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Mindful Thoughts

Random Wednesday

By February 2, 2011No Comments
Not actually my hand, but it is the one that’s
suffered the fiddling injury

I’m in something of a reading void. Well, I did read a book for one of the book groups I’m in, but I just can’t bring myself to review it, or even, in fact, mention it’s name. This is especially troublesome as I signed up for the Sniffly Kitty’s Loving the Reviews Challenge for February, and now have nothing to review. Also, I’ve been sidelined from fiddling until the weekend for a wrist injury.

I did finish my first ever knitting project, a little pom-pom scarf for my stepdaughter. She picked black and white because they’re cow colors, and she’s eyeing a cow Webkinz, though it may lose out to a pig or a bunny. But she proudly wore her scarf to school this morning, and I declare my first ever completed knitting project a complete success (with much help from more experienced knitters than I helping me out of various inexplicable tangles).

So I declare today my very own Random Wednesday, and present my very own random list.

1. On Gretchen Rubin’s happiness project blog today I saw a post about one of her personal commandments which I have borrowed and modified: “Identify the problem/emotion.” For me, sometimes it’s not just the problem I need to identify, but exactly what it is I’m feeling, which sometimes is a problem itself. She talks about how being able to identify the problem is a good example of mindfulness. I think of it as yet another example of how humans are weird and complex and oddly stupid. It seems idiotic that we often don’t know what our problem is, but at least for myself, I can’t tell you how often I find myself acting like a 4 year old about to throw a temper tantrum and I really have no idea why. What exactly is the problem? So learning how to stop and ask yourself this question is no small accomplishment.

2. In a related vein, I read an article by Alex Lickerman at Happiness in this World about the true cause of depression. Lickerman is a Buddhist and a physician, a good combo, I think. In his article he speculates that perhaps a true cause of depression is the sustained inability to identify the problem. Not the problem as in, my hands are cold or I’m hungry, but more like, that relationship made me feel bad about myself, or I don’t feel like I’m a particularly good person. Lickerman argues that at its core, depression is about the belief that we’re powerless to solve our problems. And this happens partly because we don’t really know what our problems are in the first place. We have over 12,000 thoughts a day (doesn’t that number seem too small?), and we don’t remember them all. But thoughts can stir up emotions that don’t go away. When you thought this morning that your pants fit a little bit tighter and maybe you’ve gained some weight, your brain moved on, but did the emotional aftershock go away? I think it makes sense to think of depression as a the kind of cascade effect of lots of these negative thoughts…problems that we never really became aware of but are still having an effect on us.

Lickerman is a physician, so he believes that there is a chemical component to depression, but it’s probably caused by this powerlessness in the face of problems. In a similar vein, I read in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (a great book that brings together neuroscience and Buddhism) that meditation can be very effective in treating depression. How? Meditation helps you become mindful of your thoughts, and therefore able to identify what the problem is. This makes feeling like you can solve your problems that much easier. So, the power of identifying the problem.

3. I’ve been thinking a lot about why things happen. Why did I get this cold that seems to have taken up permanent residence in my cranial cavity? Why does my cat have worms (yeh, I know, totally gross)? Why does my upper back hurt sometimes? Why do small children and babies get sick? When my friend lends me a book which suggests that a cold is caused by too much going on at once, mental confusion and disorder, I think that sounds about right. I believe that our mental, emotional and spiritual state has physical manifestations. Actually, that’s not even what I believe because it assumes a kind of division between my physical body and those non-physical things (thoughts, emotions, and the spiritual) that I don’t think exists, but our Western language gives us no way to convey that those two things aren’t separate. I also believe that the power of those supposedly non-physical things to cure what we believe are physical things is pretty powerful. Any real kind of healing should be firmly grounded in belief. Western medicine works in part because people believe that the pill the doctor gives them will make them feel better.  This is also an important part of how many other non-Western methods of healing work.

But I’ve been thinking about explanations for some of the harder questions like why babies get sick. This is due in part to the undisclosed book I will not mention by name. Some folks believe everything happens for a reason, even the horrible things. Some eastern philosophies/religions might see the horrible things as karma working itself out. I’m not sure if that’s the same as saying that everything happens for a reason; karma doesn’t seem to me to necessarily be about causality. Some folks would say the horrible things are just random and senseless; there’s no ghost in the machine, it’s just the way things are.

I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about these big philosophical or theological questions, and this is probably what makes me a pragmatist. Horrible things happen. What happens next seems more important to me. There’s a parable told by the Buddha about a man in a forest who gets shot by a poison arrow. Before letting anyone pull out the arrow, the man wants to know who shot the arrow, what kind of poison it is, what the man who shot him looked like, etc. And then he dies. The Buddha says that man should have asked, does this poison have an antidote? All the other questions are the god questions: Why are we here? Why do horrible things happen? Is there a god? In Buddhism the more important question is how are you going to live? This is what the life we know is like, so what are you going to do now? I like that pragmatism. Where’s the antidote?

I know for a lot of people, you can’t answer the second set of questions without knowing the answer to the first, but I don’t know. Really? This is maybe just my naivete, but I feel like if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d agree that there’s not a lot of areas of contention in world religions regarding what makes a moral life at the very core. Is it really that hard to know what it means to be a moral person and to live a good life? Or is it just really hard to actually do it?

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