Check Your Mental Baggage

by Carol S. Hyman

Fake news is in the news these days, though what you label as such is likely to depend on your political beliefs. Whatever you believe, even real facts are subject to spin, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there; it behooves us to do our due diligence and not believe everything we read. But what about everything we think? How much can you trust your thoughts?

Most of us believe that what we think accurately reflects reality. Whether it’s on the personal level – My boss was an idiot to put Jerry in charge of that project when I could have done it so much better or I can’t believe Mary doesn’t see how much more of the housework I do – or the ideological – Our problems stem from people having forgotten the values this country was founded on or Corporate greed is destroying our world – we spin thoughts into storylines and solidify those storylines into beliefs. But such beliefs can weigh us down.   

Take, for example, what you think of yourself. Whenever you believe that you are someone who always does this or never does that, you miss spontaneously discovering that you’re bigger than you think. I could never speak in front of a large group of people. I have to get to bed by ten o’clock or I’m worthless the next day. I never leave a task until it’s finished.  Such beliefs are like suitcases we carry around, sometimes feeling weighed down by who we think we are, sometimes feeling a sense of comfort in the familiarity of our luggage.

And like nesting suitcases, beliefs often mask deeper beliefs. We may think we could never speak publicly because we can’t imagine having anything worth saying or we believe we’re inarticulate by nature. Thinking we have to be in bed by a certain time or we won’t be able to function stems from believing that our energy is a limited and fragile commodity. Never leaving a task unfinished expresses fear of the messiness and uncertainty of life.

Whatever the sub-text, we pay a real price for all that hidden baggage. Many people feel heavily burdened laboring through life believing we have no choice about carrying our histories and beliefs along with us. Indeed, unless we realize that there is a choice, we don’t really have one.

Archimedes is said to have called for a lever and a place to stand and he could move the world. Maybe so, but good luck to him or anyone else trying to move someone off their fixed beliefs. While we may understand intellectually that we aren’t wedded to our present inner conditions, it’s not easy to move a mind that’s made up, even if that mind is our own. But mindfulness – which means trying to keep our minds in the same place as our bodies – is like a lever, a tool for gaining perspective: we start to see thoughts without totally identifying with them: Ah, forgot the breath. Must be a thought. Look, there’s another one.

As for a place to stand when we practice mindfulness, it’s here and now: this very spot, this very moment. From that place of presence, we learn to recognize inner patterns as they go around on the baggage carousel of mind. Then we can begin to let go of our beloved storylines and beliefs, but first we need to be convinced that they aren’t key to our survival. Therefore, examining the contents of our bags can be a valuable, even necessary, process. Meditation practice helps open the latches so we can inquire within. Letting ourselves feel what we do, we begin to notice trends in the contents of our thoughts and emotions.

And eventually, as we start to identify with awareness rather than with the content of thoughts, we might find ourselves facing a question we can’t answer by presenting a valid form of identification. The big question: who am I?

Asking ourselves who we are is an exercise that becomes more interesting the more we apply mindfulness. As we begin dropping our baggage, it tends to produce a different answer every time we ask, prompting us to recognize another pattern: who we think we are changes. Sitting down on one day, I find that I am a person preoccupied with family relationships.  The next day, I’m a person concerned about money. Another time, I’m a person who can’t sit still.

So it goes until eventually we realize that there is one thing we can count on: the awareness that sees it all. Who I am is someone who is awake and paying attention. Everything else is subject to change. The fact that we can’t pin ourselves down is both liberating and frightening. We’re free of being stuck with a fixed sense of self, but without our habitual reference points we may feel shaky. It takes courage to be willing to let go of our fixed beliefs and be open to not knowing who we are, but if we keep at it, we discover strength in that continuity of awareness, and in the flexibility it perceives.

The good news is that we gain an almost immediate reward for being willing to live with that kind of uncertainty: we gain perspective and clarity. As we wade through all our stuff and discard what we don’t need, we begin to feel lighter.  A natural buoyancy, the strength of resilience, begins to manifest. Our sense of feeling harried, hurried, and hassled falls away and cheerfulness, the unfabricated expression of our inherent vitality, rises to the surface.

As we come to appreciate being grounded in our bodies every moment, clouds of complaint evaporate.Then, instead of watching our mental baggage circling on the carousel of time, we may find our minds in each moment as open as the clear blue sky. Which makes them much more likely to be able to discern which thoughts – and news – are worth believing.


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