You control your perception. Let me say that again (because I need to hear it again too). You control your perception. It can be hard to accept this idea as we try to reign in our emotions. They’ve been driving the car, turning the wheel for so long that we sometimes question whether they have consulted us at all.
Dabbling in Buddhist Meditation
Before the pandemic, I was going to weekly Buddhist meditation classes at a local church on Monday nights after work. The class was led by an incredible teacher, an older woman who said she had come to Buddhism late in life, but who was wildly articulate about Buddhist teachings (what’s called dharma). It was almost like sorcery, but somehow she was able to communicate what I thought were very complicated Buddhist teachings into simpler forms that felt doable.
The biggest principle she kept talking about was the concept of delusions. A delusion is a thought that disrupts our ability to see things clearly. It’s a distorted way of looking at ourselves, those around us, and the world. Examples that I relate to the most are anger and fear, and how my thinking gets clouded when these emotions overtake my mind. Delusions disrupt the possibility of having a peaceful state of mind. And it’s said that our moments of suffering are caused by our delusions. Without these thoughts, we are able to experience more happiness.
Some aspect of our unhappiness is caused by the delusions that we let hold space in our mind, and meditation can be a gateway to releasing those delusions and reducing suffering as your mind gets to a greater state of clarity. I like to think of it this way: there is suffering caused by the reality of experiences; the illness of a loved one calls up sadness, anger, or fear in your mind, but the mind can add to that suffering through the messages and perception that you have about your experience. Do you start ruminating? Running a negative narrative through your mind in an unending spin? If so, then calming the mind, and the effect of the delusions on it can help you lessen some of the sadness you feel about the life experience.
When Feelings Aren't Reality
The thoughts that we carry around tend to reinforce the idea that our feelings are our reality and that we (and our feelings) are the center of the universe. In these classes, I was learning to release my self-centered thoughts and recognize that my reality was largely based on these thoughts. These ideas were beginning to rock my world. I was open to taking in these concepts. I wondered if I could get to a place where I quieted my mind so that I could bring it to a more peaceful, happy place which would in turn color my life experiences. Instead of looking outward to find happiness from certain joyful or pleasurable things that might happen to me, I was beginning to realize that I could call about inner peace and build my own happy state.
As a beginner, I’d started testing out the theory on my daily subway rides. I wondered if the way I felt about my crappy, stress-filled ride was related to my mindset (was me hanging onto a negative viewpoint instead of accepting the delay or hassle of the subway as a mere happening). I’m simplifying things ridiculously here, but the idea that I was testing was whether I did have some control over my perception of reality. Was how I saw the world also coloring and shaping it? This is related to the idea that we manifest some of our feelings by staying attached to our concept (usually a negative one) of how the world is operating.
I can only take this so far—there are so many terrible things in the world that objectively I must say are so troubling that I’d have a very, very difficult time thinking about them in a different way. I find it hard to extend this idea of creating my perception to include some of these troubling situations. Politics, war, race relations, homelessness, the list goes on. I guess I find it hard to see how this fits into a more global, societal sense of happiness and peace. Perhaps that isn’t the right way to look at it. Perhaps this is about your personal perception and how it shapes your individual experience.
On a personal level, I can believe that I do have some control over how I perceive my world. How I look at subway delays is within my power to control, and if I can change my perception of some of these smaller hassles and challenges, I can improve my sense of self-direction and peace of mind. With that positive state of mind, I move around the world affecting it in positive ways. Perhaps that’s the global effect in action. It starts out as a personal practice, but its impact can be felt on a larger scale as we interact with the world.
One Shiny Day
Here’s an example of how it played out recently on a personal level. I take the train to Westchester most Sundays to visit my mom who now lives in an Assisted Living facility. It’s a pleasant enough ride, but it means that I have to wake up very early in the morning (on my day off), take two subways to get to Grand Central, take the commuter train, and then walk 20 minutes to the facility. Times two. It’s a long day that’s made better as soon as I lay eyes on my sweet mom. Her smile makes up for it, but I sometimes feel depressed while taking the train. The grey days of winter don’t help. But on the particular day that I wrote the poem I’m sharing with you today, I didn’t see the gray clouds, instead, I saw the sun trying to peak out. I looked at things from a different point of view—from a more positive place, and the ride was better.
I did have some small control over one aspect of the commute. I couldn’t control the alarm going off so early on a Sunday, I couldn’t control the smell of urine in the subway or the dark grey clouds overhead. But I could control what I chose to see from the train car window that day. I saw the sun, and it warmed me up. It brightened my mood. It was also proof that I could have a say in my mood by gaining control of my perception. If I could do it once, I could do it again. Here’s the poem that I wrote that day on the train.
By Jill Hodge
It’s a grey day, I want to say the sky is charcoal but really it’s silver.
Heavy clouds a darker scheme against a shimmer.
That shimmer you ask?
It’s the sun trying to peek out.
The sun’s still there casting through, going long, stretching out.
A sol’s touch to let the grey feel its warm presence.
It may sound like I’m in this grey day, but I’m not.
You should get out too.
I’m observing, thinking about the contrast between this and that day when the sky pierced my eyes and the sting of sun rays made me flinch.
I wasn’t mad. I breathed into it and let the warmth cascade over all of me.
But this grey day is in transition—it’s not even here to stay.
The clouds aren’t serious, they’re simply in the way.
Layers of grey that can’t make up their mind.
Which color will they land on?
They have no claim, no hold on the hue they cast.
They will melt away and be replaced, a placeholder for another day when the sky is shades of sherbet and citrus dances in our hearts.
This sky is trifling, let’s fling it over our shoulders, dump it alongside some dusty road and move on past it.
Don’t let it color your mood, bring you down, make deep thoughts well up out of nothingness.
This grey really wouldn’t speak of grey at all if it weren’t for the sun trying to make it look so.
Remember it’s really silver and silver shines and we shine from its reflection.
Shine on then. Shine on.
Some days after writing the first version of this poem, I happened to listen to Pharrell William’s song Just a Cloud Away (check out this song on the LTVF Season One Music Playlist). He sings about the contrast between our rainy days (those temporary but uncomfortable states of mind) and the sunny days that show up later. Would the sunny days be as powerful, as beautiful, and as uplifting as they are if it weren’t for the grey days? I don’t think so. The contrast makes the sunshine feel that much more special. Sunshine is right around the corner. You may not see it at this moment, but it’s coming for you, and you’ll appreciate it all the more because you’ve known grey days.
5-Minute Meditation & Walks in Nature
How do we start to change our perception of "grey" days? Perhaps bring in some sunshine of our own making by changing our thoughts. Here are two ideas to consider and try out:
- Devote 5 minutes to meditation or stillness and push out all the rumination and negative thoughts. Do a simple breathing meditation. Many of the ideas on this breathing meditation come from the Kadampa Meditation Center in NYC, the group that sponsored the meditation classes I’ve gone to. In this video, you’ll be asked to push out all of your thoughts (as best you can) and give yourself a brief respite from the internal chatter that probably goes on in your head. You’re creating space for yourself, aiming for 5 minutes of peace where you aren’t paying attention to the distracting, usually worrisome thoughts. In those 5 minutes you can begin to get a taste of happier moments.
When you let go of the worrisome thoughts, your mind takes on a peaceful state. Your mind is naturally peaceful when these distracting thoughts aren’t overlaid or embedded in it. Other key points from the video include experimenting with morning meditation. Do a breathing meditation in the morning and then take that naturally peaceful meditative state with you throughout the day. Try to carry it with you as your day unfolds. As you check in with yourself throughout the day, notice when the peace leaves you, and think about which situations disrupt your peace. We can tackle those situations later, but for now, we are just focusing on moments of peace. Moments of control over our thinking empower us to know that we can do it (even if only for a few moments at a time at first). There’s some good stuff in this little video. Have a listen and start meditative breathing for 5 minutes each morning. Give yourself a chance to start the day with a peaceful mind, and watch your moments of happiness grow.
- Another way I seek out and find a more positive state of mind is through my daily walks in nature. I’m lucky enough to live within a 30-minute walk of where I work. I walk to and from work every day. The morning walk wakes me up and helps me set good intentions for the day. Some mornings I listen to music (mostly hip hop) on some playlist I’ve created. On other days I walk to work and practice mindful walking. Sometimes I list things I’m grateful for or focus on my steps in a sort of meditative walk. I look around and enjoy the nature around me (surprisingly easy to find in NYC if you look).
The morning walk sets the stage for a good day, it wakes up my senses and lets me know that I am part of something greater than myself. It decentralizes my thoughts and opens me up to interact with the world in a positive way. After a long day at work, my walk home is usually interrupted by negative, stressful thoughts. Sometimes I ruminate over situations I wished had played out differently during the day. I usually feel angry, the delusions are starting to kick up—fear, anger, frustration. The walk home is more about releasing those negative states of mind to free me up to transition back home with a sense of resolution and some calm. Usually, by the time I get home, I’m ready to give up the negative thoughts and take some time for myself.
I don’t always have control over my thoughts. Some days it’s hard to see the silver shine. But the glisten and glimmer is there if I call it up. Maybe I won’t be able to do it today, but I will someday. The glimmer will be that much richer because I have endured the darkness and grey.
Journal Prompts for a Sunnier Perception
Here are two journal prompts. Think about them, write about them, and get in touch with your feelings:
Until next time, don’t forget to stay on the bright side of the beat. 🌞
Music: My thanks to all the musicians who make incredible music and have the courage to put it out into the world. All music for my podcast is sourced and licensed for use via Soundstripe.
Songs in this episode:
Sunshine by Kev; Winning Streak by JessGuy; Low Fidelity by Tide Electric; “Pyaar Kee Seemaen” by Cast of Characters
LTVF Season One Music Playlist: Check out the songs that inspire me, and connect with artists from many genres who add to our collective, human soundtrack.
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