Whether it’s at work or in a restaurant, or at an airport, or any other place where you can watch people; the next time you get the chance, actually pay undivided attention to the people around you. Look at the expressions on their faces. Look at how they’re gesticulating, or what their body language is. These are all expressions of their current biochemistry.
Emotions are things that are created by words. But even when you can’t hear the words to understand why, you can still see the biochemistry and know how they’re feeling. Or at least how they feel about something. The words and emotions don’t really matter in the end. We’re not here to judge those. The feelings themselves are the truth of their experience. That is what they’ve felt as real.
Say you see a two women talking in a restaurant, with one looking very much like she could be the mother of the other. They’re too far away to hear, but you can see that the daughter is angry. Now if we could hear the words, she might actually be talking about a sense of betrayal. Or she might be talking about being offended by a lie, or about how she suffers because her father is so stupid. But the details of her narrative don’t matter; what matters is what neurochemicals does that story incite? That’s the principle of the thing. We don’t want want to lose sight of what matters.
You believe that your life is a collection of events you’ve experienced, but what you’ve really experienced is your thoughts about those events. And those thoughts appear to you as a narrative and a set of associated chemicals. So if you have panic attacks every time you cross a bridge, it’s the not the bridge that’s the issue, it’s the terrified thoughts you think as you drive towards and over it. If changing that seems difficult, then let’s return to the mother and daughter in the restaurant.
They are sitting in a nice cafe, with good food and each others company readily available to enjoy. Outside it is a beautiful sunny day and it would be easy to be happy. So it is easy—from the outside—to see that the daughter could choose to talk about anything she wants. And this choice would be from literally millions of options. The weather, a friend’s good fortune, a fond memory, a nice story from the news, inquiries into each others well-being…. it goes on and on.
Each of those narratives would fit into a chemical response category. Some would cause her to feel sad. Some scared. Some would lead her to feel content, or maybe horny, or even hungry. But we can see from the outside that the lady chose to feed her consciousness an angry story. Out of all of the feelings available to her, she chose anger.
Do you think if we interrupted her that she would agree with us? Would she recognize that she was volunteering to suffer? Or would she try to explain to us that we didn’t understand—that we didn’t realize how much her mother and sister had hurt her when they made her sister the executor to her mom’s will. She would tell us that it was her mother’s and sister’s actions that hurt her. The problem is, those actions were taken months ago and they didn’t take place in this restaurant, which proves that thinking about it was a choice. She had to go and get those thoughts. She had to work to conjure them.
It makes sense that she would blame the emotion on the people she chose to think about. That’s what everyone around her is doing. How people feel is always someone else’s fault, or their own fault in another time—meaning something they did or might do in their past or future. But there is no real fault. That’s all just narratives. They’re truly meaningless. There are only feelings, transmitted through our physical being via chemistry. That is what your day is made of. So that is what you must master.
Past or potential events do not dictate your thinking. Other people do not dictate your thinking. Only you decide what to place into your consciousness. So accept that you will entertain unpleasant thoughts sometimes. But as soon as you feel them, recognize your own complicity in your ego, and shift from creating a narrative, to noticing the world around you.
Don’t sit in restaurants having a miserable time because of things you or other people did or might do. Be in the moment. Be where you are. Deal with what is in front of you. The rest is blathering ego. If you quiet that, what remains is peace in the present moment.
All you need to do is periodically check in to see if you’re actually present where you are, or whether you are using words to time travel away from Now. You will see that a surprising amount of your internal and external talking is really nothing more than gossip.
Breaking that habit and bringing yourself back to Now will seem strange at first. And while it will always be a practice, over time you steadily improve at it until you get to the point where it is simply your nature. And when that happens, you will learn that, rather ironically, many people will want to talk with you simply because you have this special quietness both inside and out. Such is the wisdom of profound peace.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.