I created a phrase once about certain behaviors in people I knew. I called it “soap opera mentality”. These were folks who always had dramas going on in their lives, at least from their point of view. Sometimes, the drama was a situation occurring in my own life but I wasn’t all bent out of shape about it. I have learned another thing about these people. They are among those who think life is all about them.
One situation I remember is when a woman trying to stop drinking told me about a couple of friends who were having marriage problems. She was in so much pain over these friends’ troubles that I remember wondering if her friends were suffering as much as she. She was excellent at suffering in her own problems, too, but it especially startled me that she did the same with other people’s problems. It was almost as though she so enjoyed suffering that when she’d run out of things in her own life to suffer over, she looked to other people’s problems for excuses to suffer.
Anyone in serious recovery would say that this woman was just looking for an excuse to drink. I get that. But Adyamashanti in his book Falling into Grace offers some insight into this business of suffering.
Suffering is a fact of life, but “Why is it,” he wondered, “that human beings have such a hard time putting their suffering down? What is the reason we often carry it around, when it becomes such a burden to us?”
Ady (my nickname so I don’t have to write his name out) suggests that the primary reason we suffer is because we believe what we think.” The truth is, he says, “the thoughts in our heads come uninvited into our consciousness, swirl around, and we attach to them.” The woman I spoke about may have a thought about her friends with marriage problems and she invites it to linger. Then she plays with it a while and it begins to make her feel good. Yes, good. Her thinking about it affirms to her that she is a caring person. She is bolstering an idea that she wants to believe about herself. It doesn’t matter whether she does anything to help her troubled friends. Just holding onto their pain is enough.
Buddhists talk about the things we experience as being an illusion. It took me a long time to get this. I mean, this computer that I am using to write this blog is real. At least I think it is. My fingers are touching it. I am looking at it. But when I walk away from it and think about it…that is the illusion. My thoughts are not real. They are only representations, memories of the past or imaginings about the future. In the case of this woman, the marriage problem is real for the couple in it (we assume), but it is an illusion for the woman. She is only thinking about it and she is believing what she is thinking. She believes that the illusion is the reality.
When I pray in the morning, I often pray for people I care about who I’ve learned are having some problems. The truth is that I am remembering something they or someone else told me. By the time I pray, the problem may be no more. Any belief I have about them right now is a figment of my imagination. It is fine. Using my imagination gives meat to my prayer. But if I really want to pray, the best thing I can do when a thought about a person comes to mind is to let go and let God. God, after all, is privy to the real situation right now.
More illusion than we think. When someone shares with me their problems, they are sharing their beliefs about their situation, another illusion. The words about the situation is not the situation itself. It is all an illusion, the Buddha says, because anything we think is about the past or the future. The only thing real, the Buddha teaches, is in the present, right now. Oops, that slipped away. It is right now, no, now! Oh, what a dilemma! The moment keeps slipping into the past and what was in the future suddenly becomes now only to slip away again. (I have to stop thinking like this or I’ll never get this blog written)
Reading what Ady has to say about our thoughts, I began to wonder about patterns of thought. An example might be paranoia – when a person always thinks others are trying to hurt them. This thinking is based on illusions. Even if someone is trying to hurt you, not everyone is trying to hurt you. Here the thought about someone trying to hurt you is not just an illusion but it has become a habit of thought. I think PTSD may be a bit like this. One may have been hurt one time or witnessed a hurt, but they then create a habit so that of when something similar occurs, the hurt returns, at least on a feeling level. It is all in their imagination, of course, but very real to them.
I remember listening to an author being interviewed on MPR one day. He’d written a fiction, but it was based on his own life. He was asked about his portrayal of the mother in his book who was supposed to represent his own mother. Was his mother was upset? “Not at all,” he said, “She doesn’t even connect with her.” Even among his own siblings, he said, each has a different story to tell about the same events he tells in his story. I found this hysterical as I thought about a gathering of my cousins a few years ago where we told stories of our lives growing up together. We not only remembered different events, but we remembered them totally differently. Sometimes I wondered if we were really all living in the same place at the same time.
So, it is all an illusion, this world of thoughts. But don’t despair. Thoughts are good and helpful, especially the fun or sunny ones. Even the dark ones can be stepping stones to deeper understanding of things. So don’t stop thinking. Just don’t be fooled into believing that they are the same as reality.