To understand the secret to acquiring mental peace, we need to understand the methods our brains employ in keeping it from us. It might seem strange to think our own brain is hard at work to (inadvertently) make or keep us unhappy, but that is actually true.
Is there an alternative view? Either I (through my thoughts) am responsible for my peace and joy (and stress and worry) or someone or something else is. If I am not responsible, then who is? Who is to blame if I am sad or mad? If I am not responsible, I must be a victim and even worse, a powerless one. Who should I blame?
With a little self-reflection, many of us might accept the idea that we create the world in our mind. Some of us have an external locus of control and some an internal locus. The externals blame others for their difficulties and feel helpless, while the internals own their stuff and get to work. Most of us are in between, not at the extremes.
Early in my career, I conducted assessments of intelligence. One of the behavioral differences I noted was the diversity among subjects in what we call persistence. Some refused to quit, no matter how hard the task while others gave up at the first sign of difficulty. How do we explain this?
The answer is in our brain — the reality we create in our mind. There is the world we want or expect and the world we have or experience. They are usually not the same. Our thoughts about that discrepancy determine our level of peace or contentment. Are we willing to have this moment and all it offers?
To the degree I do not want the life I have or do not have the life I want, I can feel cheated. If I I’m unable or unwilling to obtain the better life I desire, I can feel defeated.
Recently when I rode my bike up a steep hill for the first time in years, I felt certain I could make it to the top without stopping. I refused my body’s suggestions, requests, demands and then screaming pleas to quit. Instead, I started tacking back and forth, first to the left and then to the right, reducing the strain of the climb by cutting across the hill sideways instead of fighting gravity head on. This worked for a while until I lost my focus, cut too sharply left, lost my momentum and found myself falling with full force onto the hard road with my right hip.
There is that terrible moment when we are at first surprised and then terrified at what is happening and at the same time seeking to deny (hoping, praying) that it’s serious. The fact that this happened on my mother’s 87th birthday — the queen of broken hips — instantly sprang to my mind as I carefully and painfully rode back home.
In my mind I can still see her lying and crying on our kitchen floor one morning after falling off a stool, her head jammed up against the refrigerator with her first broken hip. And then years later, at a family reunion in Tennessee, I can see her step unevenly off a curb and stumble across a motel parking lot before finally falling and breaking her other one. Her hips may have been weak but her mind is strong; she physically survived because she was mentally determined.
I was more fortunate than my mother this time. An X-ray later that day assured me my hip was unbroken. However, I still have pain, it’s hard to walk and most of the right side of my upper thigh and hip is various shades of magenta and purple. Physically I will recover but I have mental work as well.
The day after my fall, two oak trees in my driveway decided 100 years was enough and as they fell, they tried to kill my truck, the upper branches breaking across the cab and one of the large trunks coming to rest on the bed.
When I came limping out the next morning to drive to work, I remember how my brain froze as it tried to make sense of the sight of trees draped over my truck like giant arthritic fingers.
The severe lack of verticality bothered me greatly. I prefer my trees whole and upright, their barked arms reaching for the sky like happy children, not collapsed across my truck like a couple of passed out drunks.
There is the world we want and the world that is. In between, our brains vacillate between resistance and acceptance.
Whether it’s a clumsy bike crash or trees on a truck, we often resist our experience with “should” thoughts, a vain attempt to transform reality into what we wish it was. We cling to what isn’t and from that dark void, we get suffering.
Byron Katie (thework.com) has a solution for us, a path that leads to peace; four questions to ask your brain when it gives you troubling thoughts:
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know it’s true?
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without the thought?
We are not victims in this world. We are blessed to be here. We either learn our lessons or we don’t. Regardless, the world will keep teaching. Watch your thoughts. Watch them carefully and learn.
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.