“How easy it is to obliterate and wipe away every thought which is troublesome or unsuitable, and immediately to be in complete tranquility” (Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius).
I’m best known for my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life. In it I point out that the majority of our problems are not caused by anything outside us out there in the world as most people seem to believe, but by our own inner psychological blocks that it’s our lifelong job to overcome.
When painters are painting and writers are writing and actors acting—inventors inventing, sprinters sprinting–their mood almost always improves however poorly they were feeling before they started and whatever inner blocks they were facing. Why is that? Because whatever they were thinking before, however dismal, however anxious or troubled, now they’re thinking, “At this moment I am doing what I love. I’m at my best.” And their mood brightens and blocks disappear from their mind. This example illustrates what happens to you and me many times every day.
- Something happens to you–a situation.
- You feel something about it–an emotion.
But something is missing. Something happens between the situation and the emotion. What is it? YOU THINK. You form an opinion of the situation.
So it really works like this:
- There’s a situation.
- You think, forming an opinion of the situation.
- You feel an emotion.
Emotions don’t just happen willy-nilly and they aren’t caused by situations. They’re caused by your reactions to situations, by your opinion of situations. One person jumps at the opportunity to write an important essay, enjoys writing, is very good at writing, and is thrilled about it. Another dreads it and is afraid she won’t do a good job. Objectively the situation– writing an essay– is the same for both. But their opinions are very different. And because they are, the emotions they feel are very different. One is confident and happy. But the other is up against an inner psychological block. For him the situation is fraught with danger:
The situation: writing an important essay.
His opinion: “I’m afraid I’ll do a bad job.”
His opinion results in blocks: self-doubt and the fear of failing.
The transition from situation to emotion is a quick leap. It occurs instantaneously. There doesn’t seem to be any middle stage at all. But if you could replay your thoughts and slow them down, you’d find them interpreting the situation, resulting in an emotion. When Wally is cut off in traffic he gets very angry and pounds the steering wheel. But his wife sitting next to him doesn’t get mad at all. You look at her and it’s as if absolutely nothing has happened. They are both in the same car that has been cut off, but he thinks, “That bastard. Who does he think he is?” and she thinks, “He’s probably in a hurry to get home and see his family.” Wally’s mad and has lost his composure. His heart rate is soaring. His wife is settled and calm.
Almost invariably whenever the same thing happens again we think the same things about it. That’s how we create the same inner blocks again and again. We get stuck in emotional ruts because our thoughts are in a rut. We’re in the habit of interpreting the situation the same way, so much so that we think we have to feel that way when in reality we don’t.
The insight that emotions are not in what happens to us but in our opinions is the basis of cognitive psychology. But there’s nothing new about the idea. It appeared in the third century B.C. in the Buddhist Dhammapada: All you are is the result of what you’ve thought. And it was the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy of classical Greece of 2,500 years ago.
There were two great Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, an emperor, and Epictetus, a slave. Epictetus wrote, “Men are disturbed not by things that happen, but by their opinions of the things that happen.” In his Meditations Aurelius wrote, “It is in our power to refrain from any opinion about things and not to be disturbed in our souls; for things in themselves have no natural power to force our judgments;” and “Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it is not outside, but within, in my opinions,” and, “Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power.” Philosopher/ theologian Martin Buber wrote, “Whatever one thinks, therein one is, one’s soul is wholly and utterly in what one thinks.”
What you think is both a source of inner psychological blocks and a way of conquering them. We are sometimes victims and sometimes beneficiaries of our thoughts. They can be our jailers or our liberators. You have the ability to completely change the contents of your mind.
It’s one short step from “I feel what I think” to, “Since what I think determines how I feel, I can change how I feel by changing what I think.” When you consciously change what you think in order to change what you feel, you aren’t denying reality as it is–you’ve still been cut off in traffic, or you still have an essay to write. No, you simply reinterpret reality. You make the choice to evaluate it differently than you normally do so that you feel differently than you normally do.
The only way to drive out an undesirable thought is by substituting a powerful desirable thought. By thinking differently, you can replace self-doubt and discouragement with self-confidence, fear with courage, boredom with interest, pessimism with optimism. You’re able to rid yourself of the thoughts that are creating inner blocks and substitute opposite thoughts that conquer them.
You can manufacture emotions at will. If you want to see how easy it is to create an emotion like fear, some time when you’re not afraid repeat fear-producing thoughts–“What if something terrible happens to me,” “What if I die,” or “What if my book is rejected by the publisher” or “He seemed cold; maybe he’s stopped loving me,” or “What if I’m never able to solve this problem?” Now dispel them by thinking courage-producing thoughts: “There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of. I can deal with this” and keep repeating such thoughts.
Create Your Happiness by What You Choose to Think
What is happiness but a state of mind? It doesn’t lie in situations. Situations are evaluated differently by different people. Parties make some people happy, but other people hate them. Some people find happiness working hard at their goals. But others don’t. Surely happiness isn’t in things, not even in great achievements. We can be accomplished and famous, and rich, beautiful, and gifted—and very unhappy. Or we can go about our everyday lives not particularly famous, not rich, nor beautiful, nor especially gifted, and find happiness every day.
That happiness can be cultivated by deliberately controlling what we think strikes some people as incredible. But not only can it be done; it’s one of the only ways it can be. When you think happily your senses sharpen. You see, smell, taste, and hear better. And your memory improves. When we think happily and optimistically we are happy. We’re at liberty to choose to think happily any time we want, and whatever is happening outside us, at times in spite of what’s happening outside us. That’s what happy people do
A Crucial Strategy
- List the three inner blocks that trouble you most.
- Write out your thoughts that create the blocks. People who are trying to create something original are often discouraged. For the discouragement block you might write down–“I’ve tried so many times, and every time I couldn’t make it and I feel miserable about it. I’d be better off if I just stopped trying. I’m giving up.”
- Choose how you would like to feel, such as happy instead of unhappy, bold rather than cowardly; absorbed instead of bored, confident and not shy, etc. Write it down in sentence form.
- Write out more useful thoughts you will choose to think to defeat the blocks and create emotions you want: “When I face a problem, instead of thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to solve this,’ I’ll think, ‘I’m not going to let it get the better of me. I’ll just find a way to solve the problem that I haven’t thought of before.” Discouraged? Think, “I’ve found that no matter what it is, there is hardly anything I cannot do if I apply myself.” Afraid of failing? Write, “There’s no way I can’t succeed.”
- Rehearse using the thoughts you’ve written until they’re second nature. Say to yourself, “Whenever I’m running up against X block I’ll think…” Then practice thinking it.
- When the block appears think what you’ve written and create the emotions you want. The block will appear. But you’ll be prepared. You’ll think what you’ve written out and rehearsed.
- Be consistent. Make certain you think in the way you want every time the inner block appears. Selecting what you will think in order to conquer your blocks is one of the easiest things in the world NOT to do.
It takes discipline to train yourself to run a marathon. It takes discipline to paint expertly or write expertly or act expertly. It takes discipline to train yourself to think a new way. What you need if you are to conquer a deeply entrenched inner block is the repetition of new thoughts. Mastery of anything takes repetition upon repetition upon repetition. If you do something a hundred times you should be good at it. Do it a thousand times and you’ll be better.
- Remember that you have to change your opinions if you are to overcome inner blocks. You can always change your mind; can always change your opinions. And doing that, can always change your life.
- Think differently. If you’re accustomed to thinking in a way that creates inner blocks, develop new opposite thought habits. Inner blocks originate in your mind. They’re caused by thinking incorrectly. To conquer a self-doubt block repeat the thought, “I can do this thing. I will do it. I can do this thing. I will do it, “and take action. There’s a stubborn block standing in your way. To defeat it think over and over, “The best way out is always through.” Adversity strikes. Instead of letting it stop you, change your opinion. Think, “It’s only a temporary setback. I can overcome it if I keep moving forward in spite of it. Be strong.”
- Clarify what you really mean. Instead of blaming yourself with, “I didn’t get the commission for the painting. I’m a failure,” think, “What I really mean is that I wish I’d gotten the commission. But in no way does that make me a failure.” You’re giving a speech. You stumble over your words. Instead of, “I’m a lousy speaker” and losing confidence, stop yourself and say, “No, I’m not saying I’m a bad speaker or that I could never be a great speaker. All I’m saying is I’m human and like any human might do, I made a mistake. Big deal.”
- Be a fish. When your mind drifts back to your old blocks-producing ways of thinking, be a fish. Swish your tail, flick your fins, and change directions.
© 2016 David J. Rogers
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