In just the past week, I’ve had discussions with various people who said the following things. I’m sure you could reflect on your week and come up with similar examples that others have said or you have said about yourself.
“I’m such a Type A. I only do three-day weekends. I’d love to take that cruise with my friends, but I could never handle a long vacation.”
“I’m a total shopaholic. I really can’t afford this and I’ll probably regret it, but once I try on something that looks good on me, I have to buy it.”
“I would love to adopt a dog, but I could never do it. I know I would not walk it every day. I’m too much of a selfish free spirit to live by some animal’s schedule.”
“I’m a nerd. Always was. I’d love to make friends, but people don’t like me. So I avoid them.”
To sum them all up: “I’ve locked myself in a psychological cage, so I can’t let myself follow my heart or listen to my common sense.”
It’s easy to forget where our “identities” come from, and how to let them go if they’re not working out for us. I can’t think of any mothers of infants who would say their babies were born Type A’s, or shopaholics, or selfish free spirits, or nerds. We look at babies as just little human beings, full of promise and possibilities, who can follow their dreams and inclinations in any direction. We all recognize, with small children, that they will shape their futures the way they shape silly putty, changing their minds often along the way. We laugh and clap when the little boy or girl who wanted to be a sheriff last week decides this week to be an astronaut, or maybe a teacher, or a chef, or an architect. We watch them soar into joy, droop into sadness, careen into excitement, settle into boredom, and we don’t worry about it. We accept without question that children’s minds are open fields in which they can run and play, and zig and zag.
Then, if no one tells them how thinking really works, our children, just as we did, grow up and learn to take some thoughts more seriously than others. And the next thing we know, they’ve created a whole story about themselves, and they start living as though they were characters in a novel from which there is no escape. Who knows where those serious ideas came from? Something a teacher said. Something on TV. Something they started ruminating about all on their own. Something that scared them. Something in a book. Something their parents thought. It wouldn’t help to track them down; it doesn’t help to analyze them.
What helps is knowing that no matter how a whole construct of thinking about ourselves started or developed, the simple fact is we made it up. We chose, at some point, to think about it and then think about it some more, and then take those thoughts to heart. And anything we make up, we can change. To put it another way. The thoughts we think and take more or less seriously are products of our own power to think. If we don’t imagine them into form, they can’t get into our experience of reality. We can’t help what comes to mind because we can think anything and thinking is a constant process. Thoughts pop into our heads almost at random, invited or uninvited. But we can certainly help what we think about what comes to mind, and how seriously we take it, and what we do with it. We certainly can understand the process of creating thoughts as a human gift, a life capacity that allows us to navigate our path through time. We decide what is just a passing thought and what is a really big-deal, serious, important thought that we need to keep re-thinking and ponder. When we don’t realize that we’re the thinkers of our own thoughts and the deciders about what to do with them once we’ve thought them, it’s really easy to get caught in a trap of our own making, a set of thoughts we believe are “the way it is” because we’ve thought so much about them they seem really true.
They didn’t start out that way. Every thought that comes to mind has the potential to be a passing thought, or not. Every thought we’ve taken seriously will pass into nothingness as soon as we leave it alone, let it go, soften our focus on it if and when it pops up again.
It’s not really complicated to understand. It’s just a matter of an insight into how it all works. I heard a former prisoner talk one time about how he “cleaned up” and stopped committing crimes. “I went to this class about how thinking works while I was in prison,” he said. “And I realized that everyone has criminal thoughts from time to time. But only criminals take them seriously. And I didn’t have to be a criminal. I could just let those thoughts pass and wait for something better to come to mind.”