A Zen parable tells about a monk who was walking along a thousand-foot cliff when he encountered a ferocious tiger. Acting quickly, the monk grabbed hold of a thin vine, swung himself off the cliff, and slid down a dozen feet. Dangling high above the dark and jagged rocks below, the monk looked up to see the snarling tiger poised hungrily at the edge of the cliff. Then the monk felt a strange vibration in his hands. Looking up, he saw a mouse chewing the vine. The monk looked at the hungry tiger, then at the waiting rocks below, then back at the mouse. He shook the vine, but the mouse kept on chewing. Then the monk noticed a small plant growing out of a crevice in the cliff. On the plant was one large, luscious red strawberry. The monk reached out a hand and picked it. Then he placed the fruit in his mouth, savoring its wonderful sweetness.
This parable beautifully illustrates the options available to us when we encounter adversity. First, we should take every possible action to improve our external conditions: The monk slid down the vine to escape the tiger; next he shook the vine to scare off the chewing mouse. In short, he did what he could to better his outer circumstances.
Sometimes, however, we can do nothing more to improve our external conditions. At that point, many people sink into despair. But we have another choice. Even in the midst of overwhelming adversity, we can choose the content of our consciousness. We can choose what we will think about: When a hungry tiger waits above and deadly rocks wait below, and a hungry mouse is chewing on our vine, we can still focus our attention on a delicious strawberry.
Cognitive psychologists suggest that our thoughts about an experience determine how we feel about it. If I think, I'm being treated unfairly
, I'll create the inner experience of anger. If I think, I'm in danger
, I'll create the inner experience of fear. If I think, I have lost someone dear to me
, I'll create the inner experience of sadness.
What is actually happening in the outer world, then, is less important than what I tell
myself is happening. If I change my thoughts about an event, I will change my emotional state of mind. In other words, what I think about a problem is the problem.
This view suggests a fascinating possibility. What if happiness is a choice? What if many of your negative experiences in life are simply the result of self-defeating thought patterns and limiting beliefs? What if you could create a more positive experience of life simply by choosing to think about events in a different, more positive way?
When you have done all you can to deal with life's challenges-the hungry tigers, deadly rocks, and gnawing mice-you still can choose your attitude.
Here are six ways to choose the strawberry and reduce distress.
Find the Opportunity in a Problem:
I was once talking to two fashion design majors about their career choice. The first student said, "I hate fashion design. There's too much competition." The second student said, "You're right! There is a lot of competition, and I love it! Competition makes me work even harder to do my best. It's the competition that's going to make me a success in fashion design." Same facts, different interpretation. One student sees a problem; another sees an opportunity. When you face a problem, ask yourself, "What's great about this? What's the opportunity here?"
But, you may object, what about a heartbreaking loss like the death of someone I love? Simply changing the way I think about my "problem" will not make it go away! Your objection, of course, is correct. Your loss will never "go away." It is both natural and essential that you fully honor your loss, expressing the depth of sadness you feel. Your grieving process may go on for a long while, but at some point you will need to make a choice: You can stay in your grief or, without forgetting your loss, you can decide to move on to a more positive experience of life. You can do this by making some changes in the way you see your loss. A woman in one of my classes shared that her son had died of AIDS. After grieving his death for more than a year, she decided to become a nurse so that she could care for the children of other mothers. This compassionate woman had not forgotten her son or her sadness; rather, she had found a beautiful life mission that was destined to bring comfort to many other grieving mothers. Creators like this woman assume that they can find some good in even their most painful life circumstances.
Focus on the Positive:
In the 1980s, American Benjamin Weare was held hostage in Lebanon. For the first six months he was kept blindfolded and chained to a radiator. Then his blindfold was removed, but he remained chained to the radiator for ten more months. When Weare was finally released after sixteen months of being chained to a radiator, he was asked how he had endured his imprisonment. He explained that every day he had run his fingers along the chain that bound him, and, with every link, he reminded himself of one positive thing in his life.
Focusing on the positive doesn't mean ignoring reality. It means that you identify the problem and do what you can to improve your situation, but when there's nothing more you can do, you turn your attention to what's positive in your life.
Choose What You Allow In Your Mind:
Whatever you invite into your mind each day becomes the content of your consciousness. What television shows and movies do you watch? What books do you read? What music do you listen to? What people do you associate with? What conversations do you participate in? These choices will greatly influence your positive or negative experience of life.
Ask Positive Questions:
Change your question and you change your focus. Change your focus and you change the quality of your inner experience. Victims often ask negative questions such as Why does everything always go wrong in my life?
Creators ask positive questions such as What can I learn from this problem? What's perfect about this difficulty? What will I do differently next time? What's great about my life right now?
Appreciate Your Blessings:
Be grateful for what you have rather than upset by what you don't have. I once taught a Vietnamese man who wrote a heartfelt essay about his experiences of growing up near Saigon during the Vietnam War. I asked him to read his essay to our class. He graphically related the terror of daily bombings, his aching hunger because of the scarcity of food, his grief at watching people-including his younger sister-die all around him, and his constant fear that he might not survive the day. After he had finished reading his essay, silence enveloped the classroom. Finally a woman said, "I thought I had it bad growing up on the streets of New York. Compared to you, I was blessed."
Choose Positive Self-Talk:
Psychologist Albert Ellis believes that many negative emotions are the result not so much of what happens to us as what he labels "stinkin' thinkin'." Stinkin' thinkin' causes people to feel depressed and helpless. These negative emotions often lead to self-defeating actions or to no actions at all. As a result, people wander off course. Then a negative cycle has been created: negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, which lead to negative behaviors, which cause negative outcomes, which reinforce the negative emotions,...and so it goes around and around. This self-defeating pattern is one reason why people with negative self-talk seldom achieve their potential.
An experiment by Martin Seligman with three hundred freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania shows how self-talk affects college grades. Before the semester began, college personnel predicted each student's future grade point average based upon their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores and high school grades. Seligman also tested each of these incoming freshman to determine if their self-talk was optimistic or pessimistic. Later, Seligman found that students who earned grades significantly better than predicted used optimistic self-talk, whereas students who earned grades significantly below their predicted scores used pessimistic self-talk. These results are consistent with other studies that show optimistic people doing better than pessimistic people not only in school, but at work, in sports, and even in politics.
The critical moment of choice in self-talk comes immediately after an undesirable event: What do you tell yourself is the cause of the problem? Pessimists explain problems as being permanent, pervasive, and personal. We can make valuable use of this awareness as we encounter any negative experience. By way of illustration, imagine what you might say to yourself after the following undesirable experience: You go to a scheduled appointment with your sociology teacher to review a research paper that you're working on, but he isn't there. You wait half an hour, but he never shows up. First, listen for pessimistic thoughts about the permanence
of the adversity: I'll never be able to get help from this teacher; he's never around.
Second, listen for pessimistic thoughts about the pervasiveness
of the adversity, comments that suggest that this particular problem overflows into other areas of your life: No one cares about other people's problems any more.
And third, listen for pessimistic thoughts about the personal nature
of the problem, thoughts that irrationally make the problem your fault: He doesn't want to help me because I'm not as smart as other students.
These sorts of pessimistic explanations are seldom based on reality. More likely, your stinkin' thinkin' reveals the self-defeating thoughts and limiting beliefs that make up part of your outdated Scripts. As such, these statements simply voice the automatic comments of your Inner Defender and Inner Critic.
Once you recognize your pessimistic self-talk, the next step is to prove it wrong. Your Inner Guide can use any or all of the following approaches to dispute stinkin' thinkin':
- Prove the accusations wrong by offering contrary evidence:
In fact, my sociology teacher called me last week to see if I needed help with my research paper, so I guess he doesn't dislike me.
- Offer a positive explanation for the problem:
He may have had a last-minute crisis, so he couldn't stay to meet with me.
- Question the importance of the problem:
Even if it's true that he's never around, I can still go to the Writing Center to get help.
- Offer a practical plan of action to solve the problem:
It's true that I haven't been good in sociology up until now. But, I'm going to read my assignments two or three times, attend every class, take good notes, and create a study team. I'm determined to improve my work in sociology.
Think of what you would do if you were on trial for a crime that you didn't commit. How would you prove the accusations wrong? What would you say to counter the irrational charges leveled against you by the prosecution? In a like manner, transform your Inner Guide into a world-class lawyer and have it dispute your own Inner Critic's prosecution of you.
If all else fails, you can simply distract yourself from your negative thoughts. When you find yourself obsessing on negative thoughts, simply tell yourself, "STOP!" Then replace your negative thoughts with something positive: watch a funny movie, tell a joke, recall your goals and dreams, think about someone you love.
The next time something unpleasant happens in your life, remind yourself that you are in charge of what you choose to think. You can let your automatic, negative thoughts stay. Or you can evict them. As a Creator, you are responsible for the content of your consciousness. And the content of your consciousness determines the quality of your inner experience of life.
In this activity, you'll have an opportunity to practice choosing the content of your consciousness. When you learn to choose the quality of your thoughts, you will greatly improve your ability to create a positive experience of life. To focus your mind, think of a recent problem (adversity) that you have encountered, one about which you feel bad.
- Write a dialogue between your Inner Critic (IC) and your Inner Guide (IG).
Let your Inner Critic find fault with you for your recent problem or adversity. Let its comments represent the kind of criticism that you might automatically think as you explain the cause of a problem to yourself. Being a true pessimist, your Inner Critic should make comments that describe the problem as permanent, pervasive, and personal.
Let your Inner Guide dispute the stinkin' thinkin' of your Inner Critic. Do that by countering each criticism with a rebuttal that...
- proves the criticism wrong by offering contrary evidence.
- offers a different explanation for the problem.
- questions the importance of the problem.
- offers a practical plan of action to solve the problem.
For example, the beginning of your dialogue might sound like this:
IC: Well, your son got suspended from school today. That certainly proves that you're a lousy parent. (The problem is personal.)
IG: It's true that Robert was expelled from school today, but I don't see how that proves that I'm a lousy parent. In fact, my older two children never had any problem with school. Both of them are doing well in college today. (Offers contrary evidence.)
IC: Not only is Robert getting in trouble, but you have dozens of unpaid bills. Your whole life is falling apart. (Your problems are pervasive; they are everywhere.)
IG: Well, it's true that I do have bills to pay, but I just got a raise at work, and if I budget well, I can have my bills paid off by the end of the year. (Offers a practical plan of action to solve the problem.)
IC: This is the second time that Robert has been suspended. He's going to be a heartache to you for the rest of your life. (The problem is permanent; it will never go away.)
And so on.
- Write a paragraph (or more) about what you have learned while exploring the content of your consciousness. Don't forget to anticipate and answer your readers' questions.
Relax, think, and write.