If you want to make yourself miserable, here’s the quickest way to do it: get worried about what other people think of you. Just by turning our attention outside, we can begin to imagine that others are judging us harshly. In this way, we create a kind of prison in our own mind. We keep ourselves locked up in the thoughts we think.
To escape from this self-created hell, we need to look at them closely and look into them deeply. What are we believing that got us involved and made us so miserable? What seduced us? What distracted us from more joyful pursuits? What do we get out of remaining in these Hells? They must have some sort of “value” for us — what is it?
In an ancient story, a tormented person sees a saint (a Free Person) and plaintively asks, “How can I free myself from the grasp of these tormenting thoughts?” The saint has been leaning against a tree, relaxing for some time. The saint says, “I will tell you how to get free . . . as soon as this tree lets go of me.”
The tormented person says, “But Sir, the tree is not holding on to you. You are leaning on it! Just stand up and walk away from it.” The saint looks the person directly in the eye and says with firm compassion, “Just so! The tormenting thoughts have no hold on you. You are holding on to them. Walk away and be free!”
I had an experience at 19 that taught me a very similar lesson. I share it in Finding True Magic:
“When I was 19, I was helping my father screen in our back porch. The 2 x 4 beams that would support the screening were set about three feet apart, and we put up the screen section by section. It was nice June weather and, of course, flies were buzzing around us as we worked. I was really impressed watching a fly repeatedly buzz up against the screen I was working on—he was obviously trying to get free! We had only put up the first section of screen, and this was the one he kept knocking against. That fly had plenty of space everywhere else in the direction he wanted to go, not to mention the option of going back the way he came. But he was willing to buzz against his obstacle to the point of exhaustion and even death.
I like to imagine that he was a fly philosopher or a fly psychologist; I like to listen to his discourses decrying our existential dilemma. Maybe I sound just like him, when I’m complaining or feeling stuck.”
We suffer because we do not see the reality of our situation, in particular the spaciousness and freedom of movement that is always available to us. Like the fly, we insist on our desired direction as being the only direction in which we can move. And so it is that we suffer from conditions that we ourselves create, all the while interpreting our suffering as being imposed on us by someone (or something) else.
Free Your Mind from Worry: A Mindfulness Practice
Try this easy yet subtle method to free yourself from the torment of negative thoughts and emotions. The steps below will sound simple, and they are. But the method requires practice so that you make it your habitual way of relating to your thoughts and emotions:
- Notice what is happening in your “inside mind” when you are feeling bad about “what other people think.” You are talking to yourself internally. You are the one talking, and you are the one listening. So actually, other people are not the problem at all. What you tell yourself about other people is, by itself, not the problem either. If you think, “Other people don’t like me,” that only becomes a problem when you – listening to this thought that you are having about other people – believe that thought and accept it as true.
- Start witnessing or watching and studying this process of talking to yourself (or just being aware of thoughts and emotions). Notice when you are believing these thoughts and agreeing with them.
- No matter what happens, just watch your internal process. Develop the habit of watching your mental and emotional movements. Develop a strong habit of being the watcher, even if the thoughts/emotions are intense, such as those of anger. Just keep watching, breathe, relax your body as best you can (in a position that helps you stay alert) and watch some more.
- Keep coming back to breathing naturally, relaxing, and watching – no matter how often you get pulled into a pattern of negative thinking. With practice you will get better at staying in the position of watching your thoughts and emotions.
- As you get interested in your thoughts and emotions, see how you get pulled away from watching – especially when you are experiencing fear or boredom. Watch those thoughts, too. Breathe. Try making a gentle smile as well. Notice how, as you allow your facial muscles to smile, watching in this way changes the thought/emotional state you are experiencing.
- Watch the watcher. Stay relaxed. In the beginning if you “try too hard” to watch the watcher, you will just get frustrated, which is OK if you remember to just watch the frustration. In the beginning, chances are that the frustration will make you stop practicing, so it’s better to watch the watcher a little at a time. Just let yourself have a brief glimpse, a brief recognition, and go back to watching your thoughts and emotions.
- Watching the watcher will give you the experience of spaciousness and freedom.
Going back to my story as a metaphor, before practicing watching the mind we are like the fly buzzing against the board, instead of flying around it and escaping into the fresh outdoors. As you watch your mind and watch the watcher of your mind, you become the observer, free of any dilemma. Just as that 19-year-old “me” saw the needlessness of the fly’s dilemma, and saw the freedom and spaciousness so easily available to the fly, we find a freedom in living that is unobstructed by thoughts/emotions. We no longer buzz on the screen of what other people think.
When we’re worried about what other people think, we’re telling ourselves a Story. Learn about The 5 Levels of Your Story.