Thursday, March 11, 2010

What You Think Matters

At Bible study on Wed, we read this parable:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:16-20).

God called the rich man a fool because his thinking about the situation was all wrong. Seeing that the man died that very night and would no longer have use for his excess crops, it would have been wiser of him to share his abundance of crops with those who were going hungry. I believe that was Jesus’ point.

When I read this parable, I too thought the rich man was a fool, that his thinking was all wrong, but for a different reason. I imagined him the season before working hard in the fields from dawn until dusk, and all his workers as well, trying to get ahead, not being able to enjoy the day for fear that there wouldn’t be enough the next day. And not until this great crop came in was the man finally able to say, “Ahhh. At last. Now I can relax. Now I can eat, drink, and be merry. I can enjoy my life.”

This is a distorted way of thinking that many people struggle with. The idea that “I can’t relax, I can’t enjoy my life until XXX amount of dollars are in the bank, stored up, safe and secure, ensuring my family’s future.” [And as many of us have learned, even if you’ve made the money and invested it wisely, there is no guarantee for the future]. Or maybe its not money that the issue, maybe it’s “I can’t relax, I can’t enjoy my life until I get to this place in my career.” Or “I can’t be happy until I’m married, or have children or until the mortgage is paid off.”

The “I’ll be happy when…” thinking is flawed thinking.

We don’t have to wait until we reach a certain point to enjoy life, to relax some, to be happy. We can be happy today even as we work hard, and everything isn’t perfectly how we want it to be. We can be happy while we are working to achieve our goals, not only once we’ve achieved them.

In today’s Luke passage, Jesus says that we all need to repent or we will perish. Repent means to turn around or change, to do it differently than we’ve been doing it because the way we’ve been doing it is the road to death. Normally, sermons on repentance focus on altering sinful behaviors, which is valuable, but today, I’d like to suggest that it is also very important that we repent from our negative, destructive, life-taking, soul-sucking thinking because thinking really does have the power to diminish the quality of our lives or to make them better.

Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil!’” (Luke 13: 6-7).

Our minds are what set us apart from all other animals. Our thinking should help us to bear fruit in our lives, and any thinking that does not help us bear fruit or any thinking that bears rotten fruit needs to go. Like a tree that bears no fruit wastes the soil, thoughts that bear no fruit or bear bad fruit, waste our minds. In place of such thinking, we need God’s truth, wisdom, and understanding to permeate our minds.

The Lord says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The first thought I would like to suggest God/Jesus would have us cut out of our lives is the “I’ll be happy when…” syndrome. Nothing needs to change in order for you to be happy and satisfied. I know everything might not be as you want it to be right now, but you have all the conditions necessary for happiness. Look around you. Think about all you’ve been given. You have all the conditions necessary for happiness. Be grateful. Rejoice. Don’t get stuck thinking that life will be better in the future.

The key to repentance is awareness. You now have to catch yourself. The next time you say, “I’ll relax once Christmas is over (or this project is over, etc)” stop right then and there and take a break. The only guarantee we have is today.

Enjoy the present moment. It’s called the present because it’s a gift.

The thoughts that we have, the beliefs that we hold, and the perspectives that we come from are the root of our feelings. For example, if I look in a mirror and think, “I’m fat,” I will most likely feel bad about myself. If I look in a mirror and think, “I look pretty,” I will most likely feel good about myself. The negative thought, “I’m fat,” leads to the negative feeling. The positive thought, “I look pretty,” leads to the positive feeling.

We think X, and therefore, we feel Y.

So, our thoughts, beliefs, perspectives affect what we feel, and in turn, our feelings affect our experience of reality. The actual truth of whether I’m fat or not or pretty or not doesn’t even really matter as much as my thinking does, and how that thinking makes me feel. If I feel good, my experience of life is positive. If I feel bad, my experience of life is negative, no matter how much I weigh.

When a person feels angry or frustrated, his/her experience of reality is hardly as pleasant as when one feels happy and satisfied. The point is: its what we think, believe, how we interpret reality that determines whether we suffer or not.

Caveat- I know its not all mental. There is genuine suffering that no good attitude can fix. I recognize this. But I’m talking about the day in and day out, regular experiences of life, in which attitude really is everything, as they say.

The second thought that rarely if ever produces fruit and needs to be cut out of our lives is the: “it must be my fault” or “ I did something wrong” reaction/belief.

Many people suffer for no good reason because they insist on making everything that happens about them. If your new neighbors don’t come to your Christmas party, you wonder what you did wrong. If your boss or co-worker criticizes you, you take everything they say to heart as though you truly are incompetent or lazy or whatever. If no one comes up to you at coffee hour at church, you feel insecure and awkward.

The vast majority of the time, how someone treats you or doesn’t treat you is a reflection of that person and what they are going through, not of you. The neighbors didn’t come to your Christmas party because they’re going through a divorce and they don’t want anyone to know yet. Your co-worker yelled at you because he just found out his mother is dying. And no one came up to talk to you at coffee hour because…well…take as many people as there are at coffee hour and there are that many reasons.

We often blame ourselves when we don’t deserve the blame. We think it has to do with me, when actually, it has to do with the other person. People do what they do because of themselves so don’t take it personally. (To learn more about this one, read The Four Agreements.)

For today, the last dead tree branch of thinking I would like to suggest we cut out is the negative self-talk. Self talk is the internal dialogue that goes on inside of all of us. Self talk is how we explain situations to ourselves, and for many of us, if we would just become aware of how negatively we talk to ourselves, and stop doing it, our experience of life would immediately improve.

If you set a goal for yourself and don’t achieve it, do you think: “ I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to do this or achieve that.” ? Or when you set a goal for yourself, and when you don’t achieve it, do you think: I can do this. I will do this. I just have to persevere and my dream will come true.

Some people like to call themselves names. “I’m such an idiot. Stupid. Jerk.” It’s not okay for other people to say these things to us. Why should we be allowed to talk to ourselves this way?

Another example of negative self talk is when someone you love disappoints you, do you think: So and so doesn’t love me, and then get sad and feel sorry for yourself. Or someone you love might disappoint you and you might even make a more sweeping negative assumption, such as, “no one loves me.” This might lead to further disasterous thinking: “No one loves me. No one understands me. I’m all alone in this world.”

This is reinforcing “I am not worthy of love” kind of thinking.

The flip side of the previous situation could be that someone you love disappoints you, and instead of spiraling into existential despair, you could think: “I deserve to be treated well.” If Johnny’s not going to do what he said he would do for the 1000th time, than I’ll do it myself or hire someone else to do it. Or, if Betsy doesn’t come through this time, I’
m not asking her again.” Whatever it is, the “no one loves me” thought sends you down. The “I deserve to be treated well” thought empowers you to take action in a way that will benefit yourself.

“Many [people] want to get rid of their painful feelings, but they do not want to get rid of their beliefs, the viewpoints that are the very roots of their feelings” (Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace is Every Step. Pg. 56.) Our suffering really starts in our heads, by the way we interpret situations, by the way that we think. So I encourage you all to become aware of your negative thinking and negative self-talk, and then to cut it out of your life. If you create the space, God can plant wisdom and understanding in that space, and your experience of life will be far more loving, happy and peaceful.

Let me end with some positive talk:

Your Life Hold Unlimited Potential

You have the ability
To attain whatever you seek;
Within you is every potential
You can imagine.
Always aim higher than
You believe you can reach.
So often you’ll discover
That when your talents
Are set free
By your imagination,
You can achieve any goal.
If people offer
Their help or wisdom
As you go through life,
Accept it gratefully.
You can learn much from those
Who have gone before you.
Never be afraid or hesitant
To step off the accepted path
And head in your own direction
If your heart tells you that it’s the right way for you.
Always believe that you will
Ultimately succeed
At whatever you do,
And never forget the value
Of persistence, discipline,
And determination.
You are meant to be
Whatever you dream of becoming.
-Edmund O’ Neill

May we all speak to ourselves and one another is such a loving and hopeful way.

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