In the 1967 Film, Cool Hand Luke, Luke (played by Paul Newman), is a prisoner on a southern chain gang. Upon his second failed escape attempt (and receiving his second set of leg irons), Luke is told by the Captain (memorably played by Strother Martin) that he is not going to need a third set of chains because he’s: “gonna get his mind right!”
As we say, “art imitates life.”
The Dhammapada (an ancient Buddhist text) reminds us frequently that our life consists of our thoughts and that if we speak and act with a positive mental attitude, then happiness will follow. Those scriptures urge us to: “tame the mind, which is difficult to hold in and flighty, rushing wherever it wants; a tamed mind brings happiness.” And, to guard our thoughts because: “they are difficult to perceive, very artful, and they rush wherever they want: thoughts well guarded bring happiness.”
About 500 years later, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, reminds himself that how things affect us is determined by our mind’s interpretation of them, not necessarily the external things themselves. Whatever happens, we can choose how to interpret it, and so decide how to respond. Modern neuroscience and psychology would agree with this proposition.
For example, if it rains, we can choose to feel angry at the weather as a result of the sensation of the cold water on our clothes and body, or we can choose to be grateful for being alive and able to feel such sensations.
The Emperor, as well as the Buddha, encourages us to take care of our minds and the thoughts which it generates, for: “the character of your most frequent impressions [thoughts] will be the character of your mind.” And, in a memorable passage, Marcus reminds himself (and us) that:
“It behooves you, then, in every train of thought to shun all that is aimless or useless, and, above all, everything malignant. Accustom yourself so, and only so, to think, that, if anyone were suddenly to ask you, ‘Of what are you thinking now?’ you could answer frankly and at once, ‘Of so and so.’” Then it will plainly appear that you are all simplicity and kindliness.”
Suppose, for example, that you are working from home and writing an email to your boss. It’s an urgent email, and it must be sent by 12noon.
Unfortunately, as so often happens these days, the cellphone rings, and it is some friend of yours wanting a little chat. Before you know it, you are involved in an animated conversation. You go on chatting for maybe half an hour, or so, and eventually, you decide to hang up and put the phone down. But first, you choose to take a quick peek at your social media feed (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). You begin to engage with so many people and posts that you forget about the email and notice that you’re feeling a bit drowsy.
You decide to wander into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. Waiting for the coffee to brew, you hear a pleasant sound coming through the wall from the apartment next door. Your notice that your favorite AC/DC song is on XM radio and you think that if you fire it up on your stereo, it might liven you up a bit (along with that cup of coffee). So, you move into the next room, switch on the stereo, and start listening to Highway to Hell. After that tune finishes, there comes another favorite, and you listen to that one, too. In this way, more time passes, and then you remember your pot of coffee. So you mosey into the kitchen, pour a cup, add cream, and step out onto the patio where you can still hear your favorite AC/DC on XM.
While you are enjoying your coffee and music, there is a knock at the door. A good friend is there to see you. Since you were cooped up in your apartment for days, you are glad to see him, and you make him welcome by offering a cup of coffee and some cookies. You turn down the music, and the two if you engage in a lovely chat for a while. Your friend looks at his watch and says he needs to leave to get to a doctor’s appointment at 1:00 pm. It happens to be 12:30 pm, and you become aware that you missed the deadline for your email. Yikes! In a kerfluffle, you hurry to your computer and dash off the email to your boss with some lame story about how your internet went down.
Get the picture!
I confess that even after 20 years of meditation practice, my mind can be very speedy and get easily distracted. I’m also restless, although less so than I used to be.
A structure that I find helpful in dealing with my mind is a system created by Shirzad Chamine and outlined in his best-selling book Positive Intelligence. In this excellent book, Shirzad defines “Saboteurs” as: “internal enemies… a set of automatic and habitual mind patterns, each with its own voice, beliefs, and assumptions that work against your best interest.” In particular, Shirzad describes the Judge or Inner Critic Saboteur as the master saboteur. The Judge is a relentless mind pattern. According to Shirzad: “it beats you up repeatedly over mistakes or shortcomings, warns you obsessively about future risks, wakes you up in the middle of the night worrying, gets you fixated on what is wrong with other people or your life, etc. The Judge is your greatest internal enemy. It activates other accomplice Saboteurs, causes you much of your stress and unhappiness, and reduces your effectiveness.”
Right now, I’m participating in Shirzad’s coach certification program and I’m helping some individuals weaken their saboteurs through a Positive Intelligence (PQ) Fitness Program.
For example, restlessness is one of the accomplices. Over the years, I’ve experienced quite a bit of it. It’s a mental pattern that tends to keep us busy, juggling many different tasks and plans simultaneously, never allowing for peace and contentedness.
Many people I know see this behavior as a strength. Unfortunately, it is not.
Impatience, coupled with a fear of missing out on other more worthwhile experiences, can manifest A relentless frenzy and chaos. The impact is often one of burn-out, combined with the inability to build anything sustainable or lasting. Here are some of the familiar voices/thoughts of this accomplice Saboteur:
-Can’t anyone around here keep up with me?
-Ooh, that position at _______ looks exciting.
-I wonder what it would be like to live in ______?
-Wouldn’t it be cool to try________.
-These guys just don’t get it. I need to move on.
-I’m not learning anything here.
-Same old, same old.
-Really? Do I need to go through THAT again?
-Life is too short for this BS.
Of course, at any given time, one or more of these thoughts may be helpful. However, according to the Buddha and the Emperor, we want to be careful and mindful (not mindless).
Some of the above thoughts (or others with which you may be more familiar) can become recurring patterns, and they can collude with other common Saboteurs (like the Judge).
In moments when you are starting to feel a bit restless or having some other negative thought, it can be helpful to ask yourself: “ask yourself Byron Katie’s Four Questions:
- Is this thought true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
I’ve found these questions extraordinarily helpful in quieting my busy-active mind. At the very least, I am more aware of my mind than ever before, and can more frequently choose whether or not to accept thoughts as they arise.
Even if you choose not to ask the Four Questions, I believe that if you pause and breathe before taking action as the stream of consciousness flows from one thought to another, you can begin to get your mind right.
David Langiulli is an experienced Certified Professional Coach (CPCC, PCC), a leadership trainer, and a nonprofit board member. He uses all of his courage, compassion, and wisdom to help people and their organizations flourish and thrive in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. He organizes the Fundraising Leadership Mental Fitness Program.