The other day I found myself having one of those odd, but common, daydreams where I was complaining to one friend about another friend. I was telling him about a situation where this third party was emotionally cutting me off. The conversation went on for a minute or so, and then I slipped from my daydream back into a more mindful state and realized that what I was saying wasn’t even close to being true. It was almost totally a fabrication. There was a tiny grain of truth, but the reality was completely different from how I was presenting it. I think what was happening was that I was looking for sympathy by taking a fear of being emotionally excluded and creating a whole story about it. Or at least I was rehearsing doing this, since the whole episode took place in my mind.
I think this kind of thing is very common. We talk to ourselves in this way, magnifying our problems and “catastrophizing.” Sometimes we even believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and then we get very stressed or depressed.
I bring this up because the way we talk to ourselves can be kind or unkind, and as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness we’re seeking to live more kindly. I was “speaking” in an unkind way about a third party, and in doing so I was causing myself suffering. I was creating the very sense of emotional exclusion that I was complaining about!
And we create suffering for ourselves all the time in this way, by our self-talk. Many people berate themselves — “I’m such an idiot!” — in a very harsh way. Or they may be assuming that other people are thinking kind thoughts about them. Or they may have angry conversations going on in their minds. Or they may be thinking about things that are going wrong in their lives, and generalizing these to think that their lives as a whole are going wrong.
All of these forms of self-talk cause suffering.
So a good question to bear in mind is, “How is the way I’m talking to myself affecting how I feel?” Is your self-talk helping you to be more loving, more expansive, more at peace, more contented, or more energized, or is your self-talk making you feel isolated, stressed, dejected, angry, or anxious?
I’ve said before that we can regard our suffering as a “mindfulness bell” that calls us to notice how we’re relating to our experience, and that includes noticing how we’re talking to ourselves. So when you notice that you’re feeling unhappy, start to observe also what the tone of your inner conversations is.
I call suffering a “mindfulness bell” partly to suggest that it’s not helpful for us to make judgements about how we’re feeling or how we’re thinking. And by making judgments I mean that we can look at our feeling and thinking and then start talking about it in an unhelpful way — again berating ourselves, becoming depressed, angry, etc. Instead of doing this, realize that it’s just normal for us to let our thinking create suffering. None of us is 100% mindful, and so we’re going to find that the mind gets out of hand in this way. The important thing is that every time we notice that our thoughts are causing us suffering, we let go of those thoughts and then begin attending to our experience in a more skillful way — that is, a way that leads to less suffering.
So you might want just to let go of your unhelpful thinking and notice the physical sensations in your body and arising from the world around you. Or sometimes you might want to introduce some skillful — honest, kind, compassionate — thoughts. You can kindly contradict the untruths and exaggerations you’ve been telling yourself. You can reassure yourself — “It’s OK to feel this.”
As you let go of your unhelpful thoughts, or replace them with more honest and compassionate thoughts, the way you feel will change. It may be a small change, but as the Buddha said, “Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise, gathering it little by little, fill themselves with good.”
You can have confidence in this. No, you are not doing to eradicate your suffering or your unhelpful mental habits overnight. But you have the power to let go of your thoughts, and you have the power to cultivate skillful thoughts. And drop by drop by drop our hearts become filled with feelings of kindness, compassion, and joy.