“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”Henry David Thoreau – Walden
I am a recovering chronic negative thinker with a powerful comparing mind. For many years, I was that fault-finder that Thoreau mentions in the Walden quote above. I can look at any situation in my life and find a problem with it. Even in my most successful moments, in my greatest victories, I can find some area where I fell short of my own expectations or some reason why I don’t deserve any praise.
Over the years, I’ve learned to watch this negative thinking without always giving in to it. Learning to simply watch and observe your thoughts can be an amazing thing. With time and practice, you can distance your own identity from your thoughts. You are not your thoughts and those thoughts will eventually pass through your mind, like clouds across the sky.
In watching my own negative thinking, I started to see patterns and recurring themes that arise again and again. For me, probably the greatest cause for despair and self-criticism is comparing my reality to my thoughts and ideas about how things should be, rather than how they really are. I think of “better” choices that I “could have” made with information I didn’t even have at the time or ideas that had never occurred to me. It’s really quite silly when I look at it in the light of awareness but when I’m in what I like to call a “negativity spiral,” nothing seems good and I can’t see anything outside of my own perceived shortcomings and faults.
I have found only one reliable way to work with this tendency toward negative thinking: check my facts and come back to the present moment. I need to meet my life as it really is here and now and focus on living it instead of comparing it to some unrealistic idea I have in my head. All too often, my negative thinking is based on some fictional reality I’ve made up that almost seems authored to make me feel bad about what I do have. Learning to see through that story is a lifetime practice for me. It’s not a one-and-done, I need to constantly come back to my life just as it is and live it rather than looking at what it “could” be or “should” be.
Another, more famous quote from Thoreau has been especially powerful for me:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”Thoreau – Walden
To live life deliberately, mindfully is a practice that I take up every day on my journey through life. When challenges and difficulties arise, I do my best to take them on as opportunities to practice and learn. I’m not perfect or enlightened. I have many days that go by before I realize I’ve been caught up in my stories and occasionally it takes a close friend to help me wake up a bit. But, each time, I learn a little bit more and my practice deepens. To me, that’s why we call it “practice:” coming back to the present moment, to the reality of our lives is something we do again and again through good times and bad every day of our lives.