When you think about it, being brought to tears by a tragedy in a fictional movie should be absolutely ridiculous. Whatever is taking place is fake. The people on the screen are ostensibly lying. Even if the story were true, you don’t know them. Even if you did know them, you aren’t the one experiencing the events of the film. Eventually, the credits roll, the lights come up, and you feel like an idiot when the person seated one row in front of you stands up to see you wipe away a tear that was rolling down your cheek. You walk out of the theatre, get in your car, and go home.
Part of you was there in the story. For a few moments, there was no separation between what may have been a tragic story and your own emotions. Driving home in your cozy car, the street lights running up the hood to the windshield and over the top remind you that you’re out of there — you’re safe. The only reason why the tragic events of the movie haven’t left you scarred and in need of therapy is because you know that it was just a movie. Once you step out of the theatre and into your car, you’re free from it.
In many ways, our thoughts are the movies we replay in our minds all day. Like movies, we can hone in on specific parts, analyze individual clips, and even edit the events. Just because your zipper was down during that meeting doesn’t mean everyone noticed it, but in your own edit, the client definitely saw your underwear. Just because your boss forgot to invite you out for happy hour doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate you, but in your edit, he’s planning on firing you next week.
The reason why we can feel fine and calm after a tragic film while depressed and anxious after our own internal movies is because, unlike the blockbuster, we can’t separate ourselves from our own movies. Well, most of us can’t, anyway. There are some people who can…
Most of us don’t realize that we aren’t our thoughts. For the majority of people, thoughts are synonymous with real life. A good chunk of folks not only never leave the theatre of their mind, but they also don’t even know that there is an exit. Here’s the cool part — there is.
Here is a quick exercise to show you the noise of your mind:
First, find a quiet, comfortable spot that allows for good posture. Rest your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Relax your body and try to bring your complete attention to the present moment, using the sensation air entering and exiting your nostrils. Cool air in. Warm air out.
If you’re like most, your mind will immediately begin to revolt.
- What on earth am I doing?
- I wonder if anyone is watching me right now.
- Did I leave my phone in my car?
- How do astronauts keep the windows from fogging up?
- I wonder what I should have for lunch…
Our minds, especially in the 21st century, have been programmed to be in constant analysis mode. Most of this analysis is unproductive chatter. Neuroscientists have deemed this tone of continuous chatter as the “default mode” — or the “monkey mind” according to many meditation practitioners. This mental state is largely unfocused, unproductive, and alarmingly unchallenged. Most of us don’t challenge it because we don’t know that there is any other mental state…for the most part.
Take a moment to recall your favorite memories. These experiences can take different forms. A mesmerizing live musical performance. An intimate conversation with close friends. Witnessing a gorgeous sunset with a spouse while on the beach. Taking in the open ocean for the first time. The nail-biting final moments of a close-scored sports game. An unprompted hug from your child. A moment of epiphany. These moments usually have something in common — during those moments, we are fully present. As athletes or musician may say, we are “in the zone” without thought to the past or the future. We are focused — completely hanging on every second as it unfolds. No matter how mundane the activity, the mental state of being fully present is inherently pleasurable.
Contrast this with our moments of misery. Take a moment to think about times when you’ve experienced anxiety or depression. These were likely times of immense mental fog. While in the throes of sadness or stress, you probably felt wholly unfocused, directionless, and unable to concentrate on tasks in front of you. You likely couldn’t enjoy movies, books, music, or your favorite sports events. Even conversation with friends sounds like overhearing murmurings through a wall due to being lost in thought, stress, pain, or depression.
Try imagining a time when you were sad, depressed, or anxious without taking on the emotions felt during that time. Simply remember that time or those feelings without applying them to your present state. When you do this, something exciting is happening — you’re now an onlooker — an audience member of your own thoughts. This not only allows you to manage your thoughts better but shows you that you are not your thoughts. This awareness of the separation between you and your thoughts is something psychologists call “metacognition” or “meta-awareness” — thinking about your thoughts. Meditation practitioners call this “mindfulness.”
An immensely simplified example of meta-awareness or mindfulness is in adjusting how we experience emotions. All too often, we’re quick to identify with our negative emotions.
- “I am depressed.”
- “I am anxious.”
- “I’m stressed out.”
- “I am confused.”
- “I’m in pain.”
- “I’m worthless.”
Meta-awareness allows us to see these are emotions to be observed and managed.
- “I feel depressed.”
- “I’m experiencing anxiety.”
- “I am experiencing stress.”
- “I am feeling confused.”
- “I’m experiencing pain.”
- “I’m feeling worthless.”
While these very slight adjustments can seem insignificant, they allow us to mentally sit up from the patient’s couch and sit in the psychologist’s chair to examine why we may be experiencing negative emotions. Mindfulness allows us to take a third-party look at our thoughts without judgment. When we don’t identify as our depression, our stress, our anger, our pain, or our anxiety, this helps us to let go of negative emotions and to choose consciously positive emotions.
The more you train your mind to be attuned to the present, the more you will begin to see the separation between the film on the screen (your thoughts) and the theatre (your mind). When you can see the “exit” sign in the movie theatre of your negative emotions, you can feel better knowing that you can choose not to identify with those thoughts and feelings and instead choose happiness.
For help finding the door, I put together a simple “One Minute Meditation Tutorial” to help you train your mind to more easily live in the present moment.
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