“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.” Buddha, Dhammapada
This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since. She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true. If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits. Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.
It is the same for all of us. The past shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire. For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame even when others are not intending to shame us. If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past. As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation. Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment. Being able to spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children. Our brains are hardwired to notice and respond to the threats, real or imagined.
If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past. One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one. Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this. The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present sink into the old pains. To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it. Savor the positive moment. Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past. This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.
The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote. For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing. If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God. Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.” While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish. It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.
For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s book. Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts. As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character. Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts. By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character. One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.
* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.