Treat Your Thoughts Like Clouds

Art credit to @phoebenewyork, photo by Elizabeth Schoettle

A friend posted this artwork to her Instagram this morning. This art piece sums up what I am working to achieve for myself through therapy and meditation. I strive to get to a place where I am able to put space between my thoughts about reality and reality itself. The thing about being a thought-filled introvert is that I spend a lot of time in my brain. My brain, unfortunately, was wired from a young age to view pretty much anything having to do with my appearance, my personality, my choices, and my desires negatively. I am working hard to acknowledge that my thoughts can be like a funhouse mirror, distorting reality and leaving me feeling horrible about myself without sufficient evidence to back up that view. So, the idea of treating my thoughts as clouds, recognizing that they come and go and take shape and lose shape because they are fluid and not at all concrete, is genius.

Like many people, for most of my life I have let my thoughts run away with me without understanding I can control them. When a negative or fearful or self-defeating thought pops into my head, what happens to it depends on my reaction to it. Say I look into a mirror and think, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you look like hell,” I have a choice how I react to that thought. I can let that thought define me and spend the rest of my day self-conscious and sad, with that thought gaining more weight and getting heavier the more I pay attention to it, so that by the end of the day that cloud says, “Your best days are over. You should just go crawl in a hole where no one has to look at you.” I do have another option, though, which is to do some cloud busting. I can reply to that funhouse thought with a hearty “No one believes that, and neither should you,” and move on with my day unencumbered by that knee-jerk, knuckle-headed self talk.

My attitude towards my thoughts creates the difference between a quiet, sunny day with light cirrus clouds and a tumultuous, dark day punctuated by growing cumulonimbus storm clouds. So my task is to put some air space between myself and my thought clouds and to accept that my thoughts don’t always know what they are saying. Many times my thoughts are way off base. The faster I am able to acknowledge that my negative thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily reflective of reality, the better job I can do clearing them from my head and making room for better thoughts, creative thoughts, thoughts filled with self-love.

Eventually, I hope to become a more effective cloud buster. I would love to be able to set my thought griefcase down and work on sunnier self-reflections.

Grab Your Monkey Mind By The Tail

Look, Ma! I’m on top of the world!

“Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.” ~Abraham Hicks

A few months ago, I joined a women’s midlife mindfulness and meditation group in my neighborhood. I had been meaning to get into meditation to rein in my monkey mind for at least the past 8 years and had even started practicing a few times, but I never stuck with it. When I saw the post on our local Facebook page, it was a sign. Now there would be some accountability. Even if I didn’t become a master at meditation, I reasoned, I might acquire more control over my thoughts and keep them from running away from me unnecessarily.

Last night our group met in the shade outside our local community center and discussed the “Don’t-Know Mind.” The don’t-know mind, I learned, is a central concern of Korean Zen, and it’s a representation of our enlightened mind before preconceived ideas, thoughts, judgments, and opinions create needless anxiety and suffering in our lives. Many of us spend our entire lives borrowing trouble that doesn’t yet exist. You have your negative life experiences and memories of bad news and you apply them to events that haven’t occurred yet. It happens all the time, and it’s a waste of precious life energy because we can’t possibly know how things are going to work out before they occur. We humans are not as all-knowing as we like to think we are. How many times have you imagined the worst only to later live a completely or mostly seamless experience? How much time have you wasted catastrophizing for nothing?

I can recount dozens of times I have borrowed trouble when I had no reason to believe an event would end badly. It happened last night. My sons decided yesterday to climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the 53 peaks in Colorado over 14k feet. This is a well-traveled hike with a well-marked ascent. It is one of the easiest of these climbs. Hordes of people climb this mountain every day in the summer, and you rarely hear anything about it other than the trail was too busy. Still, my 18 and 20 year old sons would be leaving before dawn with a friend, traveling up the interstate into the mountains on little sleep to ascend to 14k feet alone for the first time. Their momma bear was anxious. Although I fell asleep quickly, I woke up with my mind racing and imagining the worst. I pulled out the don’t-know mindset.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know that there is any reason for concern. What if nothing bad happens? What if there is no traffic at all and they arrive safely? What if they packed the perfect amount of snacks, water, warm clothing, and safety gear? What if all that happens is that they make it to the top to view a cloudless Colorado morning with 360-degree breathtaking views? What if they make a memory together they will cherish forever? What if this gives them the confidence to climb other mountains, both physical and mental? What if they arrive home, beaming with accomplishment, and share photos from their adventure? You don’t know.

I took a few deep breaths, relaxed into the mattress, and fell back asleep, confident that the likelihood things would work out was far greater than the likelihood they would not. I slept so well I didn’t hear them getting ready and I didn’t wake up in time to say goodbye to them. When I finally awoke at 7:10, they were long gone. And when I checked my phone I noticed Joe had already sent a photo of them safely at the trailhead ready to begin their upward journey.

I think the trick is to grab your monkey mind’s tail as soon as you notice it. Once you have it in your grasp, tell that monkey to back off because it doesn’t know what it thinks it knows. The more often you catch that damn monkey, the more practice you have stopping its useless chatter. Eventually, you realize there is no benefit in determining an outcome you don’t want to have and likely won’t experience. You begin find stillness, peace, and positivity can fill the space in your head and give the monkey no room for running and jumping and bouncing around. I’m not there yet, but my monkey catching skills are improving.

The friends you meet along the way

Zen and the Art of Bunniness

In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby enter into each other's inherent bunniness.
In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby take a moment to appreciate each others’ unique and meaningful existence.

Like many people these days, I practice yoga. My journey began a little over four years ago and, even in the times that I don’t practice regularly, I find it is always with me. Yoga is a hard thing to explain to those who haven’t yet experienced it. Before I practiced, people who knew me well would tell me that I needed it. I resented that statement, but mostly I resembled it. I moved from one thing to the next without stopping to be present in my own life. I didn’t know how to sit in stillness or look around in awareness. A hamster on a perpetual wheel, I rarely paused to notice or enjoy anything. I was too busy looking ahead to see the little moments slipping by in my peripheral vision.

In vinyasa yoga, you flow through the different postures syncing one breath to one movement in a moving meditation. You breathe in to settle into one pose and breathe out to transition into another, consciously aware of each inhalation and exhalation. So when I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book, I knew exactly what it was for. It is a mantra for meditation.

Breathing in, I know I am a bunny. Breathing out, I know a bunny is all I have to be.

In my late thirties, I was somewhat depressed. Not in that can’t-get-out-of-bed-and-need-Zoloft way, but in the way that I was unhappy without being awake enough to realize it. I had young children who had boundless energy and myriad personal struggles and I didn’t have a clue how to help them settle and grow. I was continually exhausted, surviving on caffeine and mindless, reality television. I was stalled out. When my early forties hit, midlife began urging me to shake off my slump and make something out of my life. This was both a good thing (because I began to wake up and seek out life-affirming events, which made me buck up a little) and a bad thing (because in seeking out new experiences I managed to remain too busy to truly enjoy anything).

That was when yoga found me. I began to understand that I didn’t have to become anything to prove anything. Through yoga, I began accepting that there are things that I am good at and things that I will never be good at. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of the uniqueness that is me, and it is enough. That thought continues to blow my mind. I am enough. Period. If I finish the book I’ve been writing in my head for years, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’m exactly where I need to be, being the person I am becoming. At the end of my life, a full and well-rounded curriculum vitae will say everything about what I accomplished but nothing about who I was because we are not the sum total of what we do. Good thing too because on most days what I do is laundry.

Breathing in. I know I am a bunny. Breathing out. I know a bunny is all I have to be.

Can you let go of what you think you need to do to be important and accept that you already are?