Set aside the self-improvement books and forced positive thinking, and focus on understanding your mind and how to overcome the problems it creates
I was a self-improvement junkie for many years.
From my early days reading the classics on positive thinking to my later years listening to the guidance of modern-day gurus, I’ve always been driven by the desire to improve and – to quote a popular phrase – “be my best self.”
One thing always perplexed me though. I knew people who had very little, but were extremely happy. And I knew people who seemingly had everything, but appeared miserable.
As such, the driving question for me was “What determines the quality of our lives?”
I never found the answer in the self-improvement section. Sure, all the resources preached that money doesn’t buy happiness – most of us learn that early on, whether we choose to embrace it or not.
As far as affecting the quality of life, however, those resources focused on changing your attitude and thought processes. And, they supplemented that strategy with a healthy dose of motivational platitudes.
I tried to change my attitude and thought processes. I repeated affirmations, and attempted to selectively think good thoughts and suppress bad ones. And, I love motivational platitudes as much as the next person – I hung posters above my desk, and watched videos to get myself “fired up.”
At times, some of it would even change my state. But those changes never lasted long.
It wasn’t until I started practicing mindfulness and meditation that I finally discovered the answer to my question: it doesn’t matter what you have or do, your life is no better than your relationship with your mind.
Notice I didn’t say “your life is no better than what kind of thoughts you have.” I’m not making an argument for positive thinking, although I do encourage people to surround themselves with positive influences.
To the contrary, attempting to control what kind of thoughts you have is an exercise in futility. That’s why there are so many self-improvement books – new ones keep coming out because the old ones don’t work. And, people keep buying them hoping they will finally discover the secret. But, the new books usually re-package the same ineffective concepts.
It’s a profitable business – in a 2013 study, Marketdata Enterprises estimated the self-improvement market to be over $10 billion/year. And, that’s just in the United States.
There is no secret to be discovered in those billions of dollars worth of resources though. They all focus on changing the content of your mind, but the content doesn’t matter. It’s like treating the symptoms while ignoring the root cause.
The “root cause” is our minds themselves, and what matters is that we stop blindly following them wherever they lead.
Have you met your mind?
Our minds are compulsive, and they are always going. They constantly produce thoughts, emotions, and urges, all of which lead to our decisions, actions, and reactions. This process usually happens without much conscious intervention from us. We tend to go through most of our day on autopilot – if “x” happens, we do “y.” If someone says “this,” we respond with “that.”
As such, our minds shape our lives – what we say, what we do, and how we interact with and treat everyone and everything (including ourselves).
If you bring awareness to your mind and its activity, however, you are no longer blindly following it. You do this through mindfulness and meditation. I discovered that over 20 years ago, and it marked the end of my love affair with self-improvement.
For the past 12 years, I’ve been teaching others. And, whether it’s in my own life or the lives of my students, the benefits of developing a consistent meditation practice and bringing mindfulness to your daily life are compelling.
In short, mindfulness and meditation help you develop the skill of observing your thoughts, emotions, and urges without getting caught up in them. When you are able to watch the activity of your mind from a neutral perspective, you can choose where to focus your attention. At that point, your mind becomes a tool: you use what you need, and let what you don’t need pass by.
Contrast this approach with attempting to control what happens in your mind. If you go down that path, how do you react when your efforts are met with the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish? Negative thoughts will arise no matter how hard you work to keep them at bay. And, forcing yourself to think positive thoughts through repetition (or, sheer will-power) takes a lot of effort and returns limited, temporary results at best.
Failed attempts to make your mind act a certain way lead to frustration and despair. You are doing the equivalent of closing your eyes, covering your ears and saying “you’re not there, you’re not there, you’re not there.” But, when you open your eyes and uncover your ears, all of it is still there waiting for you.
When you practice mindfulness and meditation, a key realization you eventually have is “thoughts are just thoughts.” They are temporary phenomena; you can watch them as they come and go, like clouds moving across the sky. Unless you try to control them by clinging to certain ones and pushing away others.
“Clinging to” and “pushing away” cause you to suffer because these very acts ignore the temporary nature of the thoughts you are trying to cling to or push away.
Nonetheless, all of us feel the need to try and control. This need reminds me of a story about a grandfather talking to his grandson, discussing the fight (internal struggle) going on inside all of us. The fight is between two wolves – one good, representing what we consider positive aspects of the mind. One bad, representing what we consider negative aspects of the mind.
The grandson asks which wolf will win, and the grandfather replies “The one you feed.” The grandfather’s answer reflects this fallacy of control – it assumes we can force ourselves to think what we label “good” thoughts, and not think what we label “bad” thoughts. Our minds don’t work that way, however.
In fact, the act of trying to suppress certain thoughts makes them more likely to occur – it’s called the ironic process theory.
So, contrary to the grandfather’s advice, don’t feed (cling to) the good wolf and starve (push away) the bad wolf. You’ll just make the bad wolf more driven by your attempts to deny it, thus perpetuating what you wanted to end in the first place.
Moreover, you can’t have one without the other – the good wolf doesn’t exist without the bad wolf. They are two sides of the same coin. Yin and yang.
There’s a better answer to the grandson’s question: recognize and accept everything that exists, and view it all with equanimity. That’s how you stop the internal struggle.
If you are looking to improve the quality of your life, you can spend years wading through a sea of information like I did.
Or, you can set aside the self-improvement books and forced positive thinking, and focus on understanding your mind and how to overcome the problems it creates.
If your life is no better than your relationship with your mind, change that relationship. Here’s how:
• Accept it as it is – good wolf, bad wolf…whatever exists in the moment.
• Cultivate awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and urges, as well as that inner narrative (the “voice in your head”) that comments on everything.
• Develop the skill of observing all this activity without getting caught up in it.
• Choose where to focus your attention, and take your life off autopilot. With increased awareness, you have the ability to stop blindly following your mind wherever it leads.
• Use what you need for better decisions and more skillful actions and reactions, and let the rest pass (like clouds moving across the sky).
Those steps are the essence of mindfulness and meditation.
I learned a long time ago to view my mind as a tool. I don’t need to control it, I just need to stop letting it control me. But don’t take my word for it – with a little practice, you can discover the same for yourself.