It may be surprising at first to realize that our minds can only hold one thought at a time. But just take a moment to ponder this truth. What appears to be a mind flooded with multiple ideas at once is really a situation in which we experience a chaotic and frenetic movement of our minds from one thought to another.
It is not a coincidence that those of us who try to meditate on a regular basis experience this phenomena as a challenge to our practice. The meditators of ancient traditions referred to this as "monkey chatter" and is reminiscent of monkeys in a cage constantly jumping from one area of the cage to another.
When we are under stressful conditions we find our minds constantly returning to our area of most concern. We fret, worry, obsess over perceived situations in our lives and the lives of those we care about. We may even experience the fascinating phenomenon in which we feel well for a few moments, when our thoughts are elsewhere, then quickly return to feeling distressed, upset and even physically ill when our thoughts turn negative again. We may then even feel guilty for feeling OK or even joyful for those short moments. We chastise ourselves for not feeling pain on a continuous basis.
It should be noted that our thoughts and feelings are intricately intertwined. " We think by feelings" as the poet Theodore Rothke noted.
And with them our bodies respond as well. Mind and body are one unit. We know that from our own life experiences and how our bodies react with physical symptoms. It defines my practice of medicine.
Most interesting is how we can feel good or bad at intervals based on where our minds are in that moment. And yet the objective "situation" which made us stressed has not changed at all!
Did our worrying affect the actual situation? Only if it led to some concrete actions. Did we physically change our location? Did we escape from perceived danger? Did we make plans for the worst case scenario? Did we find a new doctor? Did we move our loved one to a new hospital? Did we go for a check-up? Did we intervene in our loved one's problems?
If worrying leads to action, then we have utilized its survival value to us. In historical perspective those Jews who perceived that Hitler's retoric might just materalize escaped and lived. Unfortunately millions did or could not.
The recent experiences most of us on the East coast had with Irene demonstrates how under certain situations worrying is useful. Those of us who took precautions, get flash lights, batteries even generators survived the storm better than those who failed to do so. Once worrying does not lead to further action, or once worrying takes on a life of its own, it can only lead to further suffering.
There are those who truly believe that if they DON'T worry about loved ones, even when nothing changes in the physical world, something terrible will occur. This is pure superstition but that does not stop them from doing so. They inwardly believe that their own suffering and worrying is necessary to keep the world intact. They might not even consciously realize this. But they do it just the same.
Once we realize that our thoughts can come under our conscious control, we can tailor them to meet our needs. When we have analyzed the situation and realize that nothing can or should be done to change it, then we need to observe our negative thoughts and quickly but gently escort them away. This is the essence of the power of the Serenity Prayer.
Don't be attached to our thoughts and our emotional responses to these thoughts will diminish as well. We are victims of our own minds, unless we come to realize that it becomes our choice to continue to live that way.
We can let go of negativity. We can choose to be in a calm place and rest there. We may periodically review what bothers us and be aware that those negative feelings may come along. Or we may learn to visit those thoughts and detach from the emotional component.
This is certainly not easy. It may not even be natural for us to do so. But with training of our minds through meditation we can find a healing paradigm that works.