In episode 10 I suggested that the best thing I ever learnt is that we are in control of our own thoughts and feelings, rather than these being purely dependent on external circumstances. I also said that I doubted that you were convinced that this is true.
Why is this?
There is a very good reason. As we go through life it simply feels like our emotions are directly influenced by what happens to us. If we make a mistake at work and our boss shouts at us, it makes us angry, or sad and ruins our day. If we get a new match on Tinder it makes us happy and excited, and improves our day.
There is no doubting these associations, and so when your GP tells you that external circumstances don’t cause your feelings, only your own thoughts do, it seems obvious that they don’t have a clue what they are talking about. If our thoughts caused our feelings independent of the world around us, surely, we would all be feeling a whole lot better! Well that’s true, and that’s exactly what this is all about. But the tendency is to conclude that because we don’t feel good the principle itself must be wrong.
But that’s not the case, it is still your thoughts causing your feelings, you are just not thinking good thoughts. Just because you are not currently choosing and thinking good thoughts doesn’t mean that you are incapable of it.
I have recently been learning to cook. For years I used to just say “I can’t cook”. I thought I was incapable of cooking because I didn’t know how. But life skills are not innate. They have to be learnt, and learning takes time and energy. If you don’t put in the time and energy you won’t learn how, and you won’t be able to do it. But this doesn’t mean that it is impossible for you, that it can’t be done. You just need to decide what is important to you, and how you are going to spend your time and energy. I haven’t been to the gym for 2 months, despite paying for it, but this does not mean I am incapable of going to the gym – I just didn’t do it.
The key here is the word association. There is a difference between association and causation. We may feel good when the sun shines, and sad when it rains. We may enjoy praise and fear criticism. But it is not the sunshine or the criticism itself that produces these feelings, it is the thoughts we have, the sentences we produce in our brain, in response to these circumstances. It is not the fact of my boss shouting at me that makes me feel bad, but what this makes me think about myself, about him, about my job. I feel bad because I think I’m bad at my job, or that he is a Jerk, or I’ve used up all my annual leave and have 6 more months of this grind until my next holiday. If when he shouted, we thought different thoughts; “poor guy, he must be having a bad day”, or “I’m glad I never lose my cool like that at work” then how we feel about the circumstance, how it affects our day, will be dramatically different.
It is true that for all of us certain experiences tend to produce certain thoughts. This is why the association between our external circumstances and how we feel arises. It is what we call personality, and it makes up part of our sense of self. We may think of ourselves or others as cheerful or irritable, laid back or competitive, bold or timid by nature. We may define ourselves through our personal tastes and preferences, through the music we like, fashions we follow, or hobbies we enjoy. Most of us don’t believe we can deliberately choose this personality, it is just how we were born, how we are, it is who we are.
It is also true that most of us didn’t deliberately choose the way we are, and how we think. As we have previously discussed, the patterns of thinking we have developed are a result of our experience of the world as we grew up. They developed from lessons we learnt as children, primarily from our parents, but also from our friends, teachers, mentors and the things that happened to us. They are shaped by the cultural climate of the society we grew up in. This is why there are stereotypical types of person or personality based on the geographical location you are from, the type of school you went to, or the decade you grew up in. It is why people of the same generation have a natural affinity to each other, why the music from our teens often remains some of our favourite, and why old school friends can remain close throughout their lives. They understand each other in a unique way, as they have shared experiences during their formative years.
Imagine parents that are keen musicians. They may encourage their child to learn music, and instill in them a great sense of importance in musical achievement. This is going to have a major impact on the child’s personality, sense of self, and possibly their whole career and life’s direction. It would not be surprising for such a person to become a musician themselves, to marry a musician, and in turn enter their own precocious progeny into “young musician of the year”. But this is not a foregone conclusion. Although everyone is influenced by their parents, teachers, mentors and friends, they are not dependent upon them. Once an adult this individual has the capacity and free will to choose any career, any hobby that they like.
The same is true of other aspects of our personality. How we react to certain situations, the thoughts these tend to produce in us, is as much dependent on our upbringing and experiences as our taste in music, hobbies and careers. Negative feelings arising as a result of wet weather is a learnt pattern of thinking. Feeling confident and thinking positive thoughts about yourself are also learnt patterns of thinking.
And just like once we are adults, we have more control over what we do than we did as children, so we have more control over what we think, and how we react to our external circumstances.
We did not choose the personality we “naturally” developed, as we could not choose the lessons our parents taught us, which country we grew up in, which decade we were born, or which school we went to.
But when we become adults, we gain power that was not available to us as children. We get to decide whether we want to continue to believe the things we learnt as children. We get to decide if the things we have learnt so far about ourselves and about the world are helpful to us. We can choose to unlearn the unhelpful stuff, and to think better thoughts.
There is no such thing as personality. There are just patterns of thinking that have been learnt, but everyone has the power to choose different patterns, if they want to. To choose on purpose what to think. Just as when we are adults, we can choose our careers based on what suits us, rather than on what suited our parents, so too can we choose our personalities. We can choose what we want to think, who we want to be, and how we want to relate to the world. We can choose what we want to think and feel when the sun shines, when it rains and when it snows. What we want to think and feel when our boss shouts at us, or the GP tells us we are overweight.
Many of our problems are the result of a failure to realize that we are not children anymore. Many of us fail to understand the power that we gain as adults, or at least are unable or unwilling to exercise this power.
Consider the musical child in the example from before. Let’s suppose that she hates music. She may pursue a career in music non-the-less, because she believes in the virtue of a musical career that was instilled in her by her upbringing. In this case she has failed to become an adult. She has failed to understand that her parents no longer have dominion over her, that she is free to choose any career she wants. That a musical career is no more or less virtuous than any other career. This failure to become an adult is extremely harmful to her, as she continues in a career that she does not enjoy. She is not free to live the best life she can.
Believing that external events cause your thoughts and feelings, that your happiness and wellbeing are dependent on what happens to you, is to commit the identical thought error. It is a failure to become an adult. It means that you are continuing to believe that the stories you learnt as a child are real. Our experiences don’t create our thoughts, we do. As an adult we have the power to choose our own running commentary. Our beliefs are merely beliefs, formed from our childhood experiences, and if we don’t like them, if they don’t serve us, if they are harmful to us, we have the power to simply change them.
The tendency is to believe the stories we have learnt about ourselves; about our personalities, tastes and propensities; about the way other people are, and the way the world is. We fail to recognize that these stories are precisely that. They are just stories we tell ourselves based on our own unique set of experiences and circumstances. They are not real or true. A career in music is not objectively better, more virtuous or more worthwhile than any other career. It may have been to the parents, because of their own unique set of experiences, but this does not mean the same is true for the child.
Focusing on if something is real or unreal, true or false is mostly not a good way to look at the world. There is normally no objective answer. It is much more helpful to think about if a thought or belief is helpful or unhelpful to you. Does it make you feel better or worse? Does it serve you to believe it? This is a much better way to decide what you want to choose to believe.
If we hang on to old beliefs and thought patterns that are unhelpful or harmful to us, simply because we believe them to be “true”, we will not be able to adapt and grow. We will not be free to live the best life we can live. We will always be held back by our past. This will lead to unhappiness, just as it did for the unhappy musician who longs to be something else. We can choose to continue on the journey of spiritual growth well into adulthood, and throughout the rest of our lives. There is never a shortage of lessons to be learnt, or better ways to think. The world is constantly changing, and we must continually adapt as our circumstances change. If we don’t, we will struggle to be happy.
Now, I want to make it clear that this concept of becoming an adult is not a moral issue. There is no value judgement. There is no “should”. I’m not saying “Oh, grow up” or “Stop being childish”. These are critical, unhelpful statements, and are not what this is about. You are not a bad person if you don’t manage your mind, and a good person if you do. Its just that if we don’t manage our minds, our happiness will be dependent on external events, rather than on ourselves.
If you allow your happiness to depend on your external circumstances you are setting yourself up for a miserable life, because a good proportion of the time bad stuff will be happening to you. Bad stuff is going to keep happening to you, because that is the way human lives are. People you love are going to leave, they are going to get sick, and they are going to die. You are going to get sick, and you are going to die. It will rain at the weekends, it will rain on your holidays, you are going to get stuck in traffic and people are going to shout at you. These are the facts of life, and there is nothing we can do about it. Worrying about it, getting angry about it, emotionally resisting it, isn’t going to stop it from happening. We may be powerless to change the evets themselves, but we are capable of changing our thoughts about them, and subsequently how they make us feel.
So, if we want to be happy we need to concentrate on our thoughts. We need to learn to think positive thoughts about difficult life events. We need to be able to see the beauty in every part of life. There is beauty to be found in the rain, there is beauty to be found in sickness, and there is beauty to be found in death. All these things are part of the diversity of life, and of the human experience. Just as with the seasons, there is beauty in the contrast between events, between the good and the bad, the rough and the smooth. We need to be able to experience these circumstances as they are, to welcome the sadness of loss, and see the beauty in it. To understand that death, even our own, provides the contrast and backdrop of human life. It is through the certain knowledge of death that life gains it’s gravity and meaning.
Much of the distress caused by negative events is derived from our emotional resistance to them. It is our thought that they should not be happening to us that makes them so distressing. Emotional resistance to events that our outside our control is one of the most unhelpful, damaging and harmful patterns of human thought. If we can recognize it, and choose on purpose not to engage with it, life can become much more tolerable.