By Jeffrey Brantley, MD
There is a wisdom saying that points to the power of our thoughts and emotions to shape our perceptions and reactions in each moment. One version of the saying is: “Mind upholds the world.”
Of course, this statement could mean many things, but it can be useful to reflect on it from the position of the present moment, resting in awareness and becoming mindful of your thoughts and emotions, and your personality’s view about who and what you are, and who others are. If you wished, you could make the statement that a mindfulness practice — pausing to notice frequently throughout the day — helps you to observe exactly how your “mind” is upholding your world. You could also notice others closely, such as when they act from anger or fear, and recognize and understand how what happens in their mind upholds their world, moment by moment.
Psychologists have found that people suffering from chronic depression tend — significantly more often than others not suffering from depression — to assign incorrect and self-critical meaning in social situations that can be interpreted different ways. For example, if a person with chronic depression sees someone across the street from them whom they think they know and waves at them, and that person does not wave back, the depressed person will tend to fall into painful inner ruminations such as “no one likes me” or “I am worthless” or perhaps even “maybe I should just kill myself.” In the same situation, a person who is not chronically depressed would be much more likely to say something to themselves such as “that must not have been who I thought it was” or “guess they didn’t see me” and move on without becoming lost in negative feelings or self-critical, despairing thoughts. You might say the depressed person has been hijacked by the beliefs they hold deeply inside about their own unworthiness and unattractiveness. In a moment, those beliefs colored their perception of a situation, suddenly presenting to them — creating and upholding through a very personal interpretation — a world of painful rejection simply because the person across the street did not respond to their waving.
Familiar examples of this hijacking and distortion of perceived experience by deeply held opinions or intense emotions are common for almost everyone. How often do we fail to hear a loved one’s comments because our thoughts (and attention) are far away? How many times when faced with a leadership decision, have we overlooked an important detail, judged someone too harshly, or made a too hasty comment because we were distracted and driven by demanding inner thoughts, incorrect opinions, or strong emotions?
Thoughts and emotional reactions are a form of conditioning. We were not born with strong opinions and thoughts about anything, or the intense emotions connected with them. We have acquired and formed our opinions and beliefs through our personal history of experiences with others and the world. And, through this learned experience, the beliefs and views we store and hold arise repeatedly in the present moment to shape our on-going experience of ourselves, others, and the world, and how we interact and interpret those interactions. To say “mind upholds the world” is a way of saying that we perceive the world through the lens of our learning and the conditioning process of our life. Thoughts, views, and mind states can become biases, and be rigidly held, seem solid, and be often incorrect.
Rather than identifying with a thought, view, or mind state, in any moment, you can instead turn towards awareness — being gently receptive, listening and noticing — becoming more aware of external things like sounds and smells, and more sensitive and conscious of what is happening inside, like thoughts and feelings. Witnessing with relaxed attention, noting what is present and how it feels, as particular thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, and sensations, in this moment, arise and impinge upon your consciousness. Being mindful, you are making space inside and observing, allowing things to be just as they are in this moment. If it helps, as you are noticing, you might remind yourself patiently, kindly, and repeatedly: It’s like this.
Mindfulness and meditation are the beginning of breaking down the conditioning process, of freeing us from the habits of past learning, and making us more available to see clearly and respond effectively in the present moment.
Here is a brief mindfulness practice you can use to explore for yourself how “mind upholds the world.”
Pause at different times in your busy day to be mindful of your experience — noticing the context around you, and including your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions in awareness also. Gathering attention and steadying it with a light focus on a bodily sensation like the breathing, or the sensations in your feet if you are walking or moving, allow yourself to be open and receptive to the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. It is good enough simply to notice the thoughts; you don’t have to control them, make them go away, or add to them. As you are noticing, pay attention to any emotions that may be present with your thoughts — feelings of anger, impatience, joy, or anticipation, for example. As you practice noticing your thoughts and emotions more often throughout the day, also notice how the thoughts uphold the emotion, or the emotions fuel the thoughts. Can you notice the ways a thought train you are having is affecting your view of others and the world around you? For example, if you are having worried thoughts, do others seem more threatening? If you are having happy thoughts, do people seem friendlier? In any moment, how are your habit patterns of thinking and feeling upholding your perception of the immediate and specific world around you?
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, DLFAPA, is a physician, psychiatrist, mindfulness and meditation teacher, and author. He is an assistant consulting professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University Medical Center, and is a founding faculty member of Duke Integrative Medicine, where he started and directed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) for fifteen years. He currently continues with Duke Integrative Medicine as a consultant, and leads or co-leads programs in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Training for Professionals, and mindfulness based programming. His most recent book, with Wendy Millstine, is Daily meditations for calming your angry mind: mindfulness practices to free yourself from anger, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California, 2015. His website is: http://www.calmingyourangrymind.com
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