How to Change Your Life Through the Power of Mindfulness
BY MICHAEL H. BROOKS
Once Upon a Time
When reading about the adventures and feats of famous historical figures throughout the ages, it can easily feel as if we’re reading a book of fiction, even though those experiences occurredon a day in time no different than today. To the people who lived those experiences, they weren’t fiction at all, they were their lives, their experiences. It was all real, it all happened.Similarly, when we watch documentaries about inspirational figures or significant events in cultures other than our own, these too can feel as if we are seeing something other worldly, since it is outside of our own realm of experience. In fact, the entire world outside of our own experiences can seem like a work of fiction. We can really only comprehend the world that we are familiar with, and within it we are locked into who we believe we are, our role, and what we believe we are capable or incapable of accomplishing.
An important exercise in mindfulness is to step back and consider ourselves, our lives, objectively and without judgment—much as we watch or read about the stories of other people. In so doing, we can begin to see how we each have created a story about who we believe ourselves to be, our definitions of ourselves.
Upon examination, we may find that we have unwittingly imposed countless limitations and constraints on ourselves and our beliefs about what we are and are not capable of achieving. Too often we base who we are on our history and who the world tells us we are, without questioning it. However, if we can see through the illusions and see how these walls have been constructed, we can begin to take them down and redefine who we believe ourselves to be—in effect, changing our lives. (And I’m sure there’s lyrics for a killer rock song somewhere in all that.)
Autobiography: The Story of Me
In our minds, we are the main characters in our stories, and rightly so, because in our lives everything is happening to and around us. We perceive everything through our own point of view and we believe we are doing the right things through our actions. (Feel free to go ahead and give your story a title now, because that’s one of the most fun parts of creating your story. Personally I waver between “Uber-Fabulous Adventures in Plaid Pants and Silk Ties” and “Smutty Stories of the Smurfs and Their Unspoken Impact on Modern Poetry.” It all depends on your perspective.) For simplicity, here we’ll just call it “The Story of Me,” until you’ve had time to come up with something more fitting for your personal story.
“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”
– mohandas k. gandhi
In “The Story of Me,” we’ve each created very solid definitions of our character: who we are, our place in the world, what we are and are not capable of doing or becoming, and what we believe to be “right” and “wrong.”
We have also created our own story about the world in general and how it functions, based on our history, judgments, and perceptions. We have, in effect, created a script to follow that defines how the world operates and how we operate in the world, “our place in the world.”Within our stories, we’ve created many beliefs that help us navigate our day-to-day experiences in the world, which we’ll call our operating system. This operating system tells us that we only possess certain limited capabilities, based on what we have or have not done in the past.
We also use our past experiences to determine which specific events will or will not happen to us in the future. For instance, you may believe you will never run a marathon because you don’t like to run, are not in good shape, or have a debilitating injury. You will never travel to a certain place because you will never have the money or time. You will never get married because your dating life has been disastrous, which makes you feel unworthy or unattractive. You will never become a manager because upper management does not believe in your capabilities or you’re not part of the Boys’ Club. You will never be happy because horrible things continually happen to you and manure rains down on you from the gods above. (Cheer up already, would you? You’re really starting to bum me out and we just started.)
We Are What We Think
In The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, translated by Thomas Byrom, there is a beautiful poem that explores the idea that everything we are is a product of our thoughts, to the extent that we essentially create the world through what we think.
“Too often we base who we are on our history and who the world tells us we are”
Reflecting on this, we can introduce the idea that we, in fact, do create the world, our vision of the world, with our thoughts and beliefs. Further, we have a choice in how we perceive and experience the world by mindfully being aware of what we choose to hold in our minds and what thoughts we choose to think. We may also confine ourselves to a limited number of experiences and possibilities due to our restricted view of ourselves and our place in the world, our story and definitions.
We set up stories about our limits, conditions, and ability to function in the world. For example, you may believe that because you only got five hours of sleep the night before, and your “minimum” amount to function adequately is seven and a quarter hours, that you’re going to be exhausted all day long. And, in fact, if you keep reinforcing this belief by repeating it to yourself throughout the day (as well as repeating it to everyone around you who’s lucky enough to hear it), it will come true; you will believe all day that you’re exhausted.
Even if you find that you are alert and energized for periods of time—even lengthy periods when you are very productive because you are more relaxed and have not yielded to your normal levels of stress—you’ll overlook those periods in favor of the periods of fatigue because your lack of sleep is at the forefront of your consciousness. Perhaps you’ll make tremendous progress on certain tasks you needed to complete because, due to your exhaustion, you will see things in a different light and be able to overcome certain mental roadblocks. This will be overlooked because you will hold on to the generalization that you’re tired all day until the time comes when you’re able to get your “full night’s rest.”
And if you have advertised your lack of sleep and how exhausted you are to everyone you’ve come across, then it will be further reinforced by those people repeating it back to you all day, validating and reminding you that you are exhausted and will continue to be so until you can get more rest.
In this example, we have created a world that is fraught with difficulty and strife because we are burdened by exhaustion. On this day, the world is difficult and challenging. We reinforce the belief all day that we are tired and barely able to get by because physically we feel the tiredness of our body and it’s what we repeat in our minds over and over. What we fail to recognize is that we may have had periods when we were mentally and physically alert and able to function well. We may even have had some huge successes in the day that were overshadowed or lost altogether.
According to Webster’s
As we grow, certain experiences add to our definitions. I like going to the gym, thus I’m a sporty person. I have a doctorate, thus I’m smarter and more educated than most other people. I gave money to a charity, thus I’m a compassionate and caring person. I’ve had a divorce, thus I’m damaged and bad with relationships.Unless we are prompted to make drastic changes in our lives or undergo a significant experience, such as a challenging health issue, most moments and experiences in our lives simply serve to further reinforce and validate our story. At this moment, we are the sum total of all of the moments and associated experiences in our lives to date.
Personal Historical Fiction
Our history can also become confused as time passes. When we look back at what we consider to be the large or significant events of our lives, those events might appear to be somewhat detached from what we perceive as reality today. It’s as if they happened to someone else in another time and place.
We also may find that we have lost a feeling or emotion connected to past events and, when we try to re-experience it, the exhilaration of that past experience escapes us, although it changed our lives at the time. Or we may look back at a daring event from days gone by and ask ourselves in disbelief, “Did I do that?”
Our lives in this moment may seem very far from who we were at moments in the past. Perhaps when we were in high school, the world was an adventure and authority was to be challenged. We may have been more “footloose and fancy free” with our clothing and attitudes. Now, it may seem that we are the ones who exude authority and maintaining the status quo is our top concern.
In our story, the main character (in case you forgot, that would be you) lives and works in specific settings. There are supporting characters, friends and family, who influence and support or demean and degrade our main character (or otherwise just bug the heck out of us).
“At this moment, we are the sum total of all of the moments and associated experiences in our lives to date”
Our main character has strengths and limitations that come out in different situations: x, y, and z capabilities; x, y, and z strengths; and x, y, and z limitations. Thus, more often than not, our characters are completely defined, with little room to change. Our associates are also aware of these capabilities, strengths, and limitations, and will helpfully remind us of them periodically, should we forget them or try to alter them in some way.
You’re There Nonetheless
It’s beneficial to look at how much we strive to control our story and our associated definitions of how the world works. You can ask yourself: Because of these definitions, do I create filters to see only what I want to see, in order to reinforce my beliefs about the world? Do I tune out or avoid what I find unfavorable to me so that I can make believe it doesn’t exist? Do I enjoy focusing on the unfavorable to reinforce and validate my negative state of mind?
We all do this with our own story… often we have expectations of certain experiences happening in our lives, both “good” and “bad,” and we seek out opportunities to have those expectations become reality. You say, “I’m not going to have a good time at the party, I really, really don’t want to go.” Then, when you’re at the party, you seek out experiences that validate the belief you’ve created. You focus on people whom you didn’t particularly want to see. You focus on how uncomfortable your clothes are, or how hot the room is, or that you don’t like the food being served. You overlook anything that does not reflect what you want to see—mainly, that you’re not having a good time, just like you knew you wouldn’t.
Because you’re so set on seeing what you want to see, you overlook the fact that you have the opportunity to spend time with people you generally like, that the architecture of the building is spectacular, that the band is playing wonderful covers of some of your favorite songs, that the decorations are some of the most creative you have ever seen.
If you were to attend the party in a more ambivalent frame of mind—e.g., “I’m not really in the mood to go to a party, but I will anyway and I’ll be open to whatever comes up”—you might be genuinely surprised by the experience. You would notice the things you find favorable, and perhaps put less emphasis on the things you don’t. Since you’re there anyway, you might as well experience it.
Bonus Tip: The next time you’re someplace you don’t particularly want to be, say to yourself (without any bitter and sarcastic inflections, please), “I’m here now, let’s just see what happens.”
Extra Bonus: Let’s practice, so when the time comes, you’ll have the confidence to say it. Say it aloud right now, or if you’re bashful, at least repeat it to yourself silently: “I’m here now, let’s just see what happens.”
That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to it
“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”
– Harvey Fierstein (attrib.)
Naturally, creating and reinforcing our story gives us a sense of control. If we have a solid story, then we have a semblance of control over our lives and the world we inhabit. We are in the driver’s seat, and who likes a backseat driver constantly correcting or making “helpful suggestions”? (Poor backseat drivers, always getting a bad rap. They really might want to think about organizing, since they could become a powerful political force, or have a union, at least.)
Here are a few questions that may help you begin to look at some of the structures you’ve put into place around yourself and your life:
+ What are the definitions you have used to describe yourself?
+ From where did these definitions arise? Were they beliefs that you came up with on your own or were they definitions told to you by others?
+ What validates them as being the ultimate truth, unwavering and unchangeable?
+ What happens when they are challenged?
+ Are these definitions absolutes? Do you employ words such as “always” or “never” when looking at your capabilities?
After reflecting on the definitions you’ve crated for yourself, start to examine some of the definitions you’ve created about the world.
+ Do you cling to these definitions and beliefs even when the possibility of changing them arises?
+ Do you say, “I could never do that, I’m not adventurous, brave, ambitious, smart, sexy, clever, or coordinated enough?”
+ After reflecting on the definitions you’ve crated for yourself, start to examine some of the definitions you’ve created about the world.
+ From where did these definitions arise? Were they beliefs that you came up with on your own or were they definitions told to you by others?
Thinking or believing that we are not in control is disturbing. It means that our perceptions may not be correct, that there’s something “wrong” with them, and we need to make a change. And again, change—for the majority of us—is frightening, if not outright terrifying. Not to mention how it’s been drilled into our minds that “wrong” is “bad,” and so we feel as if we’re being judged negatively. However, if we can open up to the possibility of changing our stories and let go of the judgment, then we can change the way we see and experience the world, thus changing our currently inflexible states of mind.
Often we will hear or read about people involved in natural disasters or accidents who say that the experience seemed surreal, “like a dream.” Many times they say that their lives have not been the same since it occurred. In these instances, they were moved, or forced, out of the comfortable context of their story. They were overloaded with new information and may not have had any control whatsoever over what was happening. They probably fought as hard as they could, but eventually they had to let go of control and just go along for the ride; they had to just experience the scene unfolding around them.
During the financial crisis that began in 2008, people were shocked to hear that large investment firms were in danger of collapsing. The perceived pillars of stability were crumbling and the emerging reality threw people’s beliefs about financial stability into chaos.
The majority of the public believed that the people running these companies would be responsible and honest, and play by the rules that protect society’s best interests. When people learned of the corruption that had taken place, there was mass disbelief followed by outrage. Where were the authorities who should have been watching over these institutions and keeping the average worker safe?
Similar scenarios are seen anytime corruption is uncovered. Sex scandals within the Catholic church, which began to come to light in the early 2000s, threw many devout churchgoers into states of disbelief and denial, causing them to clamor for reasons and excuses to justify such behavior. Political corruption and sex scandals (which are, sadly, common at this point in history, and are no longer scandals, but pretty much the norm), also challenge the structures people believe and have faith in.
Exercise: Worldly Definitions
Some questions to ask yourself about how well you handle and adapt to changing situations:
+ Do you engage in the “always/never” paradigm when the possibility of change arises? (For example, “Things will always be this way, I’ll never do x, y, or z.”)
+ When you encounter change in your life, how do you react?
+ If you find that you resist change, is there a trend or pattern to that behavior?
+ How do you typically react in new situations? If you often feel fearful or have a sense of trepidation, can you investigate why you feel this way? Ask yourself what there is to be fearful of. What is the worst thing that could happen? Would the sun still rise tomorrow?
Individually, we can get nervous or fearful when we go into new situations where we don’t know what to expect and our sense of control feels limited. Going on a job interview or starting a new job, for example, can seem very stressful, since we don’t know what kind of environment we are walking into or whether we will measure up to the new employer’s expectations of us.
Other examples are the first day at a new school, a first date with someone we’ve had a crush on for a time, having to make an appearance in court, or entering a new social situation where we believe we are not in the same social class. In all of these situations, we are facing the unknown and our emotions react accordingly, mainly with differing levels of fear, stress, and anxiety.
When you encounter an unfamiliar situation, you may become nervous or anxious if the situation doesn’t fit into one of your preexisting definitions of the world and how things are known to operate according to your story. Instead of surrendering to what’s unfolding, you may spend the entire time trying to fit the situation into a definition or category you’re comfortable with. In doing so, you miss the opportunity to expand your story, your capabilities, and your world.
When struggling with change, we are challenged to reconcile new and often unforeseen and unexpected events with our existing strong definitions. We thereby experience internal conflicts for which the world seldom has any answers or consolation. Ideally, if we are able to adapt to changes, even those forced on us, we discover parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed; moreover, the changes are rarely as detrimental as we feared. We may find that we are far more adaptable or passionate than we ever imagined and we may be able to utilize those newfound strengths in other areas of our lives.
About The Author
Michael Brooks has been regularly teaching meditation and mindfulness classes and workshops throughout California since 2004. He has successfully applied his approach to mindfulness to his 20-year career in the computer technology industry, enabling him to navigate challenging states of mind, as well as office politics. His recent book, This. Only This., presents a unique and humorous way of living mindfully. He writes based on his personal experiences and the transformation he has been privileged to observe in his students, who range from stressed out CEOs to enthusiastic soccer moms.