Thursday, October 3, 2013

thought work


"How do you not hide in the closet all day with your head between your knees?" (part 2)

Acceptance seems so passive, doesn't it?  Many of us don't like that.  We want to do something, we want to feel that we control something.

Well, in my experience, surviving this life without regularly beating yourself or someone around you up involves plenty to control.


I grew up hearing in church that the tongue is impossible to tame, that it wields the very power of life and death.  But in recent years I've been struck by something further; the tongue, for me, represents our outer life.  I'm talking about the entirety of what we put out there:  what we say, write, tweet, or text.  Even the vibe we give off when we roll our eyes, stiffen our bodies, or huff.  We should control these things, because they do real damage.

But if we were to start inside - changing our very thinking - then we wouldn't have to work so hard at taming our tongues or our tweets.  If we didn't allow ourselves the pleasure of rolling certain negative thoughts around inside our heads, then we wouldn't have to live in fear of them one day escaping and causing real harm.

I believe the focus must be our inner life, not our outer life.  That's real self control.

I know how abstract this is, so I'll try to add some flesh to it. A mother comes home from work, cooks dinner for herself and her son, cleans up the dishes, then walks through the house picking up random dirty laundry and dropping it in a hamper.  She doesn't complain out loud, but inside she's thinking,

"It must be nice to come in and eat, then get up and leave again without a thought. I wish I had someone to wait on me hand and foot. I stayed up late last night making sure that practice uniform was clean but does he appreciate it? No, he just drops his clothes on the floor, expecting me to pick them up..." 
Now imagine this.  The same mother completes the same tasks, but this time she's thinking,

 "I'm so glad he comes home for dinner, I know most of the players just grab a sandwich between school and practice.  He said he had a good day, but I wonder how things are going with that friend of his? Maybe he'll talk to me about it over some chocolate milk when he gets home tonight." 

And she smiles to herself that, even though he's taller than her, now, he still loves it when she makes him chocolate milk.

As she picks up the laundry, she doesn't think about what she's doing, but about what he's doing.

"I know he wants to be a starter and he's worked hard, but if it doesn't happen this year, I hope he'll be okay with that ..."
I've given a simple, fairly benign example here, but I hope you can see how far-reaching the implications are. This shift in thinking, played out over days and weeks and years, results in a completely different person.  The second mother doesn't have to work hard to tame her tongue, because her thoughts are for those she loves.  Her heart is pure.

Now, I know that I've lost some of you - I know that. For starters, some of you think the son should pick up his own damn laundry! To you, I propose this:  the mother in our story has made a choice to pick up that laundry.  In both scenarios.  No one has forced her to, she has chosen to.  That opens subject matter for another post, which I hope to get to, soon (remind me if I don't, will you please?)

Forget the details and focus with me here.

Others of you, though, think the second mother's type of existence is reserved for saints. That she isn't even human.  That being that way every day isn't remotely realistic.  That some of us were just born with certain temperaments and that's the way we are.

I say otherwise.

We choose what to think. We choose what to believe. And we can change.  We choose to repeat the same damaging cycles over and over again, or we choose to change them.  Changing them involves work, such very hard work.  It's not easy, I grant you that.  But don't say it's impossible, because that's a lie.

Negative thoughts are addicting - they are just too comfortable and familiar and privately enjoyable to give up.  And so, in a sick little codependent cycle with ourselves, we attempt to meet our own needs by rehearsing them over and over again inside our heads.  And (like any addiction) left to ourselves, I do believe we are helpless to change them.

I have a great fondness for the 12 steps of AA. I know too many delightful people who have experienced personal, spiritual transformation as a result of them not to.  And while I do not mean to minimize the damage alcoholism can and does cause, I propose that negative thinking - selfishness, resentment, bitterness, martyrdom - do the same.  A person whose life -whether outwardly, or secretly within themselves - is characterized by this way of thinking, is doing very real damage to themselves and everyone around them.

The challenge to change our thinking is no less of an undertaking than the challenge to give up any addiction.  In fact, the recovering alcoholic would be the first to tell you that his or her great battle exists first and foremost within the mind.   I only experience success in this daunting task as I rely on my source, my Higher Power.  There's no need to get hung up here; AAphrases it, "God as we understand him".  I call it the Holy Spirit (as Jesus and Ghandi both did) or sometimes The Good God taken from Victor Hugo's  Monseigneur Bienvenu.

This is a practice for me. I sit with the Holy Spirit, opening myself up to what I believe to be an unlimited source of Love and Light and Goodness fully available at every moment.  I am aware of the Spirit's presence around and within me; I literally breathe in grace.  Sometimes (not often) this lasts for days, as I retreat away in solitude.  Sometimes it lasts a few minutes, as I intentionally step away from life to meditate and pray.  Most often it lasts seconds, as I pause just long enough to say, "Help" like Anne Lammott or "Thy sweetness" like Amy Carmichael.

That's the source, the starting point. And, at least for me, it's crucial.

But asking for help isn't enough. This is the problem I have with prayer, as most people talk about it. James, the brother of Jesus, is famous for ridiculing the christians of his time for their "faith without works". If I were ever to become a preacher I think I'd sound a lot like him.  Please don't talk about how much you pray if your outer life is crap. If you're a jerk to the drive-thru lady, gossip about your co-workers, and act like an ass on facebook, keep your prayers in your prayer closet. I beg you.

But if you really want to change...


When that selfish thought begins, stop it. Say no. Say it out loud if you have to! Tell yourself NO. Discipline yourself as you would a toddler; that's what it's going to take at first, trust me, because that's exactly what you are. Your mind is wildly out of control and it needs discipline.

Obviously, the bad thought patterns can't just be removed, they have to be replaced ... but this is long enough, for now.

More to come. In the meantime, Bob Newhart.

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