I got an email recently from a friend who just experienced a major disappointment in her life. The word “disappointment” is a massive understatement, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe it without giving away details that might identify her. Just imagine something so utterly disappointing that you’d seriously contemplate killing yourself in response. She wrote me a long email describing how she felt.
Anyway, here’s my reply, somewhat modified for this blog:
This is the content of your thoughts. It’s a series of statements intended to establish what sort of person you are in contrast to other people.
Objectively, there is no real difference between this series of thoughts and a series of thoughts about what sort of ice cream you prefer and why, or the reasons you think the Three Stooges were actually better when Shemp re-joined the group even though Curly was a comedic genius. The contents are different, but that’s all. All thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more.
The reason these thoughts you’ve written to me seem more important than thoughts about ice cream or the Three Stooges is that the thoughts you wrote to me about are more closely related to the major ways you have described yourself to yourself for most of your life.
At a recent Zen class, a member of our group who is a psychiatrist was talking about how the brain works. I couldn’t follow all of it but I think I got the basic idea. Here’s my attempt at a summary.
In the material sense, thoughts are the exchange of electrical and chemical energy between brain cells. When any given brain cell is adjacent to another brain cell and the two of them spend a lot of time exchanging a certain set of chemical and electrical energies, it sort of creates something akin to a well-worn path through a field. It becomes easier and easier for that particular set of energies to be exchanged again. The result is habitual thinking.
The only way to break this pattern is to stop (metaphorically) walking down that same path. Then the natural processes of overgrowth take over and the path eventually disappears — though you could still walk there again if you really had to.
It’s difficult for most of us to stop treading down these paths. It takes a lot of work.
Most people have no idea how to do this work. They imagine that the way to get rid of certain habitual thoughts is to replace them with other thoughts, for example by putting thoughts they have labeled as “positive” in the place of thoughts they have identified as “negative.” This can be somewhat effective in a limited way. But it can’t get at the root of the problem because it’s just the very same thing all over again. You’re still making (metaphorical) paths in your brain.
Zazen is particularly useful in breaking through this because you are encouraged to allow thoughts to be wild when you’re doing zazen. Whenever you find yourself thinking in one of your habitual ways, you remember that you’re doing zazen and try to attend to that instead — for example, by adjusting your posture, which has altered because you were thinking real hard about something (the body always follows the mind and vice-versa, there are no exceptions because the two are actually parts of a single undivided unit).
It might not seem like it, but you can choose to dwell on these thoughts or choose not to dwell on them. I do not mean to imply that simply deciding not to dwell on these thoughts is the way to fix things. That would be like saying that the way to cure a heroin addiction is to decide not to be addicted to heroin anymore. That’s only the first step. And it’s much easier than the steps that follow.
You fear letting these thoughts go because you imagine you might disappear if you stop describing yourself to yourself. But my experience suggests otherwise. I’ve worked at this for over thirty years and I still have a very strong sense of who I am. I just don’t think about it very much anymore.
Somewhere earlier in my life — by the time I was in fourth grade if not before — I developed a habit of contemplating suicide whenever things got particularly difficult. I also do it randomly sometimes. I think it might be related to blood sugar levels or something chemical. Suicidal thoughts just come suddenly flooding through and I don’t know why. I usually imagine hanging myself, probably because a friend of mine did that as well as two of my musical heroes, Pete Ham and Tom Evans both of the band Badfinger.
When those thoughts come up nowadays, I just leave them be. I don’t try to stop them. I don’t try to trace them back to their origin. I don’t try to replace them with other thoughts. I don’t try wearing a rubber band around my wrist and flicking it painfully each time I think something I don’t want to. I’ve attempted all those things and more, but they never worked.
Nowadays, though, I know that these thoughts will always pass if I don’t feed them too much. So rather than hanging around for days and weeks and months like they used to, these suicidal thoughts are usually gone within a few minutes or, if things are really nasty, a couple of hours.
I never imagine anymore that these thoughts of hanging myself mean that I really should go get some rope, find a tree, and do the deed. In fact, that seems like kind of an absurd response to these suicidal thoughts anymore. Like thinking that because the thought arises of eating a whole tub of strawberry ice cream that means I really should eat a whole tub of strawberry ice cream.
But, again, it took some work to get to that place. I had to sit uncomfortably with my suicidal thoughts a whole lot.
I don’t know if any of this is the least bit helpful. But it’s all I have.
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September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland
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