Shoot That Arrow
Cleaning up your inner thought world for a lasting form of happiness
Every change, every form of growth, has to do with our minds. As does every form of misery and suffering.
It is a rather sad state of affairs, then, that we modern people are seldom taught the crucial art of mind-ninjadom: the conscious and deliberate management of our thoughts. Indeed, we are not even taught that such a thing is possible.
Thoughts are so important that the only way to re-integrate hardened criminals into society, and essentially turn them into somewhat decent human beings, is a form of hardcore thought therapy over long time spans.1 In these interventions, the “therapist” ruthlessly corrects the criminal’s thought world by making him aware again and again of the pathology of his reasoning. But even that only works in relatively few cases because, as with all therapy, the subject must show at least a minimal desire for change, which is typically not the case for example with more psychopathic individuals.
Unlike those criminals, most of us (I hope) don’t think about robbing the grandma next door blind and about how justified we are in doing so because we were wronged and deserve it. (These are typical thoughts of the “criminal mind.”) But we all have many lesser “criminal” thoughts wandering about in our minds: theories created out of fear, bad thoughts fueled by resentment, justifications based on a sense of entitlement, whole thought chunks we engage in that make us feel good the same way drugs do, etc.
Correcting such thoughts over and over again by way of a careful thought management is key to moving towards a more healthy, productive, and ultimately happy place.
Indeed, it seems that changing our thought patterns can often literally cure disease.2
But how to go about it?
As some of the Eastern traditions are good at pointing out, the first step is to realize that we are not our thoughts. It’s rather that thoughts come and go, often triggered by external stimuli, and that there is a “deeper I” behind it all that can observe this mayhem. This deeper I can also intervene: it can shift around thoughts, change the tracks these thoughts tend to run on, focus on certain thoughts while letting others fade into the background, and so on.
It’s quite useful to picture your inner thought world as a crazy bedlam where all kinds of thoughts jump around, become the focus of attention, just to be forgotten entirely for a while, only to suddenly crop up out of nowhere again…
But it gets worse: amidst all the chaos, there are recurring patterns that we tend to repeat again and again: we see something, which makes us feel something, which brings up a thought, which lets us feel something, which brings up a thought from the past, which makes us feel something… Over and over, round and round it goes.
To reclaim our sanity, and to become whole and functional again, we desperately need to break that cycle: rearrange our internal landscape in real-time in the present moment, while paying attention to the nexus between thought and feeling.
Managing one’s thoughts is a long journey with many twists and turns—there are no fixed rules or step-by-step guides on how to do it, except that the first step must always be to observe.
That being said, here is something I found useful.
Find a thought that makes you feel uncomfortable—that gives you the urge of moving away from it, of distracting yourself. This could be anything: maybe something you need to do that you are procrastinating about, an embarrassing experience, an upcoming event you are afraid of, something or someone that has hurt you…
Find another thought that gives you a kick, that makes you feel “happy”—often this is something that you immediately want to dwell on if you find yourself confronted with an uncomfortable thought. Such pseudo-happy thoughts might have to do with pride, maybe a compliment you received, some fantasy of yours about your future richness and exploits, dreaming about a new material possession, perhaps that Netflix binge you are planning for the evening… anything that, if you let your mind wander towards it, gives you that superficial “kick” which numbs your pain.
Now, try to hold these two thoughts in your mind simultaneously: the one that repulses you and the one that attracts you. You will feel an emotional tension, a being-torn-between-the-worlds, a back and forth of happy molecules and bad-feeling molecules.
If you sit with this tension for a few moments, interesting things may start happening: a new energy emerges which is joyful, but fundamentally different from the merely escapist “happy kick.” More like a soul-deep rejoicing, combined with profound understanding and big picture vision.
You begin to transcend the petty world of feel-good, feel-bad, and the endless hamster wheel in your mind that oscillates between being crushed by bad vibes and escaping to good vibes. It is here that the real, the true, the sacred are to be found.
And it is here that something entirely new arises.
The two poles of a bow, or the two sides of a string instrument, are under massive tension, yet they make an entirely different phenomenon possible—the shooting of an arrow or the sound of music. Same with the two poles of feel-good and feel-bad chemicals: they are the precondition for an entirely new type of energy.
You can use this energy to fly to the stars, figuratively speaking.
It gives you the strength to stand your ground, to do something useful, to have new ideas and insights, to enjoy everything in your life—to deeply feel grateful even for your trials and tribulations. It’s as if this energy can flood your whole being and, for a moment, flush out all the crap that keeps you enslaved to the whims of this world, including your own whims.
The struggle in our minds is real, and it must be fought relentlessly.
Feel the tension, breathe, and shoot that arrow.
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See Stanton Saminow, Inside the Criminal Mind, Crown New York, 2014
See Louise Hay, Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them, Hayhouse UK, 2004