I’m about to explain something that might seem revolutionary.
When I first saw what I’m about to share, I didn’t actually understand how important it was. That was until it started having a dramatic and positive effect on my experience.
What I’m talking about isn’t special, but it’s very profound. Yet your initial knee-jerk reaction, like mine, might be to dismiss it. I would, however, warn against that.
I’m talking about three simple words; mistrust your thoughts.
See, at different points in my life I, like you, have felt trapped by many things. Time, money, relationships, illness, fears – the hypothetical list could go on forever. As a result, I have suffered. But deep down I have never truly been trapped. I’ve only felt and thought I was.
The only thing that ever traps anyone is the story they tell themselves. I know that sounds like a platitude, but before you angrily change tabs for a rage scroll through social media, hear me out.
Obviously, there are physical trappings in life. A man with his leg stuck in a bear trap is quite clearly trapped. I’m not about to walk past him in the woods and say, “I respect the fact that you think your leg hurts, dude, but you just think you are trapped, you’re actually free.” I like to think that I’m not an asshole. A response like that would not be compassionate and shows the social skills of a giant panda (weird reference, I know…. google it later).
If, however, that which was trapping him was literally a story, then yes, I might suggest that he try a little bit of mistrust on for size.
Pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain is an immediate sensation while suffering is a response to pain, it is a meta-experience about the pain. Most often that experience comes in the form of rumination – or as I like to say: T.R.I.P.S: Totally Random Imaginary Painful Stories.
You can use the acronym or throw it away. You can even just think about it literally, like a bad trip (or a nightmare).
But why is mistrust revolutionary? Well that depends in what you mistrust.
The definition of revolution is “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system.”
In this case, the established government are the trips, and that which overthrows this system is mistrust.
For years I’ve had chronic pain, apparently as a result of a developmental issue with my spine (but also, apparently maybe not).
It sucks. But the pain itself is nothing compared to the trips I’ve had about the pain. The painful mental stories of injustice, responsibility and what-ifs. They are the real suffering.
The principle of mistrust that I’m about to explore with you could be applied to stories about any problem: depression, anxiety, fears about work, insecurities in a relationship. I’m going to use chronic pain as an example, simply because it’s something I still have to manage, the stories still come up from time to time, so it’s easier to write about.
Which is why I’ll say it again; mistrust your thoughts.
The Ownership TRIP: “For years I’ve had chronic pain.”
As you might have noticed, even in an article about mistrusting your stories, I’ve already presented a number of stories. That’s just the nature of language and pronouns. It’s also why I’ve mentioned this story first. It’s the original problem. The first story that kicks off all others. This is MY pain, MY problem, MY anxiety.
But let us introduce a little mistrust into the equation. Is this really my chronic pain? I mean, I didn’t choose to have chronic pain any more than I choose to catch a cold. Whatever the chronic pain is, it’s been decided by factors over which I had no control: developmental changes in my spinal, past experiences, genetics, (at times) poor medical advice, a psychological disposition etc.
The feeling of chronic pain is just something that shows up in this complex interplay of sensory experiences. But so is the sound of a car horn on my walk to work, so is the colour of the wallpaper in my kitchen, so is the smell of coffee in the office. None of these are taken in and called MY car horn sound, MY white (or is it cream?) wallpaper, MY coffee scented office.
We don’t consider these experiences worthy of ownership. Why? Because they’re not painful! Our minds hold onto the story of pain in an attempt to figure them out, and in doing so, they create suffering. Whatever the trip you’re on right now, discard it. Your depression is not yours and it is not you. If you want to say anything about it, just call it something passing through your experience.
“For years I had chronic pain?” Really? I’m sure at some point in those years I was sleeping. Maybe I should say “for years I have been sleeping” or “for years I have been growing my fingernails,” or “for years I’ve been seeing yellow cars.” Was I really, though? Or was that just something that seemed to pass through my experience.
The Justice TRIP: “It’s not fair that I have chronic pain.”
The justice story is deeply embedded in our culture. Basically, it says that whatever my immediate circumstance is, is not fair. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make a couple of distinctions.
(Disclaimer: To doubt the idea of what’s fair or not does not mean to indiscriminately allow injustices to occur. It’s not a reason or excuse for abusive behaviour towards yourself or others. If someone else tells you that something is unfair or unjust, respect their experience.)
Firstly, we have justice in a finite game. A game with a limited number of variables and a set of predetermined rules – such as the judicial system or a boxing match. We might call this “relative justice.” This justice is by no means perfect, and it’s often illogical and full of contradictions, but it can be useful for attempting to curb abuses of power (then again it can do the opposite of that too).
What I’m talking about here is a personal justice trip that applies to my life and my circumstances. Concepts like pain, life or circumstances have no concrete and defined boundaries. They are what we might call an infinite game, or “absolute justice.” Unless you believe in an anthropomorphised (human-like) god, then no, there is no absolute justice.
So, is it not fair that I have chronic pain? I don’t know. Is it fair that I was born in a country that was not war-torn? Is it fair that I’ve had period of physical or mental illness? Is it fair that I have fresh food in the fridge? Is it fair that one sperm reaches the embryo over another?
Here’s a story that better illustrates the point. It’s a Chinese Folk Tale, originally called Sai Weng Shi Ma (Old Man Lost Horse). It’s a useful way to poke some holes of mistrust in the justice trip.
A poor old man lived on the Northern border of China. One day, his stallion (male horse) ran North of the China border into the Northern tribes, later to be known as Mongolia. In the old days, a horse was one of the most valuable and useful possessions that a person could have. Therefore, the other villagers thought this was a very bad misfortune.
The old man did not worry, and he thought that this may actually be a blessing. A few months later, the old man’s horse returned with a mare (female horse). The mare was pregnant and gave birth to a foal (baby horse). Now the man had three horses as depicted in the painting: (1) the black stallion; (2) the white mare; and (3) the greyish blue foal. All the villagers congratulated the old man.
The old man thought that this may actually turn out to be a cause of misfortune. Later, his son became fond of riding the horses. One day, his son fell off the horse and broke his thigh bone. As doctors were not nearly as well trained in 206 B.C., a broken thigh bone meant that his son would be a cripple for life. The old man thought, “Perhaps this will turn out to be a blessing.”
One year later, the Northern tribes launched a major invasion into China. All able-bodied young men were required to fight against the Northern invaders. Unfortunately, the casualties of this war were very high, with nine of ten men dying in battle. Only one out of ten survived to return back to his village.
Since the father was old and his boy was crippled, neither were required to go to war, and both survived. The son’s injury had turned out to be a blessing in disguise – sai weng shi ma.
The Fantasising TRIP: “If only I didn’t have chronic pain, my life would be fine.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side.” What it means is that things look better in our imagination than they are. This is because we tend to focus on the positives in an alternative situation and ignore the negatives and focus on the negatives in our present situation, ignoring the positives.
There are deeply rooted biological reasons for our habitual fantasising. One neurochemical system – the dopaminergic system – has developed to keep us addicted to our anticipations of the future. This is so we stay productive and reproductive, not because our fantasies are accurate perceptions of the world (or that their fulfillment will make us happy).
Studies have found that dopamine is initially released in response to a reward (e.g. chocolate), but as time goes on and more rewards are received (e.g. more chocolate), more and more dopamine is released in response to anticipating the reward (thinking about eating chocolate) and less and less upon receiving the reward (eating chocolate).
“Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
– Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
I’m going to be a little radical and take the grass-is-always-greener trip a step further. Actually, three steps further.
- The only problem with the present situation is that we think there’s a problem.
- We have NO idea how an alternative experience would be.
- However, the alternative experience would be, it would NOT be like the fantasy trip.
A thought says that my life would be fine without chronic pain. But can I really know that? Maybe without the pain, I would find myself on a ski trip where I’m paralysed. Maybe without the pain, I would have little desire to write articles like these. Maybe without the pain, I would fantasise about some other, more objectively trivial issue, like how “If only I had more (money, affection, social media likes) then my life would be ok.”
Again, I don’t know, and I don’t care to know. The important thing here is that doubt continues to penetrate these thoughts, so their credibility is challenged and the intensity of belief in them diminishes.
There are plenty more trips that are beyond the scope of this article, but these three are a good introduction to the archetypal stories that the mind activates in response to painful experiences.
The story itself isn’t important, the principle is. What is the principle? Again; mistrust your thoughts.
Relentlessly challenging all stories around pain has been a lifesaver. It allowed me to manage what has at times seemed to be an unbearable experience. It allowed a drastic reduction in pain medication, and on top of that, a huge relief from anxiety and fear – both of which are echoed over and over again in our painful stories.
When mistrusting your thoughts becomes a habit, then the mind invests less energy in thoughts and stories, and they lose their power. And that, my friends, is the revolutionary potential of mistrust.