The most horrifying thought facing anybody prone to negative self thoughts is that they might actually be right. The nature of our thoughts is that they seem right to us. We think things in such an authoritative way that, as we think them, we confirm them. Alan Watts liked to propose the perplexing possibility that, if you can’t trust your thoughts, how can you trust that you can’t trust you thoughts? Such is the nature of thinking. Some thoughts are right, some are wrong, and it is hard to tell which is which. From a Zen perspective, there is a simple answer, don’t think.
It is not so easy not to think. Thoughts think up themselves. We think up ourselves. We think we are this and we think we are that and this and that are good and bad and true and false and right and wrong and black and white and grey. The simple answer of not thinking is not simple at all. It sounds idealistic and impossible, possible, possibly for highly trained monks and sages, but not practical for practical people. Not thinking is not possible for practical thinking people. However, the thought of not thinking is possible. We are constantly exposed to sounds we don’t hear, sights we don’t see, and thoughts we don’t notice. We systematically ignore all these things because we only have so much focus available to us. When a thought occurs to us that we are not good enough, smart enough, this enough, or that enough, that thought comes with an emotional value that demands our attention and takes our attention away from another thought that could be useful. All the useful thinking we do to try to protect ourselves from those kinds of thoughts get swept aside by the lurking possibility of what if that horrible thought is right?
Right or wrong, that horrible thought is a thought. It might be here, it might be there. That horrible thought about you creates you. Here or there, good or bad, it contributes to what you think you are. You are not that. You are that, and something else.
When your mind is a peaceful palace, any thought is an intruder. If your palace is on fire, any thought is a flame. If you ever catch yourself thinking about yourself, good or bad, remember that you are both right and wrong. Beneath all that thinking there is peace and wisdom. Whenever you can stop your thinking and stop thinking yourself, you are alright. Right where you are.
The Serenity Prayer addresses our need to control the world around us and the frustrations that arise when we don’t like how things are. It goes like this:
O God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.
When we want things to be a certain way and they are not that way, it disrupts our serenity. It ruins our peace of mind. Courage and wisdom are helpful allies in the quest for serenity. Serenity is the gateway to courage and wisdom. The time that we need serenity is when it is lost to us.
Courage, wisdom and serenity are not things what we lack in our essence, but we are unable to access them when things feel out of control. Thoughts, moods and circumstances change all the time. When we feel good, we are happy with how these things are going, and we have a sense of control. When we feel bad, we are unhappy with how things are going, and we have a sense of being out of control. These issues are as much about our sense as about our control. Courage helps us stand up to fear and other difficult emotions. Wisdom helps us sort through confusion. Serenity is our natural state, when we know that we have the wisdom and courage necessary to manage any difficult emotion and circumstance.
The past and future are beyond our control. They are huge. The past has been accumulating for billions of years, the future will unfold for billions more. That is beyond our scope of influence. The present moment is where we live. It is where we feel and act. It is small and manageable. The present moment is where we access our courage and wisdom to work with what is happening to exert what control we have, and to create serenity in our lives and peace in the world.
Nobody chooses to be envious. We don’t purposefully look for reasons to wish we had things that we don’t. That is our natural state. These things find us. The reason to stop falling victim to envy is that it hurts. It is a misinterpretation of a situation that makes us feel bad. The misinterpretation is both about the people that we envy and about ourselves. If we envy another person, we imagine that they have something that makes them better than us. It could be wealth, fame, respect, beauty, courage, intelligence, wisdom, height, weight, freckles, no freckles, anything at all. There is no end to things we imagine might make us a better person or bring us happiness. The other side of that envy is that when we see something we want, we imagine that we are lacking. That is the side that hurts.
To work with our envy, we have to remember that our only way to satisfy envy is to be happy with what we have. Envy is not as much about not having as not appreciating what we are. No matter how much we accumulate, no matter how perfect we appear, until we are happy with ourselves, we will be susceptible to envy. To be happy with ourselves we have to recognize that as we are, we are good enough. Good enough does not mean we don’t work on becoming intentionally different, learn new ways to interact with the world and with our minds. Good enough means that no matter where we want to go, we have to start where we are. Contentment is not a destination, it is a way to travel.
When you learn to see envy as a symptom of habitually overlooking your own innate value, you can work productively with the feeling. Take a breath, feel the sting of envy, and remember that you are on the right path, beginning again where you are. When you notice envy arising, make a special effort to practice kindness and compassion for yourself and others. Then help others if you notice that they envy you.