Your mind creates your reality. If you expect nothing, you open up the universe to give you options. If you expect the worst, you usually get it. —James Patterson
Shortly after my return from a long stay in Asia, I walked into a university colleague’s
Office and noticed a book on her sofa. I glanced half the title as “Tea-Ching.” Still basking in the glow of my immersion in the East, I pointed to the book and exclaimed, “I see you have an interest in Asia, too!” She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, held up the book, and waved the cover, Teaching in the Elementary School. We both stood there laughing. Like most of us, I had made up a set of assumptions about this woman’s interests that were really about my life experiences—not hers.
Are you open-minded about an uncertain future or career outcome? Or have you crossed your arms, planted your feet, and made up your mind? I hope it’s the former. Our minds make up untested stories hundreds of times a day. We over-personalize life events, take them as fact, and don’t even realize it. Why? Scientists say a made-up mind keeps us out of harm’s way. Mother Nature hardwired us with a negativity bias that causes us to bring tried-and-true experiences to new situations so we don’t make the same mistake twice (How many times do we need to touch a hot stove?). But it can have the opposite effect. The same assumptions that keep us safe permeate every sphere of our lives and can keep us from growing and reaching our goals. A friend doesn’t respond to a text or email; the boss walks by our desk without speaking; a colleague wears a frown and uses a certain tone of voice. And we assume the worst.
How many of us parade mindlessly through life with our minds already made up about each new experience? And what unpleasant threats do we carry around for no good reason? When we do this, we don’t see life clearly as it is, but only as we think it is. Made-up minds stunt our growth and cause us to miss opportunities to learn and love. Even when we’re unaware of it, our expectations—already planted in our minds—influence how we view colleagues, friends, and loved ones, how we interpret their conversations, and how we judge them on a daily basis. Superimposing beliefs in new situations masks opportunities and sabotages success. When we expect a situation to turn out badly, it complies because we unwittingly think and behave in ways that make it fit with our expectations.
Although it’s important to learn from experience, it’s also important not to let preconceptions contaminate new situations. A clenched fist cannot receive a gift. Buddhists call it “the beginner’s mind”—openness to many possibilities instead of closed to only one. To live a rich and fulfilling life, we must think beyond survival bias and prevent invalid assumptions from keeping us stuck in ignorance and fear. Although it takes practice, we can bring present-moment attention to test the truth about our made-up stories. Over time, we become mindful of how we assign meaning to events that often turn out to be untrue. This awareness has the potential to lift worry and stress, cultivate more calm, and improve our clarity.
What if we used our unmade mind to change how we react to life’s uncertain curve balls? What if we were able to love the detours when we need to get somewhere? What if we tried to love the motorist who cuts us off in traffic; the swimmer who splashes us with water during a belly flop; or the shopper who accidentally hijacks our grocery cart? Just think of all the times we have unwittingly annoyed someone else. How many times have we disturbed a neighbor with our leaf blower? Cut someone off in traffic? Stepped in front of another shopper in line? With an unmade mind, we can learn about ourselves from each person who gets in our way.
The following excerpt from my latest book, Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers (Llewellyn, 2018), suggests how you can apply the unmade mind to writing, although you can apply it to any field of endeavor:
Forget About How Much the Fall Will Hurt
“If you put your energy into thinking about how much the fall would hurt, you’re already halfway down.” —Tana French
Sometimes it’s the voice in our mind’s echo chamber that tells us we’re defeated before we even begin. When we let that voice take over, we’re already halfway down, and we haven’t even started the journey. Next time a discouraging voice blinks in our mind like a neon sign, we can listen to it as a separate part of ourselves. Listening to our mind’s echo chamber with impartiality gives us distance and keeps us from attacking ourselves. This kind of detachment helps us notice an ease in seeing what’s there—it’s merely the mind’s chatter, nothing more. Conscious separation from the mind’s activity alleviates suffering and helps us become more self-attuned in gentler and kinder ways. And ultimately, this mindful approach aids in us becoming better writers. Take a few minutes now and listen to your mind’s chatter with curiosity and without judgment. Try listening with the detachment of an outsider and see if you can organically feel the un-blending of the chatter from yourself followed by an ease inside.
With an open heart and mind, listen to your mind’s harsh chatter with healthy detachment that keeps you from believing it, taking it personally, or avoiding a writing challenge.