metapunk (1.0)

With our thoughts…

by on Sep.08, 2012, under holodoxy

“We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.”
—Buddha

I’ve been contemplating that quote a fair bit lately. I’ve been on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster spanning two decades, and what I’m really coming to see is that this quote is literally true—each of us lives in a reality of our own making. This is not a matter of metaphysics. In fact, it’s very practical.

Experimental psychologists have long known about “priming.” Priming is about as close as we get to actual subliminal messages. It works like this: If I tell you to repeat after me: soak, bloke, folk, and then ask you what the white of an egg is called… you’re going to be tempted to say “yolk” because the word “yolk” is both similar to “folk,” and related to eggs. Your brain will most likely make that association before you’re even aware of it, and it might take you a moment to remember that the yolk is the yellow part of an egg, not the white.

I’ll give you another example: Take two randomly chosen groups of undergraduate students and get them to fill out multiple-choice surveys. The content of the survey is not important. The important part is that the first group gets a survey with ordinary questions and answers, and the second group gets a survey where the questions and answers are loaded with words like “old, aging, disabled, feeble, sickly, dying…” and so on. Then, you time each group as they walk back to the elevators to leave the building. Consistently, the people in the second group walked more slowly to the elevators. The people given the old & sickly survey feel old & sickly after reading it.

What does this imply?

Well, it means that the messages the world gives us, and the messages we give ourselves—our thoughts—can alter how we feel mentally, physically, and emotionally. It also means that the way we feel is something we can control, if we choose to identify with certain thoughts, and to let go of others. We can psych ourselves up, psych ourselves out, bring ourselves down, work ourselves into a worried frenzy, or feel a state of serene and genuine confidence, all depending on where we invest our attention.

This is key, because most of the time people rarely even notice their thoughts. They blame the circumstances of their lives, or other people, for the way they feel. They feel like victims of life, because they have yet to take responsibility for their thinking habits. This leads people to try and control the world through cunning manipulation, or by sheer force of will—and it causes them to be unhappy when they don’t get the results they wanted.

And if that goes on long enough, they might get angry and resentful, and downright miserable, and as a result might make life difficult for the people around them as well as themselves.

So, what can you do about this? Just pay attention to what you’re thinking, how those thoughts are making you feel, and how those feelings are reflected in the experiences you allow yourself to have. And take the time to think about things that make you feel good; and act in ways that make you feel good.

Chances are, before too long, you’ll see ways to feel happier, healthier, and freer, simply by being a little more conscious about which thoughts you choose to entertain, and which thoughts you’ll dismiss. And chances are, then, that you’ll have a little more energy to deal with difficult situations or people; a little more patience with yourself and with life, a little more ability to recognize fruitful opportunities when they come along, and a little more courage and motivation to act on them.

It certainly can’t hurt. And it sure beats feeling miserable and angry because the world won’t conform to your vision.

Seriously—this is the most important thing you can do, because our thoughts and emotions are at the heart of absolutely every experience we have, and every action we take. If you don’t do it, well, then you can’t really expect your life to change, because you’re still thinking and acting the same old way you always have.

It’s up to you.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Kyle W

    I love this whole idea and generally subscribe to it as well. Much of it has to do with the fact that for me, I think my way through feelings rather than feel my way through to thoughts.

    I really believe that for many, feelings are subservient to thoughts. Put another way, here’s what I think (that word again) is going on in your example of the multiple choice survey:

    For thinkers, the thought based activity creates a negative feeling which can be reversed through further thinking. The impact of the negativity is limited by the length of time one dwells on it and therefore by dwelling on a more positive subject it can be reversed or abated. The speed at which feelings can be altered is limited only by the required time to process the thought and move on.

    For feelers, the negative tone of the survey creates genuine negative feelings which are incidental to the thinking aspect of the test. Thinking about another subject does not erase the impact of having felt a certain way and the feeling needs to be ‘felt’ until the feeling has been exhausted, regardless of the thought activity that follows.

    Naturally there is a spectrum along which people lie in terms of being thinkers or feelers but the principles hold true in proportion accordingly.

    So, I think you’re correct that one is capable of shaping their happiness by immersion (thought based or ‘situation’ based) but I think the feelers have a genuine need to feel the current feeling all the way before it can be purged.

    There is a downside for feelers – they can be in a negative mode and begin to ‘stack’ negativity. While processing the feeling, if the next situation they find themselves in is negative, that feeling is essentially prolonged if not worsened. To change things, they need to be simultaneously aware of the fact their next feeling is being shaped by their situation (and choose accordingly) and work through the current one.

    So, while the lesson may be the same, it is likely much simpler for those able to detach themselves to ‘move’ their thought patterns than for those who genuinely need to ‘feel it out’ first before moving on. In that case, a support system of people able to pull them into a better situation becomes incredibly important, especially when things get too bad to see through the muck.

    I should insert a disclaimer that I am talking out of my ass on this. I still have a hard time understanding feeling-centered people but it’s what appears to be going on when I observe them.

  • Andre

    Interesting. That’s certainly a possibility, but my sense is that “thoughts” and “feelings” are like different sides of the same coin, and so are equally malleable. Some people are certainly more inclined to notice one before the other, but both have an active component, in the sense that you can actively think a thought, and you can actively feel a feeling (in much the same way that you might “feel” your way through a darkened room).

    I should stress that I don’t think it’s likely that one can suddenly will oneself from thinking/feeling despair to thinking/feeling joy, but we can imagine our emotions improving. But we can gradually shape or “sculpt” our emotional makeup. For the thinker, it’s a matter of “talking” oneself up… if you’re thinking “Things never go my way” you could think: “well, actually sometimes I get what I want; not always, but sometimes.” Then you could think: “Hey, you know, things are okay. They might not be perfect, but I do okay.” Then: “Hey, you know, I had a good day today, maybe life really is pretty good. I’m doing pretty well,” etc.

    The feeler can just as easily envision the sensations associated with positive emotion. So, if sadness feels “heavy” just actively envision feeling lighter and lighter in gradual steps. The process may be non-verbal, but it’s just as possible. If you can imagine a state of being in your mind, you can talk/feel your way into it. The common factor is attention. There’s a saying in mindfulness and martial arts: “where attention goes, energy flows.” Essentially, we can simply actively look for evidence that things are going well—even if they don’t actually seem to be at the moment—regardless of whether that evidence is a thought or a feeling.

    It might be really difficult to do this in the midst of a really awful situation; but we can prepare ahead of time, whenever we have a quiet moment, by reminding ourselves to look for that evidence of success/positivity. By priming ourselves to feel good, we’re more likely to have positive experiences in the future—because we’re already keyed to notice that evidence of positivity.

    There’s something in Cognitive and Social Psychology called “Confirmation Bias.” It refers to the tendency of people to look for evidence that confirms what they already believe. This is usually mentioned in terms of ideology—like politicians who say that crime rates are rising, even though statistics say otherwise. The crime rate is never actually zero, so it’s always possible to see some evidence that crime is a problem. But we can only do that if we’re ignoring evidence that something else is true.

    Confirmation bias is generally regarded as a type of cognitive fallacy; or a problem, at any rate. But in terms of our emotions, we can take advantage of it by actively deciding what we’re going to believe when it comes to our emotional state. If we believe that our lives can be meaningful and satisfying, regardless of what’s happening in our lives (which is really the ultimate point of philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, etc., then we’re more likely to notice evidence that this is true in every situation. By actively participating in our thoughts and feelings, rather than passively enduring them, we can ensure that we’re fully present at all times, filled with joy when things are going well, and still realizing that life is worthwhile when things are not going as well.

    So, if you see what I mean… certain people may still need to let a feeling play out right to the bottom, but as rocky as that path might be, they can still see it as worthwhile and meaningful, and still have the option of shaping it into something more positive if they choose.

    I don’t know if that makes much sense to most people, but it’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my gut for the last six to eight months. And it’s been working for me.

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