“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.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately engaged in what has become a regular pastime of mine…pondering the unanswerable questions of life. Rather than being consumed by the everyday worries provided 24/7 via the cable news networks, I exercise my brain by contemplating topics like the potential for achieving emotional peace whilst circumnavigating the vast ocean of fluid interpersonal relationships. Is there a meaning of life? Is there a Hell? Are humans doomed to repeat their mistakes? Will there ever be another television program as brilliant as Breaking Bad? (Okay. Maybe not that last one, but it does deserve an answer.) While some friends find my need for intellectual exercise exhausting, as an introvert I rather enjoy my armchair philosophy. There’s something comforting in asking questions that cannot be answered. At least you’re certain your suppositions can’t be proven wrong.
Yesterday while my mind was entrenched in the question of whether a person can have true compassion for a friend without taking on any emotional burden of said friend, Joe came racing in from the cold to interrupt my mental machinations. He’d been outside sledding and wanted to share something with his brother who had been resigned to inside play after I’d discovered that his second-hand snow boots were falling apart (literally, the heel of the boot was flapping when he walked and he’d failed to mention this little tidbit to me for a week).
“Luke, you’ve got to come outside and sled!” he implored.
“I can’t, Joe,” came the disappointed reply. “My boots are broken and the insides are all wet. It’s too cold.”
“Okay. But we’re out there running over the Hulk with our sleds. We’re trying to destroy him,” Joe explained before beating a hasty retreat back to the sledding hill lest he miss any additional opportunities for destruction. Poor, plastic Hulk. He didn’t stand a chance against four preteen boys hell-bent on mowing him down in freezing temps.
Luke sat quietly for a minute or two and then he ran upstairs. He reappeared shortly wearing long underwear, fresh wool socks, and a hat with ear flaps. He ran to grab his snow pants. When he came back in, he began his verbal campaign as he continued dressing.
“I have to go back out, Mom. I don’t care if my feet get cold. They’re sledding…over the Hulk. How often do you even get that opportunity? It’s epic!”
I didn’t see how I could argue with this logic. He was right. You don’t get many opportunities to team up to destroy the Hulk, even if he is just a small, plastic shell of the big, green guy. Philosopher though I am, I understand the occasional sense of urgency to let go of the mantle of deep thought, logic, and rational behavior to seize an epic opportunity, warm feet be damned. Yes. My mind may be old and grown up, perpetually stymied by life’s deeper questions, but I’m still young enough to appreciate that sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and crush the Hulk.
No matter what the bigger answers are, every day my children remind me what it truly means to live.
“Worrying is using your imagination to create things you don’t want.” ~Esther Hicks
My good friend, Lisa, is an English teacher at Columbine High School (yes…that Columbine High School). Every year as she grades projects she posts quotes from her students’ senior portfolios on Facebook. Each and every time she does this, I find a gem of a quote I will use later. Today it was this quote about worry. I am not a worrier by nature. As a general rule, I’m not a great proponent of borrowing trouble because, quite honestly, I have enough of it already and I’m not really looking for more. I simply want to get through today. If I can get through today, I’ll tackle tomorrow’s problems when I get there. While I am not a big worrier, I am married to one and he passed his genes along to our oldest son. Beyond that, I have many friends who carry the genetic marker for worry. I feel for them and wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do.
I’ve read many quotes about worry that I have passed along to the people I care about who are sufferers. The reason this particular quote speaks to me is its reference to creativity. How sad it is to squander precious creative energy on worry. I’d never looked at it that way before. I wonder how many hours’ worth of creative energy my husband has lost worrying about worst case scenarios that never happened. If you are that honestly creative, shouldn’t you spend time envisioning the best rather than the worst? Today I told Joe that instead of imagining Luke being run over by a car, maybe he should picture Luke becoming the President of the United States and taking him as the first one of our family members to ride on Air Force One like he’s already promised Joe he would.
I wonder how much creative energy is wasted daily worrying about things that will never happen. Then, I imagine what might be possible if we pooled and then redirected all that negative creativity toward a better purpose…repairing the damage to the ozone layer or cleaning up the ocean gyres or pursuing world peace, for example. The next time you’re tempted to worry, stop for just a moment to think where that creativity might be better spent. Perhaps instead of creating a problem for yourself, you can solve one that already exists.
This morning I got a comment on one of my blog posts that made me shake my head. Tricia, a young mom from Western Australia, told me that she had gotten an angry email from another woman when she wrote a blog suggesting that toy guns are a part of growing up. The woman who emailed told Tricia she was encouraging people to raise murderers. I immediately thought Tricia should have told the woman to go sell crazy somewhere else. What the holy hell is wrong with people?
Now, I’m no child development expert, but I did look around a bit today for information on the subject of children and imaginary violent play. There are no studies that link pretend gun fights to an increased likelihood of adult violence. There was one study that actually suggested that boys perform better in school when they’re allowed to engage in this type of imaginary play. Honestly, if every boy I knew as a child became a murderer because he played with toy weaponry, I’m not entirely sure there would be a living soul in the western United States.
I understand our natural tendency to want to curb violent play in our children. As a new mother of two boys, I decided I would not purchase toy guns for our sons to play with. Round about the time they were 5 and 3, though, they started using their fingers to pretend to shoot each other. Apparently, keeping the guns out of their hands was not going to hinder their notion of gun play. While my sons do not own guns that shoot anything other than Nerf bullets, they do enjoy shooting at each other. We’ve never been parents who wrestle with our boys and our boys do not wrestle with each other, so perhaps this “shooting” helps them act out their natural aggression in a harmless way? I’m not sure. All I do know is that whether or not I had wanted them to talk about gun ships, war, and killing, it seeped its way into their lives. They seem no worse for the wear because of it. They are not violent boys. Joe will cry when the neighbor boys steps on ants in our driveway. (For the record, I don’t think that crying makes him a sissy, either.)
I do understand that we are hypersensitive to guns after the recent killings at the movie theater in Aurora, and I am not entirely comfortable with actual guns myself. But, toy guns are not real guns, and I am clever enough to understand there’s a difference. I’m not handing my boys semi-automatic assault weapons loaded with live ammunition to play with. I’m simply allowing them an outlet that encourages their style of creative, imaginary play. As long as boys have been boys, there has been cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. It seems to be a rite of passage. Why get worked up over it? I’m not sure purchasing Nerf guns for my sons turns them into murderers any more than handing a young girl an Easy Bake Oven will turn her into the Julia Child. Heck. I played Charlie’s Angels with my sisters when I was growing up. My gun fingers neither turned me into a murderer or Farrah Fawcett.
To the woman who found it necessary to berate my fellow blogger, Tricia, I would simply suggest this: find something else to worry about. Perhaps a new hobby would help relax you? I’d suggest knitting, but that involves needles and I wouldn’t want to turn you into a heroin addict. If the new hobby doesn’t work, then Xanax might. I have no personal knowledge about Xanax, but I’ve heard it works wonders when you’re a bit overwrought. We all need to relax a bit and not become too worked up over things that have no root in day-to-day reality. We do the best we can with our boys. Sometimes their incessant chatter about bullets and battles makes me uncomfortable, but that’s my problem not theirs. I don’t believe that their toy guns will lead them to violence in adulthood. After all, toy guns don’t kill people, crazy people do.