Tall grass encroached on the patio steps. Weeds burrowed through the cracks in the driveway. The wooden steps creaked an elongated moan as if it were sighing its last breath. The only thing that matched that horrid sound was the front door. Opened, it revealed the dust-covered insides of the once beautiful manor. Cracks slithered along the walls. Bulbs hung limply from above, no longer able to cast their brilliant glow. The furniture inside was looted or broken, torn apart for firewood whose ashes and smoke embedded themselves in the deepest corners of the house.
The memory of his childhood house was all but forgotten, contrasted with the ruined rubble he saw in front of him.
I often imagine our mind as a house, not unlike the one described above. Well, hopefully, the edges are cut, the weed is plucked, the cracks are taken care of and the floors are mopped. But it isn’t so always. Our minds aren’t always orderly. In fact, I’d reckon the opposite is true for most people. I know it has been for me where my thoughts have run wild and broken a few windows here and there, spilled something sticky on the carpet, and maybe even caused a couple of house fires.
This seems to be a law of nature. If you don’t consciously and actively attempt to keep something in order, chaos will eventually take over. Thoughts have a chaotic nature to them. Sometimes they spark up out of nowhere and present you with a life-altering idea and other times they make dents in the preverbal drywall of your mind by telling you that you’re not good enough or distracting you from the uncomfortable and difficult task at hand with comfortable dreams and procrastinating urges.
Both of which are so easy to give in to.
And it seems as if the internal housekeeping issue has been relevant as long as people have been around. Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 and before he passed away in 1926, he wrote some of the most brilliant pieces of advice that strike right at the core of what it is like being a human being. One such piece of advice comes from his Letters to a Young Poet where he brings up the importance of taming your thoughts to be your ally instead of an obstacle.
And your doubts can become a good quality if you school them. They must grow to be knowledgeable, they must learn to be critical. As soon as they begin to spoil something for you ask them why a thing is ugly, demand hard evidence, test them, and you will perhaps find them at a loss and short of an answer, or perhaps mutinous.
What Rilke is talking about is that our thoughts can be amateurish. Infantile. They can lack a depth of meaning and yet when we have such thoughts, we believe them.
When our thoughts tell us we’re not good enough as we’re about to attempt something difficult, we allow them to change our actions. When we dream of something grand, our thoughts stick their leg out and try to make us fall over. And we fall for that centuries-old trick. When we plan to change a bad habit, our thoughts immediately dwell on the very thing we are trying to change and we give into it almost immediately.
Or maybe I’m projecting my own missteps and failure to keep a trimmed lawn.
What Rilke says is true, though. When you have thoughts that lean towards breaking something inside of your house, if you just take a moment to observe them and question them, you can make them understand what to do and what not to do.
Like children, our thoughts can be receptive. If approached correctly. You get angry at them and maybe out of fear they might obey for a moment but eventually, they will go back to their disrupting ways. But if you try to make them think, make them answer a few questions, and break down their motives and logic, then perhaps they can also mature, as do most things in nature.
I have a recent anecdote related to this method that might make it easier to understand.
I was set to do a fartlek workout, which is a 20-minute speed play workout where you run at a faster than your normal speed for 3 minutes and to a more comfortable pace for 2 minutes and you do this 4 times. I had just started my workout when a thought popped up in my head.
“Let’s just do two rounds today.”
The offer was pretty enticing, I can’t lie. But when I questioned this thought, the best answer it could come up with was that I still had a few other things on the to-do list for the day and it was already 6 pm.
Not the worst reasoning.
But when I questioned that reasoning further, I found my thoughts had no answer for why I couldn’t complete my workout and do the things left on my to-do list. Their logic was flawed. I would just have to be more time efficient once I was done with the workout. After that was settled between the two of us, my thoughts became more focused on the task at hand and I had one of my best workouts in several weeks.
And afterward, I had plenty of time to tick off the last couple of things I had left to do. With no interference from the noisy roommate.
This maturation through observation, dissection, and questioning can transform our thoughts from causing havoc inside our heads to strengthening the foundation of our home.
But do not give in, request arguments, and act with this kind of attentiveness and consistency every single time, and the day will come when instead of being demolishers they will be among your best workers — perhaps the canniest of all those at work on the building of your life.
I used to have an antagonistic view of my thoughts. I saw them as an enemy to overcome and once I did that, my life would fall into order and all my dreams will come true and I would live happily ever after.
But life isn’t a fairy tale. Or at least not your typical Disney movie.
Instead, a change of perspective helped me view my thoughts in a different light. Each time my mind acts up and tries to persuade me to break a plate or a cup or maybe even throw a football through the window, in other words, wishes for me to skip my routine, or repeat a behaviour I’m trying to break or wants to cut a productive activity short, I see it as a challenge. As if my mind is challenging me to see if I have the discipline and courage to continue down the path that I have set for myself. In that sense, my mind is my ally. It is constantly putting these mini-challenges in my way to make sure I stay firm and ready in case a big, unexpected challenge comes my way.
Before I would have cursed my thoughts. I would have blamed them for making me mess up. I would have given them the responsibility of my life.
But with the change of perspective, and through questioning, I’m grateful for my thoughts and through this gratitude, I find my thoughts working alongside me, strengthening my resolve and aiding me in the household chores.
Source: Letters To A Young Poet By Rainer Maria Rilke