“Glimpses of love and joy or brief moments of deep peace are possible whenever a gap occurs in the stream of thought.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Eleven years ago I read a book that was life changing for me. It taught me something I never considered during the previous twenty-nine years—that I could change my thoughts.
The book was Loving What Is, by Byron Katie. It set me forth on a journey that included dozens of books that communicated the same thing: We think the same thoughts all day long, over and over, and many of them are negative, filled with worry, and not at all helpful. And we have the power to change those thoughts.
I’ve lived by that belief ever since—that I have the power to change my thoughts and that reframing negative thoughts to better ones makes my life happier.
This year, though, I hit a wall. Although my life and confidence and sense of self have improved tremendously in the past decade, some things were still not as I wished them to be.
I felt unhappy much more often than I would have liked. I felt a low level anxiety on and off most days. I worried about money frequently. I just didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel.
I kept reading more books. I kept trying to find a way to be consistently positive. I remember one weekend when I was feeling down I just repeated positive phrases to myself over and over all day long, but felt like I was barely keeping my head above water.
In fact, it was the very next day that I hit a breaking point. My mind was tired from trying so, so hard to be positive all the time. I was struggling to keep it together and to stay upbeat.
That morning I took my daughter to her swimming lesson, the first after a weeklong break, and things started to unravel. I wasn’t sitting where she expected me to be, she got upset, and after she found me, she clung to me. She wouldn’t get back in the water. She wouldn’t do what I wanted.
I got frustrated. I got angry. In fact, when I looked back over the previous few weeks, I saw I’d been getting angry a lot lately. It was as if the harder I pushed myself to be positive, the more resentful I got about what I didn’t have.
Eventually I calmed down. I brought my daughter home but still felt tied up in knots. I expressed anger to my husband, I cried, I felt out of control.
By the next day the fog had lifted. I knew I couldn’t keep going like I had been. I knew forcing myself to try to be positive all the time was not the answer and was completely unsustainable for the long term.
That’s when I picked up my copy of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I’ve had this book on my shelf for probably that entire eleven years I was trying to change my thoughts, but I’d never read it. I guess I just wasn’t ready for it.
Tolle tells the reader what he knows to be the truth: What’s happening in this moment is the only thing that’s ever real, and the only thing that ever matters. The mind wants us to worry about the future and ruminate about the past. But that is what keeps us disconnected, and separate from inner peace.
I finally felt, deeply, what I’d been missing for all those years: That for me to feel completely free I didn’t need to keep trying to think positively, I needed to stop attaching to my thoughts at all.
This has been such an enormous shift for me that it’s hard for me to even put it into words. I spent so much time, so much energy, trying to reframe thoughts, to question if they were true, to choose thoughts that felt better, and now I feel free from that.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reframing your thoughts. Nothing at all. It did improve my life, and it will improve yours if you’re used to believing everything your thoughts tell you.
But, for me at least, it’s no longer the way to a better life. Noticing my thoughts and just letting them go by brings me greater inner peace than I have ever felt.
Here’s what I’m doing differently now that I’ve had this realization.
I’m no longer setting specific goals. I’m a bit start-and-stop on setting goals anyway, but for now I’ve just stopped setting them completely. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to get things done, it just means I’m not putting a lot of energy into letting my mind come up with a big list of things it “should” be doing.
None of that really means anything. Yes, making more money or being more “successful” in my work might mean more travel or newer shoes, but that does not lead to sustained peace.
Being right here, observing what’s happening in this moment, is what leads to sustained peace.
I’m not trying to think positively. This is a big change and a positive one for me (oh, the irony!). Trying to think positively all the time was truly energy draining for me.
This non-attachment to thought, though, is peaceful. It’s not easy, and it does take some effort, but I don’t feel like I’m trying to push an elephant through a keyhole with my mind anymore. Having glimpses of being truly present is fun and joyful.
I’m coming back to the present moment over and over and over again. I’ve been saying “be here now” and “be mindful” for years now, but I’m not sure I really, truly got what that meant.
What it means to me now is this: Breathe in and notice what it feels like. Notice what the inside of your body feels like. Look around you but don’t make judgments about what you see. When thoughts start to fill in the empty spaces, stop them. Refocus on what’s happening in this exact moment.
I’m noticing when my mind is racing. In the past, I’d probably try to think happier thoughts. If my head was full of thoughts about how much I had to get done, I’d try to soothe myself with “I have time to do what’s most important” or something similar.
Now when I notice my mind is racing, I see it as a reminder to get back to the present moment. If my mind is running away with thoughts, then I’m mostly definitely not in the here and now.
I breathe. I look around. I see that my mind doesn’t want to stop thinking. It’s afraid to lose its job.
No matter what you choose, if you want to live a more peaceful life, you’re going to have to make a change.
You may choose to observe your thoughts and then switch them to ones that feel better. Or, like I’ve done recently, you may choose to go beyond your thoughts to the moment that’s unfolding right now. To stop letting your thoughts, good or bad, have any power over your life.