(Due to a technical glitch, most of you were not notified when I last posted. You can follow this link to read the post if you missed it. I think the problem is fixed now!)
As so often happens, several threads came together to weave this post. The first was a suggestion from Seth Godin to follow our wandering mind, as that’s where our heart might be.
On first read, I smiled and thought “of course,” because following my imagination is one of my greatest pleasures.
As I considered it over a period of days, however, noting where my mind wanders, I discovered something.
I happily follow my wandering mind as long as I feel undisturbed about where it goes. The minute I start to get uncomfortable, however, I shackle it. Brutally. This might be with distraction, compulsive productivity, or starting to speed. A lot of people eat, overexercise, or get trapped in substance abuse. Let us count the ways!
I have rules about where my mind is allowed to go. I enforce my rules without mercy, in collaboration with draconian internal voices. My rigidity is not so much about my thoughts wandering as it is the feelings I have about my thoughts. This is emotional intelligence 101, and I’ve written about it before.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
In essence, then, I’m putting a lid on my feelings. Again. Still.
It doesn’t work. It never works, and I know this, but I do it anyway.
I do it for the same reason we all attempt to avoid painful feelings. They’re painful! Avoidance is easier than allowing ourselves to feel them, find healthy ways to express them, and let them go.
How many thoughts do we have in a day? I suspect most of us chew on the same preoccupations day after day, whether our thoughts engender feelings of rage, grief, fear, or shame, or a combination du jour. Uncomfortable territory. Also highly addictive territory. I’m chagrined to admit my own attraction to struggle. It’s so easy! Which is ridiculous, because it makes everything much, much harder than it needs to be, physically, emotionally, and generally.
Maybe what I mean is it’s so familiar!
As humans, we have an irresistible compulsion to notice, emphasize, and dwell upon the negative rather than the positive. That’s why so many people find relief in a gratitude practice, including me. Switching from a negative to positive focus requires mindfulness and mental effort, but the relief from anxiety and stress is immediate.
I should do it more often. Like ten times a day.
Understand, I’m not suggesting we avoid our feelings. I’m suggesting we take control of our thoughts, especially the negative kind. Feelings rise and fall inescapably. They’re biochemical messages from our physical bodies. We were made to have feelings. What we do with them, of course, is well within our control. Thoughts, however, are ours to steer.
Feelings, though arising naturally, are contagious and easily manipulated. That’s why advertising and social pressure work so well. Our feelings can be deliberately manufactured to serve those who would control our money, our votes, and our humanity.
On the other hand, this means we can to some degree manipulate our own feelings with our thoughts.
I came across an article by writer and speaker Rob Henderson, who I follow on Substack. He wrote a piece listing lessons he’s learned during a challenging life, beginning in the foster care system. One of the lessons is “you are what you do.” Not what you feel, but what you do.
I thought immediately of my writing community on Substack, where each of us struggles with what it means to be a writer. I don’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve called myself a writer ever since I began writing. Writers write. That’s what I do.
I like to keep things simple (even though I often don’t, which is a perfect example of what I say versus what I do!)
We are what we do. I agree. We are not entirely defined by what we think and feel. I’ve known that ever since I went through emotional intelligence training. We’re also not defined by who we say we are, or who others say we are. We are not our highly polished and desperately maintained identity. Our true thoughts and feelings, the private stuff no one else can see or hear, steer our choices and actions, and those are what truly reveal our most authentic selves.
It follows if we want to change, we must do things differently. As many others have discovered long before me, true change comes from the inside out. If we manage our thoughts and feelings in healthy ways, our actions change. That’s why short-term strategies like diets often fail. A temporary diet does not address our broken relationship with food, a much harder proposition to tackle.
We seem to be on a giant rack, ever widening, between who we think we should be or must be and who we really are. The struggle and tension threaten to tear us apart, yet we cling to our rack, desperately holding ourselves together, too afraid to relax into who we really are and make peace with our true selves.
In a constant state of tension, we don’t let our minds wander. We can’t afford to. We don’t have access to the peace and quiet or even boredom a wandering mind requires. Our technology has erased the fertile ground of boredom, particularly for our children. We feed our hearts a diet of distraction, manufactured drama, busyness and productivity; a hunger for more, bigger, better, newer things, and expect it to be satisfied. We ignore or numb our feelings, or turn them into destruction of ourselves and others.
I often think of this Chinese proverb:
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.
Toxic positivity is not an effective coping mechanism. Nor is a state of deep depression and withdrawal, as in addiction. I want to find a path between the two.
Perhaps my wandering mind knows the path and will point the way if I allow it to. Perhaps our minds know exactly where our hearts are but we’re too afraid to know.
- When your mind wanders, where does it go?
- How do you feel about where your mind wanders?
- How do you think an inability to focus (distractibility) might in some cases be connected to a refusal to follow the guidance of mind and heart?
Leave a comment below!
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