As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.
Proverbs 3.27 NKJV
I know there’s likely some kind of neuroscientific reason for this, and maybe we all know it intuitively anyway, but I’d like to remind us that our thoughts are powerful. How we think and what we think about have a profound influence upon the world. Our thoughts control us. They limit us. They liberate us. They allow us to see the world as a land of opportunity. They prohibit us from receiving love. Our thoughts may not entirely determine reality (you cannot, after all, think your way out of a holocaust), but they certainly frame it. And that framework, and what controls it, matters.
Our thoughts control our emotions. For example, the more we think about the way Susan looks for an occasion to insult us, deride us at work, or insinuate somehow that we’re not good enough, the more we begin to feel anger and resentment toward her. We project our negative thoughts onto Susan, which causes us to interpret everything she says or does as evidence proving she is out to get us, even when she does it innocently. What starts with our thoughts translates into a strong emotional response against another person.
The point is that this all starts in our head. Thoughts control emotions, and emotions in turn control our demeanor. The more resentment we feel towards Susan, the more our outward appearance begins to reflect that resentment. When we smile at her it is strained, forced, and she wonders why we’re trying so hard or what our problem is or what we’ve covered up. Everyone around us begins to realize we’re in a mood. That demeanor affects our relationships. People recognize there’s something off about us, something unstable, and they keep their distance. They ask Susan what’s going on, trying to figure out whether or not there’s something more sinister or more exciting going on than they had realized. When we see Susan receive what we think of as support, we transfer our resentment from Susan to everyone around her. Our resentment grows, our demeanor continues to darken and become more oppressive, and more and more of our relational sphere is sucked into the vortex of our dark imagination. At this point, things have swollen from an uncontrolled thought to a systemic framework for interpreting reality that is now causing us great harm in the real world. We have isolated ourselves, stigmatized ourselves in the eyes of others as an outsider, as an angry person, as a loose cannon.
All this, because of our thoughts. They control reality, or at least the framework through which we interact with the real world.
We must learn to control our thoughts. That is where all this stuff begins. We live what we think, and we think with our hearts. Notice that none of the thought-stuff I described above could ever be considered rational or cognitive. It’s not how we think that’s really the issue here, but what we think about and how often those thoughts occupy our minds.
It’s like thinking feeds everything else. The more we think about something, the bigger the something becomes. The more we think about some crime in the world, the more we begin to see that crime perpetrated everywhere. The more we think about the new car we want to buy, the more we see that new car on the road. It’s not that reality has changed; it’s just that we’ve energized our perceptions of reality and created a framework for seeing the real world in concert with the world of our thoughts.
We must learn to control what we think about. We must learn to stop thinking about certain things and think instead about other things. We must exercise thought-discipline early on so we don’t have to exercise so much emotional discipline later on. When we discipline our thoughts, we don’t have to work so hard to discipline our demeanor; and so our relationships will require less discipline as well. In this way our reality will conform more naturally to our desires and our intention, without us having always to focus so much on constricting our behavior. A change in behavior will naturally result from a more disciplined thought-life.
My friend Greg talks about controlling his thoughts like a buffet. There are two sides to the buffet—the good stuff and the bad stuff—and in each moment can choose which side of the buffet he will eat from. If he eats from the bad buffet, his life will get worse. So if he is in a car accident and ruins his vehicle, Greg disciplines himself not to worry about the damage to his car. He knows he will have to pay for it, and he knows he will be inconvenienced, but he only allows himself to think about those things one time. After that, he considers them part of the bad buffet and he chooses not to eat there because he doesn’t want his life to be consumed with worry or drama. He doesn’t want to feed those parts of himself that make his life worse. Instead, he eats from the good buffet. He thanks God that he is okay after the accident. He imagines all the ways in which things could have turned out worse and is grateful that they didn’t. He looks at the rest of his life and focuses on his many blessings. And his life gets better as a result. He lives with gratitude. He has a pleasant spirit. People find him encouraging to be around, because he eats from the good buffet.
When you choose to eat from the good buffet, you are choosing to think more about the good things, which affects your emotions. When you think about Susan’s good qualities—her smile, the way she volunteers on the weekend, the one nice thing she’s ever thought to say to you—your emotional responses to Susan change. You begin to notice little things you wouldn’t have noticed before. You’re not falling in love with Susan, but you are learning to like her. Your emotions determine your demeanor, and so Susan herself begins to respond to your genuine smiles and your courteous manner. You’re not yet her favorite person, but she’s no longer mean-spirited toward you, and sometimes she’s even kind. Your relationship with Susan reaches a positive balance. It’s a good start. Give it time. One day you may even have cause to call Susan your friend. Your thoughts control your emotions, your emotions dictate your demeanor, and your demeanor affects your relationships. If you’ve been warm enough and gracious enough for long enough, even enemies become friends.
And reality is changed for the better.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.