In the Anger Antidote, I spoke about how forgiveness and acceptance of myself, without anger, blame or shame, can clear the past of my regrets. Previous to that, I wrote about how in the end, it is the mental mass (of which, past regrets are a type of) that is the “real” important mass that weighs me down and should be the target for removal. At the end of that post, I briefly described a method to manage the fears of the present and the worries of the future (both are mental mass) by being aware of new thoughts and feelings and accepting them without attachment. I wanted to use this post to explore that method in greater depth.
About 4 years ago, I was reading a book, “The Not So Big Life” by Sarah Susanka, an architect and author. I had enjoyed her previous book, the “Not So Big House”, which suggests that a house is a home and that a smaller house that is designed around our lives is better. In the “The Not So Big Life”, Ms. Susanka was attempting to evolve that concept beyond architecture into the messy arena of life. When reading Chapter 9, I came upon a sentence, “I Am Not That Thought”, which caused me to re-examine some of my core beliefs.
Until then, I had believed in “Cogito ergo sum” (Descartes: “I think, there I am.”); basically, that my thoughts are me. Ms. Susanka’s sentence suggested the opposite, that my thoughts are not me. I began to question both premises and tried to be mindful of where my thoughts were coming from and their effect on me. I found that while some thoughts followed other thoughts (from “it’s nice to have a cat” to “we’ll need to get vet shots and cat food”), there were brand new thoughts that came from nowhere (while I’m playing tennis, I would think “a yacht would be hella cool to own” or “if I went into law, what happens if I fail the bar? That would suck big time”).
While watching my thoughts, I became aware that feelings exhibited the same behavior. Some feelings followed my thoughts (“if I fail the bar, I would feel bad”) and other feelings just appeared out of nowhere (“I’m sad and I can’t figure out why”). And if I attempted to explore why that feeling came into being, new thoughts were created from the feelings (“I’m pissed and it must be because of Fred forgetting about that”). My final observation is that thoughts and feelings came together, with varying strengths, and new thoughts and feelings may not have an origin.
Where do these new thoughts and feelings come from? I don’t really know; maybe from an overactive brain trying to make sense of random inputs? All I can do is to figure out how to prevent the bad thoughts and feelings from sticking to me. And stick they did, especially to similar, older bad thoughts and feelings that were already stuck on me. And once stuck, they had a life of their own, basically my life.
With practice, I realized that I could observe my thoughts and feelings as they came into being. At first, I called it “the gap between stimulus and response”; later, just “the gap” because sometimes there was no stimulus and no response. At first, the gap was very small but with practice and time, it became larger. In that gap, I had the opportunity to decide how to react to each new thought and feeling.
I learned that that best action is to accept them, good or bad. To acknowledge their existence with true acceptance, not to have any attachment as to whether they are good or bad. They just are. They exist. If you judge them, reject/deny/oppose them as bad, attach to them as good, they will get energy from you. To deny something is to attach to that thing and give it continued existence. So just don’t.
You must learn to accept those thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment. Once you do, those thoughts and feelings will lose their power over you. They will come and they will go. Thoughts will cause feelings (“Bob backstab me in the back, I am so angry”), and feelings will cause thoughts (“why do I feel so angry? It’s because Bob backstab me in the back”). You must accept both thoughts and feelings, and their ancestors; which are similar old thoughts and feelings that are attached to you and get re-activated by your reaction to the new thoughts and feelings. As you use forgiveness and acceptance, the old thoughts and feelings will lose power and disappear. Over time, there will be less and less past “bad” thoughts and feelings to attract future “bad” thoughts and feelings.
You may think that it is okay to be attached to “good” thoughts and feelings. But there is a dark side to that. For example, you are happy that your friend called you on your birthday and make a judgment (“gee, what a great, conscientious friend. She really cares about me”). You get attached to this judgment and set an expectation concerning your friend. In the future, should she forget to call you on your birthday, that expectation is not met and the reverse judgment may be made (“she is not a good friend”) followed by “bad” feelings toward her. Instead, be happy that she called and avoid attachments to that action. In the future, if she calls again, great, if not, no biggie.
True acceptance without any attachment is a tough skill to acquire and tougher to continue doing year after year. For help with learning what acceptance is, I suggest reading Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is”. Ms. Katie’s “The Work” is a helpful tool to explore what acceptance means. In the book, Ms. Katie uses Reality as a teacher. Most, if not all, of our attachments contradict Reality and cause friction between us and “What Is”. “The Work” involves questioning our attachments, letting them go, and accepting, even loving, Reality.
In the end, I decided that thoughts and feelings were a part of me, but they did not have to drive my behavior and being. I could think or feel something, but I didn’t have to act on it or let it affect my state of being permanently. Over time (almost a year), I learned to be okay with not knowing where new thoughts and feelings came from. I learned to let them go. I accepted their existence without attachment, briefly thought the thought and felt the feeling, decided how I would continue behaving or being, and then allowed them to stay or go as they please. If I fully accept my thoughts and feelings, don’t deny, resent, reject, or oppose them, they will usually leave as quickly as they came. Definitely, I am more than just my thoughts and feelings!
Along the way, I thought, wait a second, who is the “I” that is aware of my new thoughts and feelings? “I” seemed to exist independent of my thoughts and feelings. The “me” that observes the thoughts and feelings, and feels the sensations of my body, seemed to be different and separate. I think that this “me” is my consciousness and the self-awareness that I have read about, but have never examined directly until now.
It occurred to me that the reason I had gotten into trouble in the past was because I had not been conscious and aware of my thoughts and feelings. I had allowed them to drive me. I had been sleeping at the wheel and allowing my thoughts and feelings to wreck and ruin my experience of life. Sometimes life was good, sometimes it was bad, but most of the time, it was mediocre, because sleep walking is mediocre and that was what I had been doing. It was time for my awareness to take the driver’s seat.
I found that if I do not act on my fears of the present (by not reacting or attaching to thoughts and feelings), I avoid the worries of the future (which are projected fear). If I don’t fear the present, what is there to worry about in the future? Life got a lot better and freer. In Anger Antidote, I learned that true forgiveness leads to acceptance. And in the experience described by this post, I learned that true acceptance leads to freedom, where my self-awareness can act as it chooses without baggage (past regrets), attachments (judgments about present thoughts and feelings), or future concerns (worries). With forgiveness and acceptance, I have learned a different, better way to like and love myself, and this has opened up a way to like and love others in the same manner.
Before I end this post, I would like to throw out some questions that are currently on my mind. Could my self-awareness be more? Could the “observer” be separate from the body and thoughts and feelings? Could the “observer me” exists once my body and its thoughts and feelings are gone? By awareness, could I be talking about my soul? And finally, what happens to the “observer” when I sleep and dream?