Changing My Mind

The human mind is a quirky old thing. Old being the key word. We are still dealing with our primitive brain and things get complicated when our shiny new neocortex starts tussling with the reptile. These two parts of our brain, like it or not, must co-exist; sometimes it feels like an uneasy marriage.

Our reptile brain was simply focused on two things: staying alive and continuing the species. Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Easy except that damn “fight or flight” mode psychologists always talk about still has me in its grip more often than I care to admit, even to myself. Or should I say, my mind. Yes, it is possible to hide things from your own tricky mind.

Because with all the other developments of our new brain, we have this thing called denial. Some of us are very good at it. And our new smarts created not just a way to harness fire but also new and fun stuff to add to the procreation process we are coded to seek out and enjoy. There’s a pill for anxiety, a more sophisticated form of “flight” and there’s stuff for depression, too, which is something our cavemen ancestors didn’t really live long enough to experience, nor have enough time to ruminate upon.

I’ve recently had a bout of “the dark night of the soul” ~ yes, philosophy and theology and shadows turned into poetry our brain teems with … and then there are the torments: the shame, greed, envy and hate. Mostly we are ashamed to feel these negative emotions, which is why I, for one, prefer to keep them hidden, even from myself.

But that murk will suck me down anyway sometimes, even though I may not know why. Since my days as a single mom, the lowest point of my life, I’ve learned a few lessons on how to stop the pain and the denial and face the truth. Or so I thought. I meditated. I prayed. I studied world religions and new thought philosophies. And still, shame persisted and stung me when I least expected it, well into my fifth decade of life. Just when I thought things had finally settled down.

A cascade of events that I’ve recounted here these past few months brought me to my knees and I knew I needed more. I found a good therapist and started repair work on my mind. Because recent findings in the scientific community have learned our minds are much more plastic than we once believed. We can literally change our minds, although it’s a bit of work. I  was already halfway there with a couple of decades of meditation on my zafu.

Okay, these days, my sofa.

What can I say? I like to meditate with the possibility of a nap at the end of the breath session. Anyone who has worked with their mind in meditation knows there’s no empty bowl or serenity. It’s pretty messy in there with thoughts and emotions clinging and clanging. But I have learned to breath through them and let things float away without judgment. Or that’s the goal anyway.

I always have a goal whenever I learn anything difficult, and meditation is no exception. But it is so worth it and has helped me with this new endeavor to change my mind. When I say “change my mind” I mean actually reconfigure the way I think. It’s doable. Ask anyone who has broken a bad habit.

So how does one take the mind from anxiety and depression to happiness? That’s what I want, same thing my ancestors did. More pleasure, less pain. And it is possible. The catch is you have to go through the pain to get to the peace. Face up to feelings, those uncomfortable emotions. Try to follow them to their root. I usually have half a dozen mixed in there, so it takes a minute (or a month). But once I got that part, I wasn’t sure where to go. I did a ritual with fire. That was cool but I felt like I’d cleaned the house (of my mind) and it was quickly getting dusty again.

So, here’s what the book I’m reading right now suggests. Find happy images from your current life and when you go into the blues, meditate. While in this place of relative calm, face those ugly emotions, let them pass through, and then pop a happy image in place.

That’s where I got stuck. I didn’t have any happy images. Did I? Well, I could try to write a list. I might only have one or two things on it, but it was a start. Ha. I wrote for two pages, starting with the time, not too long ago, when my husband told me I was the love of his life and he wanted to grow old with me. Awwww. Then I remembered he called me today just to say that if he couldn’t be with me, at least he could hear my voice.

I thought about my new book, just arrived in the mail yesterday, a real, tangible thing I had made. Holding a book of my own had once been a distant dream. I have a row of books now, my own books, on a row of shelves holding my most cherished, carefully curated, collection. I should curate my thoughts so carefully.

More positive images: all the laughter yesterday with the writers. God it feels good to laugh. Tom to me: “I see you’ve gotten over your reluctance to share sex scenes.” And then Bob, many minutes later, “This takes the record for the scene longest discussed, and we’re not done yet!” We laughed, even sweet Veronica, we four comfortable in a way only a perfectly in sync group can be.

And last night, the wonderful dinner out with good friends, and Kelly telling me a self-deprecating story about her failed attempt at dessert. I like a person who can laugh at themselves. Kindly. That kindness within the laughter, that sense of connection, those are two things I need in my mind more. They bring the heart ease. And all I have to do to feel them is to think about them instead of the negative stuff. Or, more accurately, after I acknowledge the negatives, dismiss them and say “next!”

I have hardly touched on my long list, which includes a sweet talk with my son yesterday and seeing my awesome grandson every week on FaceTime. He loves his Mama so much and I can see it in his eyes up close because she holds the phone next to her face as he kicks his legs, tries to suck his toes, and fist pumps the air around him, always with a smile. Owen is one happy baby. Which of course makes me a very happy granny.

In need of a mental makeover? Try this image replacement thing. It’s better than staying stuck in the mud. The lotus, flower of Buddhist teachings, grows in mud. That most precious and beautiful of flowers would never grow and open to the sunlight if it hadn’t first germinated in the mud. So don’t be afraid of your deep shame and secrets. Sink into the mud, open your heart, let shame have its say, realize negatives are products of a quirky mind working with old brain stuff we really can’t control, and let them go. Let them grow into something beautiful, like a baby’s smile. Namaste.

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