It’s only a thought
Let it not disturb your equilibrium
Each one of us has a life story. We have an identity and a journey that feed our life story. We tend to view our life story as being constructed from the events in our life. But it’s not just the events that create our story. How we relate to or view the events crucially determines how we narrate that story to ourselves, within us — in our own minds.
The thoughts we have about the world are not equivalent to the world outside. This distinction is critical for inner well-being. Our inner reality is constructed by our brain or mind, and that “reality” is not like a camera simply recording events. Our mind’s inner narration is more like a talk show or sports commentary with our opinions and biases taking centre stage!
In fact, the narrative we construct for ourselves may not bear much resemblance to what transpires outside. And that quality of our inner dialogue is a significant contributor to friction in relationships, personal and professional stress, and to psychological problems too.
Consider a time when you saw someone, and you thought, “He is angry.” How do you know that? There is no display on their forehead indicating their mental state. We don’t come with a readout that indicates to others how exactly we feel!
We infer their emotions from their facial expression, body language, and verbal communication. For example, we may see aggressive posture, furrowed brow, clenched jaw, narrowed eyes, shoulders riding up, hands clenching, heavy breathing, forceful gestures, etc., or other characteristic body reactions and infer that the person we are looking at is angry.
That person may also speak harsh words to us. We put these signs together and form a narrative or explanation in our mind. We consider why they are angry, how to manage the situation, maybe we blame them, or maybe we make excuses for them and so on.
While these internal stories help us deal with the situation, much of this dialogue could quite possibly be untrue. We often don’t know exactly why the other person is angry. We may only be guessing. We also try to estimate what their reactions might be to what we say or do, and we are perhaps just as often wrong as we are right.
This inner dialogue could be deeply misleading at times. And even if it is not misleading, much of our inner dialogue is repetitive and unnecessary. We may brood over situations for weeks or months, for instance, or be taken aback by the memory of some past problem suddenly arising in our mind when we think of someone.
When that inner dialogue is substantially negative, it can be damaging to our well-being. For instance, if someone turns to you and says, “It is all your fault,” a normal reaction would be for you to defend yourself. You might reply, “No, it is not my fault alone. I am not the only one responsible for this problem.”
But what if your mind says to itself, “It is your fault.” If your internal dialogue is based on self-blame, and you’re telling yourself that you are at fault, who will correct the mind and defend you?
The opposite dialogue could be problematic too. Even though the mistake is mine, my mind tells me, “It is not your fault in any way. You are not responsible.” And I may continue to repeat my mistakes, falling into greater problems in future.
This is much more common than we realise. As Yoga Sutra points out, all perceptions are a mix of pramana (that which is accurate), and viparyaya (that which is inaccurate).
It is important not to give all our thoughts a free pass. We must be mindful of our inner story and check that it is not leading us astray. The practice of pausing, calming oneself with the breath, and reminding oneself that “These are just thoughts. Thoughts are not the same as reality!” is very helpful!
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.