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Thinking About Something Else

I was a lonely kid. My parents were in the 40s when I was born and my brothers were teenagers. No one had the time or patience for playing dolls or jacks, so I made up a lot of one-person games and mostly obsessed over how I felt. About everything. My family, my school, my shoes, my hair. I used to imagine that if I had two or three siblings of similar ages, my days would be spent riding bikes and playing tag. Instead, in my little solitary world, the first thing I did when I awoke each day was to start examining my feelings. I knew when I was sad, scared, excited, anxious, or worried.

It turns out that, in adulthood, this discernment about my feelings can be a good skill to have. But, I’m so practiced at it that most of my friends have to catch up, while I annoy them by knowing immediately how something has affected me. Regardless of the situation, my internal mood meter is always ready to kick in. It’s worthy noting here, as well, that my strongest feelings over the years have been difficult ones. In other words, if I were keeping an Excel spreadsheet or creating a pie chart, fear, anxiety, sadness, and worry would have much more prominent positions than happiness, delight, pride and wonder. To me, this just always seemed normal.

What a blessing to look

outward for once, and to just

notice what's there.

But last week I discovered The Book of Joy, and I've begun to look at things differently. The book is writer Douglas Abrams' account of five days spent with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In the first part of the conversation, Abrams asks them how they have been able to feel joy in the midst of horrendous conditions in their lives. They both answer very simply that they don’t think about themselves. At first I read this to mean that they focus on helping others, and of course they do. But then I realized that it also means not reviewing every single feeling every single moment. It means not focusing our thoughts on how we feel.

This is probably not news to people who don’t devote much time to processing their feelings, but it has been an eye-opener for me. It’s a little bit like suddenly realizing that it will hurt less if you stop hitting your thumb with a hammer. Examining my emotions has become as habitual as brushing my teeth. So much so that stopping makes me a little afraid that I won’t know how I feel. Like that could ever happen. So for now, I’m just enjoying the respite. If I find myself perseverating over the details of something that makes me anxious or sad, I can just stop thinking about it.

Instead, I have been noticing the shapes of clouds above me, a cute kid in a yard I’m driving past, even the powerful feeling of breathing and being alive. This is a hard habit to change, though, and I have to constantly remind myself to stop thinking about how I feel. Luckily, there’s always something wonderful and real and new in front of me to take the place of the old movies I’m playing in my head.

It’s been a revelation, for sure, and I’m only a little alarmed at how much brain time and space I’ve devoted over the years to my own tiny self. Like most things I’m discovering at this age, though, I’m trying not to regret time already spent. In fact, it’s just another example of too much self-focus. Mostly, I feel freed in a way that I never have before, like someone secretly slipped me the key to a much richer way to live. Without my internal watcher at the gates constantly tapping me on the shoulder, it all feels new. What a blessing to look outward for once, and to just notice what's there.

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