Been spending a lot of time thinking about... well... thinking about thoughts, actually. I've been considering the stream of consciousness that is the river of my life. As I navigate my little boat along that stream, thoughts float by constantly, like litter in the water. I can ignore some of them. Others I have to navigate around. But many stick to the sides of my vessel for a while, traveling along with me, before the water pulls them away and I am free to sail on again.
Sometimes these thoughts are pleasant, and I'm sorry to see them go. Happy experiences and joyful memories make many parts of my journey a delight. But other times there are painful thoughts, memories of failure and shame, regrets, old hurts, damaging words about myself or others. These can also cling to the hull of my boat, slowing me down, distracting me from my course, even monopolizing my attention if I let them. Sometimes they can cling so tightly that it is hard to know where my ship ends and the garbage begins.
The thing I try to remember is that no matter how firmly it sticks, the litter is not my ship: likewise, my thoughts are not me. They are just words. Thinking "I'm a failure" doesn't make it true. It might seem true sometimes. I might even build up a mountain of evidence to support it. But it isn't real. It's only a thought; one that will come and go from time to time like a branch drifting along in a river. It isn't me. And it doesn't define me.
I've been contemplating this principle for some time now, and have been considering some more practical applications. I've started observing my desires as they float toward me, and asking myself, "Do I want that? Or am I just thinking about it?"
One simple example: I've gotten into a strange habit. When I climb out of bed, one of my first thoughts is, "I am so tired. I'm going to need a nap later today." What a strange thought to have after a long night's sleep. Today I woke up after a restful night's sleep. My first impulse was to hit the snooze button. I had a water fitness class to teach, and a two mile run on my schedule. "I am so tired," I thought to myself. "I'm going to come home and pass out." That nap stayed on my mind all through my hour in the pool. Afterward, at my locker, I considered skipping the run and just going home. I could always run later. "No, I've packed my shoes and shorts. I'll just get it done." Instead of bailing out, I had a great run, enjoying a beautiful morning. When I got home, I went to my bedroom to unload my wet clothes and hang them up to dry. The pillow beckoned, soft and cool. "Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "Am I tired? My eyes are open. My thoughts are clear. My muscles feel strong and limber after a morning's exercise. Why do I want to go to sleep?" I realized that I really didn't. I was just thinking about sleeping. I finished hanging up my clothes, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down to read and write for a while. Instead of sleeping away a gorgeous morning, I was doing things that made me feel great.
The second example is a tough one for me. "Am I hungry, or am I just thinking about food?" There's a Facebook meme that says, "You're not hungry, you're bored. Learn the difference." I admit that I do sometimes eat just to have something to do, but often I eat because I have food on my mind. I've noticed that at the end of a long walk, I start thinking about food about ten or fifteen minutes from the house. "What should I cook? What should I buy? What's in the house? Why not just stop at the Rite Aid and pick up some chocolate?" It's a habit: a pattern. It isn't my stomach asking for nourishment, it's a mental picture of a luscious bar of dark chocolate floating down the river past my boat. And much too often, I find myself reaching down into the water and picking it up instead of just letting it float on by.
It's a challenge, but I have found that I can make this kind of thinking work in my emotional life. I have a feeling or thought and ask myself, "Is that reality, or is it just a thought that will pass?" I've managed to avoid slipping into depression using this technique several times in the past few weeks. Now I'm wondering if I can do the same thing with other behaviors and desires.
Am I really hungry?
Am I really lonely?
Am I really broke?
Will my knee hurt like this for the rest of my life?
Or are those just words; just thoughts floating down the river that will come and go from time to time? Are they just words: ideas to be accepted, acknowledged for what they are, and then left behind as I continue moving toward the goals and values that give my life purpose, meaning, and joy?
It's been working with depression. Will it work with ice cream?
I'll let you know.