Look at a baby picture of yourself.
Can you appreciate that in that photo, you’re not even you yet? You’re like a computer with no software. That’s a photo of the collection of cells or atoms that used to be you, but they don’t have your identity. That’s you tabula rasa—blank slate; clear mind. In that photo no one has yet taught you who you are. You’re actually fairly helpless. You need programmers (aka parents, schools, trusted sources, the media etc.) to teach you how the world works. They need to prepare you for living with the rest of us by building some fundamental Operating Systems so that you know what to do.
First you learn your main language. Then you learn your local customs. You learn to say hello and goodbye. Your learn a 10-based math system, and about pieces of paper with special thoughts attached to them that are called money. You’ll even learn if you should put raisins in the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing or not. And rather importantly, you will innocently think that everyone had the same programmers as you.
When you start hanging out at friends places you learn there are other ways to be! Maybe dinner’s at 5pm instead of 8pm. Maybe they eat pasta instead of rice. Maybe there’s no dessert. Maybe dogs are allowed on the sofa, or kids can’t play X-box after 9pm! Maybe your girlfriend’s family openly and loudly farts at the dinner table and laughs. Any of these things can initially feel shocking because we weren’t told that normal is simply whatever behaviour you’ve been around a lot. If you see something a lot, then it simply and slowly becomes normal.
By realising you can function in ways differently than your family, you begin to rebel. Well, not really rebel–you’re just trying out different ways of being. But to your parents it will seem disruptive. They’ll say you’re going through phases and in a way that’s true. You’ll keep trying different ways of being and you’ll keep a little of each until you’ve become the you you are when you’re older. We all continue to change using that mechanism, throughout our lives.
So if you look at a baby photo, and then a photo of you at ten, another at 18, another at 28, another at 35, another at 45 etc. etc., you would be looking at photos of literally different people. Not only will their cells have changed them into an entirely new physical person, but their thoughts would be so different that some of those people would get into heated arguments with the other versions of themselves. There would be things they would vehemently disagree about.
So first off, you can relax. If you don’t like how you are, just wait, that will change. If you want to apply change, get out into the world and look at how other people are being and then wait for something to resonate with you. Then follow that. That’s your path. That’s how you recognise it. You feel your way down it.
Remember, every eight to ten years or so, you have all new cells. You are a totally new physical you. But that’s not the person you think of as you, that person exists via your thinking. So you don’t change yourself at a gym or by stopping smoking, you change yourself by thinking that your life–that your opportunity to have experiences–is so valuable that you want to take good care of it.
You don’t get better and then have better thinking. You literally think the healthier person into existence in the moment you are currently living. You are just a set of thoughts that were taught to you. Your identity as a citizen of your country, or as a child, or as smart or dumb or lucky or unlucky—those are all choices you are making regarding how to see yourself and therefore what actions you should take in your life.
Your beliefs about yourself are like a script you pick up every morning. Okay, I’m Canadian now—so I’m polite. Or I’m offended, so now I say this rude thing. Or now I believe I’m in love, so I treat my partner really well even though months from now my thoughts could change and I might treat them poorly because I don’t like them at all anymore…. Etc. etc. etc.
Believe nothing. Tabula rasa. Clean the slate. Choose a new you to be. To do that you simply have to think different thoughts. Yes you’ll bounce back to your old thoughts pretty often at the start, but if you keep practicing changing to the new thoughts—where you see yourself as fortunate and capable—then over time you’ll get better at thinking the healthier person into being. And then you will suddenly realise that by thinking that way, you naturally became that way. And that is the real secret of good mental health: who you think you are is who you will be. There’s no way around it.
Please enjoy your day!
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.