I want to do a better job at thinking my thoughts. Can you relate?
Sometimes it feels like modern society pushes us across the surface of life’s water like one of those tremendously powerful speed boats. These boats can move from point A to point B with an incredible speed; but they often crash, produce a cacophonous roar, and completely disrupt the natural order of things.
I long to be more like a slow canoe that sits more deeply into the water—where the occasional swoosh of a paddle and droplets of water falling back into the lake are the only audible sounds created. The fish below aren’t bothered by its passing; and the movement is steady and sustainable.
So how does one move through life more like a slow canoe? I suppose there are many possibilities and a variety of good answers (I would love to hear yours); but today I want to share one thing that has been helpful for me in recent months. It is a simple form of reflection called philosophical meditation.
The basic idea behind philosophical meditation* is to think your thoughts more completely. All too often our thoughts flash through our heads like someone changing radio stations. There is a lot of static, music, talk, and noise but most of it comes through so rapidly that it is experienced as incomprehensible nonsense. The content is all there but we never stay with it long enough to listen to the whole song or appreciate the narrative of the story. Philosophical meditation focuses on three categories: upset, anxiety, and excitement. The process goes like this:
1. Once a day, clear a 20 minute stretch of time. Sit comfortably with a journal and ask yourself three initial questions:
- what am I currently upset about?
- what am I currently anxious about?
- what am I currently curious or excited about?
Jot down a few things under each of these categories (or just choose one that you want to focus on) but keep the answer deliberately unprocessed, just a word or so. Your list will be incomprehensible to anyone else but it will make sense to you and that’s what matters.You’re likely to have between two to three words under each of the three categories.
2. Then, drill systematically into each category (Upset, Anxiety, Excitement) using the questions below.
QUESTIONS FOR UPSET:
- Retell yourself the upsetting incident in great detail as if you were telling it to an extremely kind and patient friend.
- What scared you about the incident?
- You’ve been hurt. It’s normal to be hurt. How have you been hurt?
- What good part of yourself feels in danger?
- How might a nice person have ended up doing what this person did to you? If they weren’t actively mean, what other explanations could there be for the hurt they have caused?
- If this were to carry on, what might be the catastrophe?
- What are you afraid might happen if this were to continue?
- Have you been affected like this before?
- If you had to pin down an incident in the past that this somehow reminds you of, what would it be? Is there a pattern here?
- If this had happened to a friend, how would you advise them?
- What might you be able to learn from this upset?
QUESTIONS FOR ANXIETY:
- Tell the story of the coming anxious period in great detail and say exactly what you imagine might go wrong?
- What would happen to you if it all went wrong?
- If this thing were to keeping getting worse, then…
- The danger here is that…
- How might you still be OK, even if it was all absolutely terrible?
- How would the person you’d like to be ideally deal with this situation?
- What previous situation does this remind you of? Have you been in something like this before?
- What happened in the past?
- What helped in the past
QUESTIONS FOR EXCITEMENT:
- Describe your excitement as if to a sympathetic, interested friend.
- You need to change your life in certain ways: what would it be to change your life in the light of this?
- What are the good things contained here?
- Humans have an impulse towards growth: what call to growth is here in a garbled form?
- This exciting thing holds a clue to what is missing in my life; what might be missing?
- When else have you felt something similar?
- If this thing could talk, what might it tell me?
- If this thing could try to change my life, what changes might it advise?
- If other parts of my life were more like this, what might they be like?
The process won’t magically solve everything, but it will allow you to hear the whole story and listen to the whole song. Then, after your thoughts have some depth to them, you can then discern the next course of action.The process itself is a sort of slow canoe trip down the river of your current thoughts and experiences.
*Original content adapted from The School of Life.
I created three different downloadable versions of the above steps that you can download for your reference and personal use.
Full page: Simple full page PDF.
Bookmarks: Bookmarks with a condensed version of these steps that you can cut and keep in different places or share with a friend.
Foldable brochure: Print and fold in half for a brochure that you can tuck into your journal or notebook.
- What are some practices that help you slow down and notice what you are thinking and experiencing in a day?
- What resources do you wish you had to help you along in your journey?