Make the Mind Your Ally

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.You can change your habits and learn to manage your time, but without learning to manage your mind, inner peace is impossible. Even when you're sitting in a comfortable living room, surrounded by loved ones and trying to relax, your mind is capable of producing outrageously stressful mental movies. You probably create them several times a day, perhaps without even noticing what you're doing. The key to making your mind your ally, rather than your enemy, is to become aware of how you produce and direct your very own cinema of the absurd. Then you can choose to run a different feature. Awareness and choice are the keys to mental peace.

Here is how the average stressful mental movie gets produced. I was on my way to facilitate a weekend workshop at a cozy conference center in upstate New York. It had just snowed, and the trees were bowed to the earth, shaking off their frosty offerings in a light breeze. The sunlight sparkled off the flakes, and the world was enchanting in its beauty. I was in the moment, feeling spacious and present. My body was relaxed and comfortable. Then I had some constricting, afflicting kinds of thoughts: What perfect skiing weather. I moved to Colorado to spend more time outdoors. Everyone at home is probably out enjoying the snow. I'm on my way to spend the weekend teaching indoors. Poor, poor pitiful me. I'm so busy.

From Peace to Stress in One Minute or Less

One moment I had been peaceful, expansive and present, thoroughly enjoying life; the next moment I was feeling deprived, crabby, and stressed. Nothing had changed except my thoughts, but that's where we live the majority of our lives. Much of the time, the suffering and busyness we feel has very little to do with the reality of the situation. It's a direct result of our thinking.

The Buddha had a great analogy. He said that each of us has some suffering, like a cup of salt. If you choose to dissolve your salt in a small bowl, the water will be undrinkable. But if you dissolve it in a lake, the water will still taste sweet. The mind -- and how you deal with your thoughts -- is the equivalent of the bowl or the lake.

Life is filled with very real suffering. God forbid that you or a loved one gets seriously ill, a child dies, your business fails, divorce rips your family apart, or you're betrayed by a person you trusted. These things happen because they're a part of life. As you get older, you realize that there's no magic amulet or formula that prevents suffering. Bad things routinely happen to good people. Suffering is part of the human condition. You may wish that this were not so. There are plenty of books that trade on that hope, dispensing advice on how to think, eat, pray, and behave in order to avoid suffering, but suffering will come just the same, in spite of your best efforts. The only thing you can really control is how you respond to life's inherent challenges.

Suffering: Mandatory or Optional

However, there are two types of suffering -- mandatory and optional. On my drive through the snowy countryside, there was no external cause for suffering. It was all in my mind. This made me recall that the original definition of yoga had nothing to do with stretching exercises. It was defined as learning how to control the mind and banish the afflicting thoughts that create needless suffering. Learning how to do that, said the ancient sages, is the most difficult of all disciplines. Learning to walk on water was said to be much easier.

Getting control of your thinking may not be easy, but if you want lasting peace, it's a worthwhile practice. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." It takes consistent effort to overcome that internal enemy, but you can do it as part of your daily life. It takes no more time to use your thoughts well than it does to let them drive you crazy. The basic skills of awareness and choice are available to every person, in every situation, during every hour of the day and night.

For example, in order to stop my mind from creating suffering over its preference to go skiing, I had to notice what I was doing. That is awareness. "Uh-oh. I've lost it. I've made myself miserable." The thought of skiing started the process of woolgathering, or bringing up other thoughts about how busy I was. The next move in the practice of mental martial arts was to change my thinking.

Stop It and Just Say No

Modern cognitive psychologists suggest that you internally yell, "Stop it," then start in on a more productive train of thought. In the skiing example, I might have nudged my mind onto a better road by thinking, Next weekend I'll definitely go skiing with my family. I'm glad I remembered how much we love to do that. Today I'm going to enjoy my work. These thought corrections are called affirmations. I like to think of them as station breaks for the opposing point of view. This might all seem very simple, but it's not easy. If it were, we would all be yogis.

This week, notice your thinking and develop the habit of awareness. Witness your thoughts with the recognition that you are not your thoughts. They are just a mental movie, and you can make the choice to run another film. Try saying an emphatic mental "Stop it" when you feel tense and constricted by unproductive obsessing. Then substitute a train of thought that can be your ally in experiencing inner peace.

Exaggerate the Negative

Remember the song "Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative"? Easy for them to say! Although being aware of your thoughts, and exercising your authority to choose new ones, is helpful, sometimes the strategy of accentuating the negative creates such a hilarious parody of the situation that it can help you change your mind even faster.

Woody Allen films are funny because he understands the movies of the mind. Listening in on the soliloquies of his characters and witnessing their mental concoctions is amusing because it's so human. We all do it. One of his characters may have a simple headache and suddenly he fantasizes about being in the hospital with a terminal brain tumor. Psychologist Albert Ellis calls this awfulizing. That's a great word. It's powerful because it's such a perfect description of obsessive worrying. Whenever we work up a situation mentally to the point where it has the most dire conclusion imaginable, we're awfulizing.

The Process of "Awfulizing"

When I got the contract for this book, I only had two months to write it between business trips. How could I do it? I was already busy, and the daily office work would still be there. Furthermore, the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's holidays were coming up. Most of our blended family of six adult children were planning visits. I began to awfulize. How could I possibly find time to write? I would miss being with the kids, and they would think they didn't matter. I began to dwell on the fantasy that I was a hypocrite, one of those people who loves everyone in general, but no one in particular. How could I write about inner peace for busy people if I was a mess?

I sat down at the computer to write in that elevated state of mind. Wonder of wonders, after a whole day, nothing but drivel had appeared. That scared me even more. Apparently my fantasies about not being able to write the book were true. So I decided to try exaggerating the negative. "I will never write this book. I'll have to give back the advance and then the bank will repossess the house. We'll end up in the street -- and all because those kids are coming!" I can do a pretty good comedy routine, and soon I was laughing so hard that I relaxed. At that point, I was able to acknowledge what my good friend Janet told me. She pointed out that I've always written best under pressure, being the type of person who lives for deadlines.

"If you had a whole year to write this book," she reminded me, "you'd start the month before it was due." I was awfulizing over nothing. I did love to work like that. I could spend the mornings writing and have the rest of the day free once the kids arrived. I relaxed, sat down, and immediately began to enjoy the creative process.

Using Humor to Counteract Stress & Panic

The key to exaggerating the negative is that humor counteracts the physical effects of the stress and panic that accompany obsessive worry. The body can't tell the difference between what you imagine and what is real. Awfulizing is just like watching a scary movie. Your heart pounds, your breathing becomes shallow and ragged, your muscles tense, and you become hyper-alert. You're ready to fight for your life. Once you're in that state, it can be hard to get hold of yourself without a good dose of laughter to calm you down.

You don't have to be facing a book deadline or any other unusual circumstance to get trapped by awfulizing. You probably do it every day. Perhaps you're drinking your morning coffee when you think, I'm so incredibly busy. I still have yesterday's phone calls to return. I bet there will be 10 new voice-mails and 20 new e-mails today. Then there are the two reports that are due. What a beautiful day it is. I'd love to go out for a walk, but there's too much to do. How did things get so out of control? I'd rather pack it all in and move to a cabin in the woods. Now that your thinking has created stress, physical tension, and neurotransmitter disaster, you still have to get through your to-do's, but with a body that has just been beaten up by chemical two-by-fours.

This week, when you notice obsessive worry, label it: "I'm awfulizing!" Try exaggerating your movie as if you were Woody Allen, until you see how entertaining you are. "I'm so busy. No one in the entire history of this world has ever been so busy. I have more phone calls to return than the president. I could run three countries, and I haven't even had breakfast yet." This will help stop the stress response and return you to a relative state of peace.

Inner Peace for Busy PeopleThis article is excerpted from the book:

Inner Peace for Busy People: Simple Strategies for Transforming Your Life
by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Hay House Inc.

Info/Order this book

Joan Borysenko,  Ph.D.

About The Author

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, and is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is the author of ten books, including the New York Times bestseller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind and Inner Peace for Busy People. Joan's Website is:

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