Get Out Of Your Head
Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, first published in 1914. They form a depiction of Irish middle-class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. They center on Joyce’s idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character experiences self-understanding or illumination. In one of the short stories entitled “ A Painful Case” Joyce writes “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”. Joyce goes on to describe the ramifications of being disconnected.
Over a century later, we continue to be a culture that lives a short distance from our bodies. One doesn’t have to look too far to observe others living a short distance from their body. In ANY place where people are waiting, what is the ratio of people on their phones vs. interacting with others?
In today’s culture, I’d argue we disconnect from our bodies to live in our heads. When clients tell me they’re panicking about something, I often ask them, “How do you know?” They look at me quizzically and reply, “Because I can’t stop freaking out about (insert catastrophic thought).” The conversation usually proceeds as such:
Me: “Right, but what symptoms in your body are telling you to panic?”
Them: “Well, nothing. But I can’t stop thinking about (insert future event).”
When we live in our heads, our vision is limited to thoughts of past or future, and we invite suffering.
Nothing much good comes from thinking too much. In high school, my pitching coach used to tell me, “Kristen, you pitch much better when you’re not thinking.
Stop thinking about the pitch – your body becomes mechanical. Just feel the pitch and let your body do it.” Back then, I heard this comment as somewhat insulting and mostly confusing. Not think? How is that even possible? But he was right. The times I could just be in the moment vs. rehearsing the outcome, I pitched with greater accuracy and speed.
The goal is not to stop thinking. In fact, the wisdom traditions call this the “noble failure.” We cannot control our minds. But we can shift gears. We can shift our attention from the reflexive mental chatter that continually fires through the mind, to having awareness of the fact that we are having thoughts. It is important to acknowledge that we have thoughts, but we are not our thoughts. We also have feelings, senses, and choice as to where we direct and re-direct our awareness.
Here’s an example. The first paragraph is 30 seconds of following the thoughts in my head: Seriously!? Is the temperature really 3 degrees? 3 degrees! Oh, how I hate winter. It’s too cold to do anything outside. Everyone is stuck inside. Here comes cabin fever. Speaking of fever, I think my throat hurts. I wonder if I’m getting sick now too. Great. I don’t have time to be sick. Next week is so busy! And I have so much to get done….
Here’s 30 seconds of directing my awareness outward to sight, sound, touch etc: Seriously!? Is the temperature really 3 degrees? I’m grateful for the seat warmers in my car. The sun sure is bright though reflecting off the snow. Bright is quite beautiful. And the cool air smells fresh. I can really feel the crispness as I breathe in and out. Is that Mr. Thompson shoveling all the sidewalk down our street? What kindness on our block!
Which existence would you choose? The mind-made reality or the living outward? In a mind-made reality, thoughts tend to spiral and catastrophize. The mind can’t help but fixate on the negative, and it’s really not productive. As Joyce explored in 1914, there are ramifications of living disconnected. Being in our body however, in the present and looking outward, even if it’s 3 degrees, opens us to more possibility and something more productive. Living in the body and looking outward really is the only path to self-understanding and illumination.