Our mind is a great thing and we can often feel it controls us with its thoughts and meanderings. We often comment on how things came up “out of the blue” and we don’t know where that thought came from. Our mind seems to have a mind of its own! Buddha allegedly said that we are what we think and what we think we become. Stephen Covey said the way we see the problem is the problem. These great minds stated what I believe to be firmly true, in that how we think and allow our minds to influence us determines how capable we are of dealing with many of the situations we might find ourselves in.
Additionally, we all tell ourselves stories and it helps us to make sense of things. As time goes on, we sometimes change the story we tell ourselves and others to protect us from the worst of experiences. Politicians are suspiciously very good at such a concept. They can be fighting a political opponent avidly, only to talk in great terms about such opponent when he retires. Countries change their stories around their history to embellish greatness and courage. Successes are remembered, failures assigned to the vaults of history. What we experience is not always what we remember or allow ourselves to recall. We often use this concept in a more negative sense too, convincing ourselves that we were victims of the situation.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist, has done much work on the link between experience and memory. He talked about the “cognitive trap” of confusing experience and memory and that we don’t always remember what we experience and instead “tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of events”. He says, interestingly that “there is an experiencing Self that is in the present and knows the present but also a remembering Self and that is the one that keeps the score”. Kahneman describes the remembering Self as the “storyteller” that sifts and filters through experiences and fits them together in a story to make our lives easier to understand. It also fits these stories into a narrative that makes sense. What usually defines these narratives are big changes in our lives and especially endings. Kahneman says “endings are very, very important to us and we often have trouble making sense of them”.
Another view is that the way we interpret what happens to us has a greater impact on our quality of life than the events themselves. A Swiss psychologist, author and teacher, Yves-Alexandre Thalmann, cites the metaphor of the glass that’s either half full or half empty:
“Our brains are programmed to make sense of everything around us and that happens to us. We spend our lives interpreting facts” he explains. “These interpretations, positive or negative, generate corresponding emotions. These emotions determine our behaviour, the way we see life, and our relationships with others. For example, if it’s raining, you could say to yourself – That’s today ruined – and be in a bad mood all day. Or you could say – Great, it’s a chance to spend a cosy day at home – and this lighter mood will be much easier for those around you to live with” What Thallmann was saying is that you can “choose” to look at situations in one way or another.
Everything stated above reminds us of the power of our mind to create a world view that is more than we just see in the present. There is a whole complex process going on behind each and every experience we have. This process is based on previous experiences and how we have handled them. As humans, we are often looking for a quick and easy way out of a situation and our mind often conjures this up for us. However, nothing that happens in our mind is without reason. There is always a starting point of a small thought or observation that caught our attention and we placed extra importance on it. It might be a trigger or a perceived threat but our mind hooks it in and starts a story about it. This is where we often listen to our inner dictator protective mindset which promotes avoidance. Avoidance brings initial relief from pain but also brings forward the possibility of the pain returning at a later point when circumstances might not be so favourable.
There is an old saying that says “Pain brings wisdom”. This taken literally means that facing our pain instead of avoiding it will help us to learn the lessons we need in order to navigate issues. We often use this valuable mental energy shaming, judging, criticising ourselves in order to avoid facing things. This “story” allows us to escape. We become the victim and look for a rescuer, someone or something to take responsibility for us. It also undermines our ability to cope and be resilient.
A method I often use, firstly as a guided meditation and further as a mental exercise, is the Fork In The Road exercise.
This imagines a walk along a road of the listeners’ choice in summer and with flowers and forest around. At the same time, they are encouraged to think of an issue or something that is bothering them. At this point, it is all about the feelings and thoughts they are having about what is going on in their mind. Is it fear? Is it guilt or shame, Is there a feeling to avoid? It is important to allow these feelings to develop and assess why they are there and what they are potentially trying to protect the person from.
At some point, the listener will be told they have reached a fork in the road. They can choose which way to go. To determine this path, they need to stand back, observe and tap into the stories they re telling themselves. “I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do it”, “I’m a failure” are just a few examples I have heard. What are these stories encouraging the listener to do, feel, or think? It is often the case that they will be the prelude to the “safe, easy” decision to take the left fork. Here is where all of our avoidance, shame, critical voices reside. They offer an easy way out, free of pain and responsibility and the need to face issues. They will shame, criticise and judge until we are scared of taking action. They have been with us since childhood.
The right hand fork is the road less travelled. It is the road of uncertainty and possible pain but it is the road where we can choose our responses and our path based on values. It is the road where we can say “I am willing to do the hard work, step by step to take responsibility for myself”. It is the path where hard work and conscious attention to how we feel, think and treat ourselves brings rewards. It is the path where we do not reject our parts but choose not to heed their advice. It is our life, our choices.
We will always face that fork in the road in our lives. Challenge yourself to look beyond the seduction and ease of avoidance. Take the right fork and remember pain is wisdom.