The Coffee, The Rambling man, and the Case of our Runaway Thinking.

Just moments ago, I walked into a bookstore to write this blog. There was a man talking to himself. He appeared to be angry and was rambling on incoherently.

“This ain’t no place, you wanna get f*cking gas I’ll kill you motherf*cker because this ain’t no place man you want gas this ain’t no place this nasty you f*ck I want gas my f*cking arm damn you punk this aint no place”

After, a few minutes of perusing the bookshelves, I needed an outlet for my laptop and the only one available was beneath a table near where the rambling man was sitting. I carried my things over to the table, set up, and sat down to write. Fear entered my body when just minutes before it was non-existent. I felt stiff, alone, completely exposed and vulnerable. I felt like the whole world was unsafe and maybe any second this man was out to get me. My thoughts were racing and I just knew that surely, I was going to be berated, attacked, or worse.

Something happened though..

In the midst of all of that noise in my head, I caught a glimpse of what was really going on.  I noticed that I was sitting in a lovely cafe, at a table, enjoying the coffee in front of me. I saw that I was caught up in my thinking, just like the man was caught up in his thinking, and the woman at the table next to me in her thinking, and the older couple waiting in line in their thinking.

And so it was with everybody all around me.

Insight immediately struck me and as I calmed down the man seemed to calm down as well. As my own fearful thinking settled, The man didn’t seem as scary anymore. He was still angry, rambling, and talking out loud, but my fear subsided almost completely. It was quite remarkable. As author Michael Neill described in one of his books, “Nothing’s changed, but everything is different.”

It’s easy to look outside of ourselves and say “Look, there it is. The problem is out there and I need to stop it for things to be ok. For me to be at peace.” But, peace is always available – in any moment. In fact, peace is what’s always present but for our own thinking getting in the way.

It’s easy to pass judgement and get so lost in thought that we think “they’re crazy, I’m the normal one. Look at the way they’re acting. They’re so out of touch with reality.”

Now maybe that man was lost in thought more than you and I. Or, maybe not. We’d like to think so. We’d like to call him crazy, but if anything he was just engaged in a more intense version of what we all do on a daily basis. It’s an innocent misunderstanding of how the mind works and where our experience actually comes from.  I’m not denying that perhaps there was a biological contribution at play in this man’s behavior. I’m simply saying that experience always follows thought.

Just think about a time when you were really worried about something. It engulfed you so much that you were lost in it. The world was just as scary as your thoughts. So much so, they felt like reality. So much so, they became your reality. Like the man I encountered in the book store, you too were speaking out loud – only inside your own mind. You would swear that the world was a worrisome place causing you to feel this way. But, that’s not how it works. Your worried thoughts were creating the illusion of a worried reality around you.

When we become deeply lost in thought we forget that what we’re feeling is not the world around us, but just our thinking in the moment. We forget that the painful thinking we’re caught up in will pass.

Sometimes, it may take longer than other times,

but it will pass. It always does. 

Mind the Gap

This morning I was lying in bed wide awake and I could tell that it wasn’t time to get up yet. I felt surprisingly well rested even though it was early. Still, I wished I could have stolen a couple more hours of sleep before work. Despite my wishes, something inside pushed me to get up and write, but before even thinking to make a decision, the words began to flow. Faster than I could keep up with, this blog post began practically writing itself in my mind. For weeks, I was starting to believe I wasn’t cut out for this writing stuff. Needless to say, this little creative surprise visit was an unexpected, but welcome change.

But…I didn’t get up.

Almost as quickly as the inspiration hit, my thoughts bombarded me with reasons why I was better off staying put:

“It’s early. You have work. You really should stay in bed. You need sleep. You can start writing this when your alarm goes off.”

These thoughts spiraled into the beginning of what seemed like a never-ending chain of criticism and doubt:

“But if I wait, I’ll only have an hour to write. Hell, if I make breakfast, get my coffee, and prepare for work, I won’t have any time at all.

I tried to ignore my thoughts and decided to get up when they ferociously charged in again:

“You’ll be tired. It’ll be a long day at work!”

Before I knew it my thoughts were in an all out war with themselves:

“But I’ve been tired before and the day went fine!”

“Ah, yes, but think of it. You’ll be standing at your station, barely able to work, and wishing you got more sleep. That’s a LONG day.”

Now, even though I was peacefully lying on a soft mattress, in a warm apartment with a roof over my head, I could begin to feel this long day. In fact, the whole world felt tired and life felt hard. That one thought about a long day didn’t just shape that specific morning – Those thoughts, in that moment, shaped my entire world view. As I laid in bed and imagined how difficult work would be in my sleep deprived state, I was filled with horrific thoughts and feelings of all the times life felt difficult. Likewise, not only did I notice how tired I thought I was in that moment, but how tired I was in past moments, and how tired I would be in future moments.

“This,” my thoughts threatened, “is why you shouldn’t get up.”

I didn’t actually know if this was true. I had no idea if it would feel like a “long day,” “short day,” or how’d I’d feel about the day at all, but our thoughts are great at convincing us that they are solid and real.

Still, I continued to lay there. I finally decided once and for all to get up and write, but my thoughts would not give up so easy.

“Not so fast!” my thoughts crept in. “Look, you wanna get up, but can you even remember all the good stuff that came flying out before? You won’t even remember. You’ll just get up, go to your computer, type a few words and struggle for the rest. That’s not even worth it. And, what’s the point?, You’re no blog writer. Besides, it’s early and you need the sleep. You’ll be sorry.”

Now obviously, I did get up and write this blog. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. So, what happened? How did I manage to get up and write when it felt like the whole world was against me?

I noticed, what I like to call – the Gap.

I first experienced the Gap when I was in the middle of an intense moment one day. I was sitting alone in my car feeling angry, isolated, and hopeless. I felt small because my world seemed small. Not knowing what to do, but desperate for control, I screamed at the top of my lungs and repeatedly hit the passenger seat next to me, in an attempt to show how real and horrible my life was. I’ll never forget what happened next because suddenly, in my own version of Hell, I saw peace. I felt peace. I knew peace.

I didn’t literally see the Gap, but in that moment I absolutely knew that instead of one giant, solid, reality “out there” making me happy or sad – two things were happening.

The first notion I was very familiar with: my thoughts were chattering on and on of their own accord. I didn’t have to identify with them, they existed regardless of my relationship to them. Second, I noticed there was a deeper space within myself of amazing peace separate from all the noise. While the thoughts were ever-changing this peace was always there.  While the thoughts may distract us from this peace, they cannot negate it.

The insight I derived from this experience: we are not our thoughts.

The world wasn’t actually small. In fact, there was an entire world population filled with friends I had yet to meet. Life wasn’t actually out to get me. When I was caught up in my bad thoughts the world was bad. The truth is the world is neither good or bad. The world just is.

When we forget that we are experiencing our thoughts rather than experiencing the world, life can seem scary, hopeless, or even impossible. We might feel stuck or unable to change but this is just our thinking in the moment. We forget that a new thought will come along, with the potential to change our reality at any moment. This feeling of existing in a space where we are not or thoughts is the Gap. The good news is we don’t have to force or struggle to search for the Gap, because it’s who we are.

So, this morning I did it. I woke up and wrote this blog. I went weeks thinking I couldn’t do it. I thought I didn’t have enough time or enough interesting content. I needed to find the “right” time or else I was destined to failure. When life felt unchangeable I believed I had to fight my way into productiveness.

You know the phrase “This too shall pass?” Well, it did. It always will. I was too busy fighting thoughts of doubt, so distracted by them I didn’t realize they too would pass. I fought so hard that I literally had to fall asleep for my mind to quiet down and access the Gap.

The most beautiful part of all is that I didn’t need the struggle. The doubt and desperation that came with trying to force creativity resulted from being stuck in doubtful and desperate thinking.

 When we mindfully exist within the Gap, we become a conduit for our true creativity.

Answers are not the Answer

Have you ever had a great idea or solution come to you while out on a quiet walk or in the middle of a nice shower? Have you ever struggled coming up with an idea or solution to a problem only to have the answer reveal itself once you’ve let go and stopped trying so hard?

Most people, when faced with a challenge, respond in one of two ways: We either use our current knowledge to develop a solution, or we’re paralyzed by the fear of not finding an answer and screwing it up by making the wrong decision.

When our knowledge doesn’t provide us with an effective solution – we end up beating our head against the wall frustrated that nothing is working and blaming ourselves as a result. The problem with the first approach is that we think it’s our responsibility to search throughout the myriad of thoughts and select the right answer. When our minds are stuffed to the brim with what we already know, there’s no room for fresh ideas to come through us.

The other response is to become so filled with anxiety that we get lost in the chaotic frenzy of our minds, left feeling helpless. When our minds are spinning with thousands of ideas, each one claiming to be the truth, begging us to choose them and reprimanding us when we don’t – it’s nearly impossible to see a way out.

“But I need an answer!” we demand. “I’ll never figure this out!” we cry. And so, we continue our fight of pushing, pulling, coaxing, doing anything we can because certainly, it’s better than doing nothing, right? Here’s the thing, though:

In an already noisy mind, knowledge is not power. It’s more noise.

What if the solution you’re looking for is not found in piles of more and more answers? What if instead of doing anything you could to figure it all out, you did nothing? What if instead of being so full of knowledge and preconceived ideas you simply allowed yourself to become empty?

I am reminded of the anecdote by the Japanese master, Nan-in about a university professor who has come to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” said the professor. “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

We also have a teacher in our lives, but traveling to far away places for an invitation isn’t necessary. We only need to look within. The teacher I’m talking about here is not a Zen master, but our own innate wisdom, available to us any time the noise in our head quiets down enough for us to hear it. This is why a problem you’ve been struggling with can resolve itself while walking your dog and just as easily a brilliant business idea can reveal itself mid-shampoo.

Parallel to the story above, if we continue trying to jam more things into our already full minds, like the tea spilling onto the floor, we just end up with a mess of our own, albeit internally.

The answers we are desperately seeking are not themselves the answer. Continually looking for solutions inside of ideas that are not working and hoping for something new is both tiresome and futile. We must point ourselves towards the source of wisdom, from where all answers originate.

It’s only when we stop the search and look to nothing – there, in that moment,

the exact answer we need will present itself.