Don’t Mess with Mister In-between

Chapter 4, Part 5

How do you train yourself to be happy? Let me show you.

In July of 2010, as I was just settling down for a mid-summer-night’s dream, a sudden and violent thunderstorm swept through the Amherst area. I was jolted from my twilight world by a lightning strike thundering to earth right outside. It might have been the Hammer of Thor.

Lightning Bolt

A bolt from the blue

“Wow!” I said out loud. “That was close.”

Yes, too close. Seconds later, I became aware of a blasting automobile horn. When I opened my front door to find out what was the matter, I was greeted by a sight so odd, it boggled the imagination. The trunk of a white pine tree, which only seconds before had towered over the driveway, was lying across my beloved, 14-year-old, Ford Taurus. My car was nearly buried beneath a cascade of thickly needled branches.

As I would find out later, lightning had zapped the pine tree, and its exploding trunk had landed on my auto. In the process, the snapped-off stump of one limb had shattered my windshield and come to rest quite noisily against the horn on my steering column. It sounded as if Gabriel had arrived for our comeuppance.

Needless to say, this is just the sort of event that can pollute one’s mind for weeks to come, as has happened many times to me. During the minutes following this little catastrophe, I quickly shifted from “Woah, Nelly!” to “Woe is me!”

The temptation, of course, is to wonder why one has been singled out for this singular “act of God,” as insurance companies are wont to call such wonders.

After a few minutes contemplation, however, I was able to redirect my thoughts, even as I was standing there – windblown and rain-drenched – in the debris field. When a friendly and compassionate policeman arrived a few minutes after the lightning strike, his first words were, “As bad as this looks right now, Mr. Creekmore, you were really lucky.”

“You know,” I said to myself, “he’s right on the money. Nobody was hurt. The tree missed the house by inches. I’m insured. The only casualty was property. The accident has no effect on my quality of life. All I lost was a 14-year-old rattle-trap. I was spared life and limb. I mean, how lucky can a guy get?”

It took a lot of will power, perseverance, and True Thought, but in the coming days I was largely able to avoid the whole “woe is me” pigsty in which, let’s face it, human nature likes to wallow. In the end, I turned a bolt from the blue into a windfall.

As usual, Thoreau penned words of wisdom for just such times. “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence – that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

Here’s the heart of the matter: Managing your thoughts, minute by minute, disables the ego and all its destructive meddling in your daily life. By transforming the way you think, you transfigure the way you feel.

To do so, simply form the habit of examining your thoughts, one by one, as they happen. When a negative thought intrudes, allow it to fade away. Just let it go, the way millions of meditators do billions of times per week. Don’t get upset, don’t get angry, don’t get even, don’t judge yourself, don’t feel bad, don’t dwell on it. Just let it go. Then replace it with something healthier, something more fulfilling, something more true. And when you make a good thought bubble up through your mind, one that is inspiring, optimistic, healthy, non-judgmental, kind, or compassionate, let your whole soul percolate.

Is it easy? No way! Is it doable? Absolutely! If I can do it, deeply flawed as I am, so can you.

Now let me give you the opposite point of view, a word from the dark side, which I think illustrates just how potent is the power of ego. This anecdote shows how petty fears take on a life all their own.

In January of 2010, I conducted a sort of experiment in terror. Instead of weeding out all the negativity in my inner dialogue, as I had been training myself to do with True Thought, I deliberately did just the opposite. I began wallowing in my unhealthy thoughts, just to see what would happen. I concentrated on two rather minor romantic rejections; worried about being isolated and alone; fretted about all the rejection slips I’d received in the past few months; focused on the fearful side-effects of failing kidneys that I might be facing in the future; thought about death.

Army Drill Sergeant

The ego is our own personal Drill Sergeant

In short order, I fell into a dark depression. Even though I knew I was playing a mind game with myself, the devilish mood I had summoned up took possession. In the end, I had to invoke a powerful act of the will and a conscious effort to exorcise those terrible thoughts from my mind. Reverse psychology, Untrue Thought, had almost done me in.

My advice: Don’t try this at home, boys and girls.

It just goes to show that ego works the same way Marine boot camp does. It indoctrinates by destroying self-worth, eroding will power, training minds to follow orders mindlessly. The ego is our own personal Drill Sergeant, grilling and hazing and humiliating us until we follow every hurtful dictate it gives us.

Our task, then, is to become conscientious objectors. To dodge the draft created by our egos. Here’s a good illustration.

As a lifelong athlete, I’ve been conditioned to be competitive, even though I despise all that competitiveness engenders. When I’m in an athletic environment, my own competitive instincts rise to the surface like rainbow trout taking feathered flies. That’s because, let’s face it, every gym, every health club, every playing court reeks with the musky odor of testosterone.

For instance, when I’m shooting baskets, I have to block the urge to watch other players out of the corner of my eye to see if I’m better than they are. While running, I need to catch myself when I feel condescending toward other runners. In the pool, I have to put a damper on my urge to compete with swimmers in adjacent lanes. I constantly fight the instinct to look down on less-athletic people than I believe I am.

In other words, I’m an athletic snob.

That’s why, rather than giving in to the obnoxious jock inside, I try to turn each workout into an exercise in human kindness. I swap compassion for arrogance, respect for disdain, admiration for snootiness. What graceful players, what well-conditioned runners, what fine swimmers! These people, after all, are out there living large, putting life and limb on the line, doing the best they can. Exercise hurts. How inspiring that, with every new day, each of these people is setting a new PR for total number of workouts completed!

This is how I exorcise my own muscle-bound devils.

The bottom line is that True Thought takes practice. The kind of disciplined and structured thinking advocated by the Dalai Lama for cultivating happiness is really no different from many practices we take for granted. Take driving, for instance. How did you learn to become a good driver and avoid accidents? The answer is practice. You trained yourself to understand that life is an accident looking for a place to happen.

The same goes for any profession. Can you be a doctor without medical school? A lawyer without the paper chase? Look at teachers, architects, parents, land surveyors, bowlers, train engineers, even professional basketball players; they all need practice. There is discipline, training, and practice in anything we do well.

So why not practice happiness? When I posed this idea of practicing thought editing to one of my friends, she blanched and said, “Why should it take so much work just to be happy?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Why should it take so much work just to be unhappy?”

When in doubt about how to practice editing your thoughts, just remember the words of the old Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song: You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the Affirmative / Don’t mess with Mr. In-between.