Your entire life consists of sensory perceptions, thoughts and emotions. That’s it, that’s your life! This is how you experience life and it essentially makes up your “world”. It becomes you, your identity, and how you view the world and navigate through daily life with all its ups and downs (actually, there is another – and the most important – which I will reveal at the end). Of course, you inhabit your body but through your sensory perceptions, thoughts and emotions, you perceive and react to the world. Mix it all up into a crazy cocktail and it is truly remarkable how we digest and process all these incoming inputs while trying to maintain a state of wellbeing. Allow me to define each more in detail:
Sensory perceptions: This is all that you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. On a daily basis, you are bombarded with an overload of senses. Just going for a drive you see buildings, signs, trees, cars, lights; you hear honking and smell exhaust fumes as you sip your coffee and listen to the radio. On a trip to the supermarket, you smell different foods, you see aisles and aisles of foods, you may hear an angry customer at the checkout, you touch the fruits and vegetables as you selectively choose them. At a wine bar, you hear music, you taste wine, you smell finger food, you tap your finger on the table. Your sensory perceptions are literally inundated every day just doing the simple and mundane things of life as your busy mind processes all of it. Remarkably, most of these experiences just pass through your mind as you carry on and enjoy your day. But occasionally something triggers a memory: you see a guy at the bakery that reminds you of your last boyfriend and your mind goes ballistic, reliving the awful breakup you had with him; you see a red car on the freeway that looks exactly like your ex-wife’s red car and a flood of memories come back; you see a dog at the park that reminds you of your beloved Fido and you start to cry. These emotional triggers flare up at the most random times and gets stuck in your mind, the sensory perceptions don’t pass through. You dwell on it, contemplate it, replay it all in your mind dozens of time until ultimately it passes through or you sufficiently suppress it back into your unconscious. You exert a tremendous amount of mental energy trying to process and digest this. But it’s important to note that most of your daily life that you perceive through your senses literally passes through your mind effortlessly with no drama.
Thoughts: This is what is whirling and swirling all day in your mind. We have up to 50,000 thoughts per day and can hold up to six concurrently in your mind at a time. That is an extraordinary amount of mind activity. Thoughts are like pop up ads on a web browser. Now, of course, the ability to think is what makes us exceptional: we plan, organize, fix, create and converse all uniquely with our thinking mind and that is our special gift. But it’s the habitual thinking that gets us in trouble as the majority of our thoughts are redundant and, quite frankly, nonsense as you repeat habitual thinking with the same patterns. This is because we cannot stay in the present moment. All day we are immersed in our thought processes, dwelling in the past or fantasizing in the future. It can range from thinking about what to have for dinner to the mean thing your friend said to you yesterday to the text message you need to send to what your weekend plans are to the fight you had with your boyfriend three months ago. Thoughts like these just recycle over and over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. You may replay an awful conversation you had with your sister twenty times over in a day, is this really necessary? It’s actually a form of insanity, a dysfunctional use of your mind. Even worse, your mind can turn on you, becoming an inner bully and your own worst enemy, telling you you are not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy of love. Thought is necessary for us to function and thrive, but this type of habitual thinking is destructive.
Emotions. We typically feel this in our gut. An emotion such as anger, which is typically rooted in fear. Or anxiety, which is future oriented. You may be anxious about a meeting tomorrow or confronting a family member next week or even a trip scheduled next month. Or you may still harbor anger at your sister from what she said last month and keep replaying that in your mind. This often arises from the conditioning of your mind as we have patterns. But notice emotions are trapped in time, past and future. There’s typically a Top 10 list, where you keep replaying the hits of grievances over and over again. Friends and family have an emotional charge that really fuel this energy. This churns in your mind but you feel the emotions in your gut. It grows and festers as our mind keeps coming back to it. Of course, there are happy thoughts and beautiful emotions such as joy and gratitude, but these don’t typically create challenges for us.
We often have all three of the above colliding simultaneously as they are so integrated and intertwined. For example: If we see or hear our neighbor fighting, our thought process may be to intervene or perhaps think about moving. Both these thoughts can stir emotions. Should you be confrontational and pound on their door? Your mind drifts to some fantasy of you telling off your neighbor, all the while creating tension, fear and anger in your body. Then perhaps your mind shifts to moving out instead as the thought of conflict makes you nauseous. Your mind now drifts to all the work it takes to pack up your stuff, hire a truck, call your friends for help, etc. Anxiety creeps in at all the effort and energy this entails coupled with the fear of the unknown (where will I move to?). You can see how a simple event can create a dangerous cocktail as we navigate through all we observe and perceive and try to process it correctly.
But let’s explore the profound connection between thoughts and emotions. As mentioned before, all day we are immersed in our thought processes, dwelling in the past or fantasizing in the future. We rarely are present in the moment as we have an adverse relationship to the now. We devalue the present moment and always overvalue the future. As soon as I get that job, then I’ll be happy; As soon as I buy a new car, then I’ll feel fulfilled. As soon as I get a boyfriend, then my problems will go away. Our mind vacillates from the past to the future: we rehash old arguments, relive negative experiences and then proceed to ponder future actions. All this mind activity creates stress and tension; we feel agitated and annoyed. It’s a cocktail of grievances, fear, anger, rage worry and anxiety all mixed up in your mind at varying degrees. But the problem is our body cannot differentiate what is actually real and what is simply whirling in your mind that may never manifest as reality. Incredibly, the body thinks that your thoughts are real, that all these things you are agonizing over, imagining and worrying about is true, and reacts accordingly. So your body feels these emotions (fear, anger, anxiety) and it manifests in your body. If you feel you may lose your job, you may get a stomach ache from the worry; as you fantasize how you’re going to tell your sister off next time you call her, your shoulders tense up from the anger; as you think about the important interview tomorrow, you may get a migraine from the stress. These body reactions, in turn, recycle back up to your mind, powering more energy into your thought processes and fuels the emotion even more as you are now even more tense, fearful and anxious.. It becomes a vicious cycle, with the thought feeding the emotion and then the emotion further fueling the thought. Before you know it, you are all wound up in the mind and feel pain in your body.
So how do you break this chain, this perpetual cycle that feeds upon itself? It starts with Awareness, which is the access point and offers the ability to observe your thoughts and see these destructive mind patterns. It’s important to realize that you are not your thoughts. Thought formations rise incessantly all day, but you have the ability to choose if you want to cling on to that thought. You can simply let it go, relax and release. Think about jealousy, how we can get so obsessed with it and go in a rage. Your mind activity is off the charts, swirling with energy, driving you to a point of madness. You cannot think straight and you feel a range of emotions, from anger to fear to worry. Your body believes all the crazy scenarios you are playing out in your head and reacts accordingly, tightening up, possibly giving you IBS, cramps or back pain. Now imagine when you discover you were totally wrong and your boyfriend wasn’t cheating on you after all. You immediately feel like you’re floating on air and all your bodily pain magically disappears. Even that mass accumulation of negative energy swirling in your mind (thoughts are simply energy) dissipates miraculously. You created this whole dramatic scenario, deeply affecting your mind and body in profound ways. How much healthier would you have been simply to stay present and not cling to those jealous thoughts in the first place?
You can see how challenging it is to toggle and navigate between our sensory perceptions, thoughts and emotions. But as I alluded to at the beginning, we have one additional dimension, and that is your pure consciousness. This is the Awareness, your seated Self that observes all this mind activity without judgment, labeling, opinions or bias. It is your very essence, your Being, it is witness consciousness. It is your internal camera, without any filters, viewing life as it unfolds before you as is. It is Presence, the spiritual dimension. It is what enables your sensory perceptions, thoughts and emotions. Sadly, with the vast majority of us, it is completely hidden and taken over. But with Awareness, you can create some space and separation and observe all this insane mind activity. You simply relax back to where you notice from. By doing so, you can shift your relationship to your thoughts by not being immersed in your thoughts, and therefore not adversely affect your emotions with destructive patterns. You can use all your sensory perceptions without being triggered, by simply staying conscious and not being pulled into the thought or emotion. You can see the steady stream of thoughts, but choose to remove yourself from them and observe it all from the riverbank. This is the beginning of the arc of your journey into Awakening and the end of suffering.