Right this second you are doing something worthwhile: you are not thinking about yourself.
There are usually better things to do than self-inspection. If the inward look were producing self-knowledge or healing, I’d encourage you. Too often, however, the rusty mind is just sawing wood for a building that will never be built. This is a ruinous misuse of sawdust.
We need time off from looking into the psychic house of mirrors we are trapped in: the head.
No one is the center of the world despite having been engineered to believe otherwise. Therein resides much unhappiness. Once one grasps this human design flaw, correction doesn’t require a factory recall. With a little tinkering, achieving a share of happiness becomes easier.
First, let’s define the dilemma, then address the remedies. Except for the golden few who view life as comic, we all suffer from it. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
We are in solitary confinement, able to see only through our eyes, and hear the internal voice alone, save an occasional hallucination.
Our life is all we have, and the one perspective we are born with. No hiding place is offered, nor a different vantage point. Every event is personal in its impact, however indifferent were the fates delivering it.
Without resilience, courage, and a capacity to deflect life’s arrows or ignore the pain, the internal questioning begins. Replaying the dead past endlessly does not generate happiness. The world’s hard knocks require a rebound: a return to the game. Weeks or months of self-preoccupation only exacerbate the wound.
I am not talking about real soul-searching or the best psychotherapy, either of which can untie the ropes binding us. Nor the torment of tragedy. Rather, endless rumination that is like running around a track until the path you’ve worn becomes a deepening trench leading in a circle.
How much do we matter, really? Are we worth the self-preoccupation? Might we not do better to spend time more productively, more joyously, more helpful to ourselves or others?
Our lives come and go. The world rotates without assistance. Will rejection by a potential mate be recorded in any history book? Will winning a promotion or losing a job influence the war in Syria?
George Elliot wrote in Middlemarch:
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy it: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory (of the world) we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
Approximately 360,000 births occur daily and almost 152,000 deaths. It is a wonder newborns aren’t packed and delivered by the gross on a United Parcel Service truck. We are each too common. Few of us will be remembered, even as a footnote, in 100 years’ time.
The only one who gets marked in a memorable fashion is usually the person who holds the pen and writes on his internal self, a screen to which no one else has access. He marks himself and he mars himself.
Most of us can do better. No, this doesn’t mean we must accomplish wonderful things or produce famous children.
One should recognize that most events are “below the level of tragedy except (in) the passionate egoism of the sufferer,” (again, George Elliot’s words). We are no different from our fellow-man, who might cheer our escape from a too severe view of life, and benefit by a helping hand.
Do not be ashamed if you find yourself stuck on your own internal reflection. Nature made you so. How then to take yourself less seriously?
- Sitting alone and inactive breeds claustrophobic thoughts the way a cesspool breeds mosquitos. Get out of the house.
- Consider reading Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher. Epicureans have gotten a bad rap, thought to be self-indulgent louts. They did prefer pleasure over pain, but applauded honor, as well. The Stoics, including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, are also worth attention. Their words, read as a regular discipline and reminder, may reduce feeling sorry for oneself.
- Mindfulness meditation, if practiced daily, can put you in the moment and cut the strings to thoughts pulling you inside.
- The Bible and other old religious texts reflect on the state of being human, even for the unfaithful. Of particular note are the “wisdom books” of the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
- Consider public speaking (Toastmasters) and training in improvisation. The latter develops the ability to listen and react, not stay inside your head and generate what you should say in advance.
- Generosity with time and money in ways small and large is a method for improving your mood, the well-being of the other, and increase your focus outside yourself.
- Socialize and laugh.
- Make a daily list of things you are grateful for.
- More thinking about yourself will not solve the problem of over thinking about yourself!!! This might seem obvious, but many people stuck in endless ruminations reflexively turn to more internal cud-chewing as a solution to their dilemma.
- Examine ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) instead. This form of treatment, unlike most types of cognitive behavioral healing, engages you less “in your head,” and more through non-linguistic means including acceptance, meditation, and action.
In the end, we come back to where we started: man is not the center of the universe, he only thinks so. To realize you’re not that important is both a curse and a blessing. The humility thereby produced will allow you to experiment on yourself rather than churn inside or cower in the shadows.
Unless you are capable of making history and enduring the cost of that worthy attempt, the possibility of less self-imposed unhappiness is available. Do your part, do your best — don’t do yourself in. A quiet mind can be enhanced by finding a humble place in the world.
Then, the next time someone says you are “out of your mind,” you will smile and say thank you.
The rabbit photo is called A Bunny Too Serious, by Laura Rantala. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Another thought provoking article, Dr. Stein. Lots to chew on. I stand accused.
Most of us are with you in the role of defendant, Rosaliene. In writing this, I hoped to reframe the conventional overvaluation of the importance of the many disappointments present in any life. I do not diminish the worth of any life or the tragedy experienced by some individuals. Excess rumination, however, serves us poorly. The message might sound unsympathetic to some. At bottom, I would ask those who feel unfairly singled out to look at the cost of spending too much time in their head. To be “out of your mind,” (literally, not focused on yourself) is difficult to achieve, but worth the effort.