The one limiting perception that I have found most difficult to overcome in my life is the idea that my moods and emotions are largely directed by external circumstances. It is surely impossible to feel happy when some challenge or obstacle is facing me – I can feel happy once it is resolved. Until then I will need to feel afraid, angry or conflicted.
Is this true? Does it have to be this way? Are our emotions nothing more than reactions to outside stimuli? Is it not possible for us as individuals to decide how we will feel regardless of what is going on in our world? The accepted way of life in the Western world seems to suggest that this is how it has to be. We can’t control our emotions, we can’t feel safe and happy unless the world around us allows us to.
The ideas of eastern religious and mystical traditions, of some philosophers and of many life coaching and self-help methodologies, indicate that the opposite is true. For example, this was core to the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. “Peace comes from within,” he said. “Do not seek it outside.” He is also quoted as having said: “We are shaped by our thoughts, we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
“We become what we think…”
“Peace comes from within…”
Why is it that the concepts expressed in these simple statements are so difficult for many of us to accept? It’s strange that, though they were said somewhere between 2500 and 3000 years ago, they are still as revolutionary today as they were then. They posit a mind-before-matter world, a universe in which exterior circumstances do not exist independent of the minds perceiving, contemplating and being affected by them. This is a model of reality in which what we think and how we feel determines our experience of the outside world, rather than the other way around. This is in stark contrast to the common perception that we are helpless against the outside world or forces of nature or a deity, that we must take what comes and we have no control over the feelings and actions that the world and its vagaries will demand from us.
I’m not suggesting that we are all magicians with the ability to snap our fingers and make adverse circumstances disappear. We have a different, less dramatic, but just as powerful kind of magic at our disposal. This power consists in the simple understanding that, regardless of what is going on around us, we can decide how we feel. Making this realisation is something like becoming aware, after wandering in a storm for hours and getting drenched, that you have been carrying an umbrella and raincoat all along.
We spend a lot of our lives in search of sanctuary, some safe place that will finally shelter us from the storms of failed relationships, from the blizzards of financial worry and whatever other bad weather we will encounter throughout our lives. But what if we could just realise that, through all of it, we have the ability to create our own sanctuary, to build our own shelters under which we can weather these storms? What if no more is required of us than a simple choice to feel differently in any given situation?
I am reminded of a line from the rock opera Tommy by The Who: “If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high, you’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple.” But what if it is? Stop and think for a moment, next time you are feeling stressed by some situation that seems out of your control but where your life is not immediately endangered. Being harassed by creditors, for example, or going through a break-up. Ask yourself, considering that the situation is what it is, whether it is actually necessary for you to feel bad about it. Does this bad feeling change the situation in any way? Does it serve you? Is it perhaps possible for you to feel differently? Why not be in the situation and still feel happy, powerful, calm and in control (or content not to be in control)? Why should you not feel differently? The answers to these questions are liberating and actually taking them to heart and applying them, even more so.
But there’s the rub – it’s easy to rationalise, it’s easy to think you should feel better but it’s just as easy to assure yourself that you simply can’t because circumstances don’t allow it. And so you find yourself back where you started – as long as you hold onto the limiting belief that external factors determine how you feel. And what if that is all it is – a belief, not a solid, immutable fact? Well, then why not try testing it? Give it a chance, try feeling differently and see what happens. It’s worth a try at least.
To conclude, a quote by the comedian Bill Hicks: “It doesn’t matter because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice right now between fear and love.”