Friday, September 5, 2014

Deep Thoughts

By Mahlia Lindquist

If thoughts were countries, on the average day mine would range from bland Canadian to ugly American to psychotic North Korean. One of my ongoing projects is to create a United Nations of the mind, where thoughts peacefully coexist, so that I might extend my attention span beyond 5 minutes. 

It started with meditation classes at Boulder’s Shambhala Center. The word Shambhala sounds weird, but compared to traditions that include a virgin birth, parting of the sea or sacred underwear, it is positively mundane. From what I know about the Bible, Koran and Torah they are confusing and kind of scary. Ruling Your World, and the other Shambhala texts, take a more simplified, practical, and positive approach to spirituality. I especially appreciate that the Shambhala teachings don’t have anything against homosexuals, dancing, caffeine, sex or alcohol, all of which have an important place in my life.

The one sticking point for me is the Shambhala tenet that we all have basic goodness. It’s hard to imagine people like Hitler, Stalin, or Glenn Beck as having even a modicum of good. While I still don't totally get basic goodness, a group that believes humans are fundamentally okay is infinitely preferable to one that preaches we are inherently sinful. 

What really sold me on Shambhala is its emphasis on mindfulness, which they say will help rein in my thoughts and cultivate a gentler attitude toward shameless cretins who finagle a handicapped permit even though they are perfectly healthy. While I welcome the opportunity to a be a nicer person, that is a secondary benefit to being able to focus long enough to balance my checkbook.

One way to cultivate mindfulness is through meditation, which is usually done by sitting and focusing on the breath. This is surprisingly difficult because of the members of the United Nations vying for attention. Another way to cultivate mindfulness is to go about the day, observing and taking note of thoughts without trying to judge, censor or control them.

On the way to my friend Kathleen’s wedding in Boulder last week, I decided to give it a go.  I would simply observe each thought from the time that I got out of the car until I got back in. 

When subject to close scrutiny, it turns out my my thoughts are an incoherent, running commentary that to the untrained ear might sound like, “blah, blah, blah.” They went something like this…

As I got out of the car: 

Is the taboo against guests wearing white to a wedding still a thing?… Maybe this dress was a bad idea … come on Mahlia, don’t be so shallow, think serious thoughts, the miracle of life, global warming … Geez, my hands looks awful, why didn’t I get a manicure, it’s not like I don’t have the time for heaven’s sake… Mahlia, you really need to get a job… It’s so beautiful here, I must have been temporally insane when I moved to Miami …

That was within the first 2.3 seconds. It was going to be a long, tedious night at this rate.

As I walked into the party:  

"This is awkward, I don’t see anyone I know… maybe I will feel less anxious if I plow myself with alcohol  … Oh, there’s Jill thank goodness, a friend… wow, Kathleen looks so beautiful and radiant (hallelujah, finally a worthy thought) … this sure is different from Miami, I don’t see anyone dressed like a hootchie mama… ”

Sitting down to dinner:

Geez, another uncomfortable moment, not a single name I recognize at my table  … I should text Zoe and remind her to play her cello … at least the guy sitting to my right is good looking, though that does not bode well for dazzling conversation… maybe I should have brought someone ... hey, he's actually charming and funny … darn, good manners dictate I also chat with the person to my left…. argh, is it possible to die of boredom in ten minutes or less?… Mahlia, be nice and grow up …  

Walking back to my car alone, it was much easier to notice thoughts:  

Kathleen and Craig are such a beautiful couple… I should NOT have told that woman her claim to be awful with names is an excuse for disinterest … if she just hadn’t said was too busy concentrating on a person’s energy to remember names I could have resisted … why, oh why, did I over-share with the charming man at my table, it really was unnecessary, not to mention unattractive, to admit to my habit of skipping showers …

In thinking about my thoughts at the wedding that night, I got sort of depressed. They were so trite and superficial. Worse yet, boring. So boring in fact, they could be used in place of water-boarding to torture enemies of the state. Even more boring than the guy to the left at dinner who inspired thoughts of suicide. 

Oh yes, did I mention, many of my thoughts were unkind?

The good news is that in the world according to Shambhala, good, bad or boring, I am not my thoughts. 

The  other good news is that I was able to balance my checkbook yesterday.


  1. hilarious!
    And if you are not your thoughts, who are you then? can you be you, without thoughts?

  2. Hi Alberto! Yes, our thoughts are definitely a comedy show when you think about it. I'm not sure that I'm up to the task of explaining the notion of self. Check out this article from the Shambhala Sun Magazine: Pema Chodren also provides clear explanations, like this one from her website: