It’s certainly easier said than done, but I’ve begun to understand an ancient insight: that when I encounter circumstances that I am unable to change, I don’t have to consider myself helpless. Even when I have to face situations that I can’t control, I am free to change how I react to them.
But can we do anything about our thoughts, those slippery visitors that seem to already have a foothold inside us before we even notice them? Do thoughts offer an opening for us to change how we respond to them? This is an important question, since thoughts, feelings and sensations are important components of our lives. If anything, my inner realm affects my peace of mind more deeply than any external event could ever do on its own. Since I am no more able to affect which memories show up, than I can escape the effects of climate change, I would dearly love to influence how I react to those visitors, which have the power to define my world.
Have you ever noticed how unoriginal our thoughts can be? It’s as if I have a rolodex in my mind that keeps placing robocalls. Perhaps they’re not random and the wind that blows them in at all hours of the day is following a divine plan. I just know that those calls aren’t under my command.
One element that suggests that these cycling thoughts are not completely random is that they always relate to my own life. I never feel that I’m being visited by someone else’s thoughts and feelings or that they are driven by someone else’s memories, fears or intentions. I never feel that someone else’s experience has found its way into my rolodex—as might happen if a strong wind caused several rolodexes to tumble onto the floor, leaving me to pick up unfamiliar index cards that are scattered at my feet.
I always recognize the personal memories, sensations and intentions at play. Even when I feel a “pang of conscience” (which Gurdjieff called the last bit of sanity in the modern human mind), it is my conscience that I feel panging.
What about empathy? A friend of mine, Stephen, who passed on earlier this year, claimed that ‘empathy’ is only ‘sympathy’ with a grandiose title, since we can’t know what it’s like to be another person. I prefer to scale back my idea of ‘empathy’ to something that is potentially achievable. I think of empathy as the realization that another human being isn’t able to experience the fulfillments that I am able to enjoy. When I realize that the difficulties that others have to bear are more painful than my own, two benefits can arise. I feel grateful that I have been spared their pain; and my heart reaches out, if only a little way and for a limited time, towards a space in which such unfairness doesn’t exist. In that space I am not alone, whatever regrets and doubts may wash up onto the shorelines of my mind and heart.