Lesson 9: All those thoughts
When I think back to how I was as a child, I see, above all else, a shy and slightly fearful girl. I think the shyness and fear were primarily caused by all the thoughts running around in my head. You could safely say that I was far from fearless. My imagination had convinced me, for example, that fathers were scary, so I never dared to go to a friend’s house for fear that their father would open the door. My sister always had to ring the front door bell for me and ascertain whether the man of the house was home. (How she managed to solve the situation if he did indeed happen to be home, I do not know. And where this father-phobia came from is also a mystery to me, as my father is very sweet and kind.) And when it came to my swimming lessons, I was so terrified that one of the lifeguards would chat to me—which they may have done while they walked alongside me supporting my neck with this horrid stiff hook-like thing—that I totally seized up, making it impossible to actually swim. (And that’s why I spent YEARS trying to get my swim diploma, which is obligatory to have here in the Netherlands.) And if someone ever asked me what my favorite color was, I hardly dared to say out of fear that I would hurt their feelings because they preferred a different color. When I was slightly older, I hated having to do project presentations. With a vengeance. Why? Because days in advance, I had already managed to whip myself up into a frenzy at the thought of the whole class sitting there staring at me while I spoke. And I was too afraid to be home alone at night in case there were scary men hiding under my bed or in the wardrobe…
Yup, looking back on it now, it certainly was exhausting having all these scary thoughts roaming around such a small head while growing up. Yet, over the years my mind became calmer and I got used to not having them around anymore. In fact, I lived a fairly uninhibited life during my twenties: I traveled around the world, boarding decrepit planes, buses and boats without so much as a thought. And I called my parents (collect call) every few weeks, fully confident that they would answer the phone in good health each and every time.
Sadly, that carefree phase did not last long. As I grew older and started a family of my own, those thoughts of doom reared their ugly face more and more. Now that I have so much to lose, danger seems to constantly lurk everywhere. Take kids cycling in traffic, for example. Or icy conditions in winter, ski lifts, any driver in any car in any country, aging parents, bridges with low railings, and airplanes. My fear of flying even reached such proportions that I only wanted to go on vacation to Drenthe here in the Netherlands. Now, as much as I love Drenthe, I have to admit: even that went too far. So I decided to take my life back in my own hands and signed up for course to overcome my fear of flying. There I learned for the first time to examine my thoughts. Apparently, we have about 50,000 thoughts every day and 98% of those thoughts are the same as those we had the day before. Our reactions to those thoughts are the same in each case. Depending on what we feel, we create our own reality.
How enlightening it is to dissect your thoughts so! They pretend to be your best friend, as a voice of warning, but that does not mean that everything they say is also true. And that’s how I learned that I can simply put some thoughts aside. Which brought with it a lot of tranquility.
The insight into my thoughts was deepened further during the mindfulness course I recently followed. There I discovered the similarity between thoughts and clouds: they come and they go. So what do I do when the thoughts rage through my head and anxiety strikes? I go upstairs to my bedroom and sit on my cushion. By myself, I allow all these fantasies to be. If I sit there for long enough, I also find that they disappear by themselves. And that no harm has occurred in the meantime. I’ll never be as carefree as I was twenty years ago. But it helps to be aware of what I think. And above all: to not respond to my thoughts immediately. Since taking this approach, I feel that my thoughts control my life less. And, bit by bit, I feel a little freer.
Alice is General Managing Editor of Flow International Flow and the Specials. She will continue to share what the eight-week mindfulness course she followed has brought her and whether her life has become more mindful because of it.