02 Feb Thoughts think themselves
Here’s a thought experiment. An unfortunate accident leaves you with a scar on your face. You now must move through the world with a striking blemish that others don’t understand. As you start interacting with other people, you notice awkward body language, averted eyes, or abbreviated small talk. And from those interactions, your confidence and self-worth start to suffer.
The fallacy of how people perceive us
This was an actual social science experiment from the 1980s and described in Robert Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True (a 2017 RadReader favorite) . The subjects were given fake scars (think the Halloween kind) and asked to socialize in a room. The reactions of their conversation partners were recorded. The subjects even got to identify specific reactions by looking at the replay (“see, right there — he looks away in disgust”). But here’s the catch. Right before the subjects entered the room to socialize, they were told that a makeup artist needed to clean up the scar — when in fact (and unbeknownst to them) they removed it. The subjects thus moved through the rooms in their truest manner. As themselves.
Thoughts think themselves — huh?
Meditators often share the aphorism, “Thoughts think themselves.” Until I heard about this study, I found it hard to explain the phrase to non-meditators. We all know about the monkey mind or the lizard brain, but do we actually have agency over our own thoughts? Particularly those pernicious ones like fear, anxiety, and insecurity.
I know what you’re thinking, “That experiment is sooooo contrived that it exaggerates real life.” But what about the rage you feel when someone aggressively cuts you off on the freeway? Or the self-loathing from forgetting those two key sentences in your sales pitch? Or my favorite — the sinking feeling when you see an unread work email while you’re leisurely enjoying your weekend? Are the ensuing thoughts thinking themselves? (Is it just me, but does that unread email turn out to be an auto-reminder to submit your expense report?)
The thoughts think themselves even more violently when they involve physical insecurities. For me they’ve ranged from being insanely skinny in High School to starting to lose my hair in college. I’ve recently seen other men discuss stuttering and their weight.
In every interaction, like the scars in the experiment, the thoughts start thinking themselves. (And for the second week, to our female readers, what we men experience is 1/1,000,000th of what you do on a daily basis.)
But don’t imperfections matter?
I suspect you’re now saying, “Well, the thoughts have a kernel of truth in them.” You may quote the fact that tall men earn more than short ones, hirsute men more than bald guys (though Bezos may kill the average), and ugly people make less than their average-looking ones. But that’s besides the point. I’m talking about how you feel deep inside.
Meditation and coaching have given me the ability to engage with these thoughts — before they burn the motherfucker down. And of course, I discovered the role of the ego. Scar, weight, hair, stuttering — the first reaction is what does this person think about ME? To think that people walk around deliberating on others’ imperfections is quite an ego-centric view of the world. Guess what, people don’t sit around during Thanksgiving commenting on others’ hair loss.
Compassion is the “real deal”
But it gets even better. I often differentiate empathy and compassion as follows: empathy is feeling what the other person feels, whereas compassion is the desire to alleviate someone’s suffering. And by suffering, I mean anxiety, discomfort, and mental agitation. And though I may not feel what a stutterer or overweight person feels, my own experiences give me a lens to reduce their suffering.
So the next time the thoughts start thinking themselves first remember not to over-index on the “I.” Then appreciate that tapping into someone else’s suffering, whether it’s a loved one or a stranger, is one of the meaningful ways we can move through this world.
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