is to get it in the first place. I learned this from my treatments in Minnesota. It really only takes 21 days of concerted effort to retrain those brain furrows. We are amazing creatures!

Back to Katie’s Work. Step One, you write what you think.  Then ask, Is it true? What if you wrote, “My boss is pure evil! He doesn’t recognize true talent, and I hate him.”  Oh, the brain loves to provide you with “facts” to back up whatever thought you think! I mean, any thought you think. It does its best to support you; “it’s the law,” as I like to say. It doesn’t want you to be sad—your body seeks equilibrium, contentment, happiness. It’s its natural state. If it thinks you’re happy being miserable, it will do its best to accommodate.

Step Two’s question is, Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Can you actually say your boss has NEVER done anything nice, kind, helpful, or positive? Never? What about hiring you in the first place?(!) Would his kids give the same story? His mother? Still, maybe you can find nothing nice about him, not one thing. That’s okay.

Go to Step Three, which is: How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

Are you angry? Frustrated? Bitchy? Only you know, so you may as well be honest about it.

Step Four’s question is, Who would you be without the thought? If you need help with this one, think of the times you’ve said, “If only I had [enough money/respect/love/time], I’d be [x].” Find x, as math problems command, and you have your answer to question four.

Then, you turn it around, change the thought: “My boss is an angel.” “My boss is the best man on earth.” Even, “my boss might be okay.” Your mind will find evidence to support these new observations. When you start reviewing these, how do you feel? Which feelings do you prefer? The angry ones, or the “wow, he’s pretty cool after all” ones? As Katie says, eventually you’re left with two feelings: gratitude, and the desire to help others.

Aren’t these the desires religions, at their best, try to foster? Gratitude and kindness to others? Yet we get mired in others’ thoughts, thoughts or beliefs often imposed upon us in the form of organized religions, or scientific “experts,”—whatever—in our own realities. Robert Anton Wilson said we live in “reality tunnels,” each of us in his or her own tube, traveling through time. Even if our tunnels touch, we cannot really experience exactly what our neighbor does.

At the end of the day, we each have our own reality. Like cells, we live in a community, but each of us experiences, if the conditions are right, our own replication, our own destiny, even our own death. As Jack said in Lost, “We either work together, or die alone.” The reality is, we do die alone, no matter how much we may work together, but a sense of community can make the end easier. Your fellow cells know the same thing will happen to them, and it’s all good. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or scary, or depressing about death. It’s all part of the process.

And this is the genius of Byron Katie, U2, all sorts of folks; it’s their “cell”ing point, if you will. In U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day,” they sing, “What you don’t have, you don’t need it now/What you don’t have you don’t need somehow.” Katie, too, says you cannot need what you do not have. You look at your partner/dog/cat/parent sitting across from you, and you think: “I need him/her/it! I cannot live without them!” If they’re gone, and you’re still here, then obviously you’re wrong. Need, by definition, means that without [x], you’d die. If you’re not dead, but that special someone/thing is, then obviously, you don’t need him/her/it. Please don’t worry that the person or animal is going to feel bad that you’re still living. (Personally, I think they’ll wonder why you aren’t living your own life, when he/she/it/they are now out of pain and worry altogether. Isn’t that what you want for those you love?)

I wonder now if, when I no longer need it to remind me of the boundaries I need to set for myself so I heal; when I give myself permission to be authentic; if the pain and extreme fatigue I experience from my illness will disappear. I strongly suspect this may be true, but I don’t want to attach to it just yet.

What makes it seem like we need people so—or even pain? Can all the pop songs and operatic arias and love stories be wrong? Is pain and suffering optional? Or is it essential?

Oh, perish the thought!

  1 comment for “Perish the thought!

  1. June 22, 2010 at 09:21

    There’s so much greatness in that blog that I don’t even know where to begin!

    Thank you for breaking it down like that. While most of it resonated with me, and will resonate again when I read it in the future, there was one little morsel that stuck out. Having courage. I love that you used the Cowardly Lion as the blog picture. Because for me, at this moment, courage is the one piece that is missing.

    I believe that something has to happen in order for us to truly change. Some habits we have been fostering our whole lives, and to force your mind/body to rewire itself seems impossible. Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow! I’ll do it next year! No, you won’t. Something will come along, a hardship, and you will revert. Or push the deadline because “it’s just too hard!” Yes, of course it’s hard. Change is painful. It hurts. But, after those 21 days, it doesn’t hurt as much. And you become a better person. It’s so worth it if you can just get past the pain. I am indulgent and therefore talk myself out of it most of the time. This, I know, must change.

    One of the habits that comes to mind is smoking. Such a delicious, yet disgusting, habit. I’ve (mostly) quit, but I didn’t just quit for me. I quit out of respect for you, and I quit because most of the people in my immediate lifespace have quit as well. My mom, who desperately needs to quit, hasn’t. She keeps using those, “I’ll do it when ______” instead of just doing it. Unfortunately, for her, the thing that may actually “force” her to quit may end up killing her. Usually, something drastic has to happen in order for us to really change. My dad had a heart attack, then he “had” to quit smoking and “had” to change his diet. He’s kinda fallen off the wagon, but even that hasn’t stopped my mother from continuing down the same old path she has been on for years. When a doctor says you’re a walking stroke, and you don’t do one damn thing to fix the lifestyle, you can’t be surprised when something bad comes of it. Change. It’s a bitch!

    How, when nothing “bad” is happening, do we bring about change? The people who have the will to change when times are good have it figured out. I don’t. I have been wanting to change myself for five years, and yet here I am, at the same point I was then. I’ve made a little progress, like losing 30 pounds, but the major Work I need to do has been put off. It’s obvious that NOW is the time for me to break myself of the life habits I have fostered all these years. There are many forces, including this blog, you, the Universe, telling me that it’s time to grow some balls. It’s time to finally change.

    I am lucky to have you here to help me through it. Your wise words always find their right place in my mind and soul, and I’ve gained tons of perspective just in the past month.

    As for courage, well, I don’t think I have that quite yet. In a lot of ways, I think the courage will come when much of the other Work is done. I have the courage to change, finally. But the courage to completely bust from my protective shell has been elusive. And still is. The best part is I KNOW what I need to work on, and I know what I need to do. Now, it’s just a matter of making new habits and breaking old ones.

    It’s going to hurt. It’s not going to be fun. But I know I can do it. And I will. Because if I don’t, I will just continue to be just Jules. No matter what happens during this journey of change, I will be closer to the Jules I know I can be. I may even become the Jules I want to be, in the flesh. How exciting. And how scary.

    You are amazing. I am blessed to have you in my life, especially now. Your counsel and encouragement help make me a better person. I look forward to a summer of great conversations. Thank you for posting this. It certainly hits home, on so many levels.

    I love you.

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