I was prescribed eyeglasses when I was about 10 years old, and for me, wearing glasses is as normal as breathing. My poor mother had three kids who all wore glasses from a young age, and I recall her chiding each one of us, saying, “How can you see out of those glasses? Go wash them right now.” Must’ve been tedious for her.
The problem was (and still is for us visually-challenged people), it’s very easy to get used to semi-smudged glasses.
There’s another kind of “dirty glasses” that clouds our vision without our knowing it. It’s called The Thinking We Don’t Know We Have (TTWDKWH).
Yesterday I recognized one of those subliminal brain hums when a quiet thought came to me:
“I wonder what it feels like to not be hard on yourself?”
It felt so novel to even consider it, like my pondering, “I wonder what it’s like to be a guy?” or “I wonder what it’s like to be seven feet tall?”
A bit of context:
Yesterday morning I finished reading a novel which, for a brief while, threw me back into reliving (or so it felt) some pretty sad and frightening times in my childhood and young adulthood. I don’t “go there” often because there’s no reason to, but when that nerve is hit, there’s no pretending it doesn’t hurt. It’s kind of like the fourth toe on my right foot: I broke that toe several years ago, and despite it being fully healed, it’s still more tender than all the others.
So whether it’s my toe or my psyche, the question is, where is that healthy space between pretending my past never happened, and dwelling on it so much that I bring the pain alive again and again, in some naive hope that with the right techniques, it will feel like it never happened at all? Where is the freedom to own my past, without my past owning me?
Thanks to an understanding I came across several years ago, I now can bypass all the techniques and theories I learned in years of traditional therapy. It’s a way of “seeing” that re-centers me on the road to peace, and although it’s not a cure for living, it has greatly increased my resilience. Here are my own, custom, non-technique steps:
First, realize your glasses are filthy
As with many spiritual traditions, awareness has to come before anything else. With this understanding, I realize that when I’m in emotional pain, I’m listening to painful thoughts, and believing them to be true. Distorted vision, right?
Here’s the important part: it’s those thoughts I don’t know I have that hurt the most, not the circumstances. I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say your boss yells at you. Not fun, but it is what it is. The additional subtext that follows, though, is 100% fabricated by me: “Not fair, I’m a way better employee than my coworkers!” Or, “What is wrong with me that I thought I could do this job, I’m such an idiot.” Or any number of fabrications to explain the unexpected. This is what a human brain does, it tries to make sense of events that don’t make sense. And when there isn’t enough data to explain a situation, the brain just makes stuff up. That’s it’s job, right?
Thanks to this new perspective, I now see that any anxious, panicked, depressed, negative feelings are simply red-flags, telling me that something has happened that my brain is cramping over at the moment. I see that my glasses are dirty.
Second, start washing your glasses
The “doing” part of step two is more like “gentle skepticism” and after a while it becomes instinctive. I refrain from believing every word my brain is saying, and instead, to the best of my ability in any moment, I create a neutral perspective.
I don’t dive in and start mucking around in the heavy head-traffic; instead, I back off, because, in truth, there is nothing to fix.
In the case of reading that book full of vivid scenes of violence, all I had to do was realize I’m remembering something that was painful years ago, that I survived it, and at this moment in time, my amazingly powerful mind is re-creating a film-studio quality re-enactment simply because it remembered something. Your brain is like a hyperactive kid jumping up and down, saying, “Mom, Mom, hey, I remember something just like this! Mom, hey, look at this monster I just drew, it’s just like that scary book you were just reading.” And like any good, well-rested mom, you acknowledge that yes, that’s true, there is a similarity, but that scary bit isn’t happening right now, it’s in the past, it’s long over and everyone’s safe now. Good job drawing that picture, but let’s remember that it’s history, not breaking news, right?
Third and finally, is Drying Time (Yes, I can beat a metaphor into the ground, you know that, right?)
Drying time is important when washing glasses, because clean wet glasses still aren’t very easy to see through. The ”Drying Time” for things that feel like a flashback or PTSD is so simple, yet so easy to forget: it’s the Triage of Kindness. It’s an intentional, gentle time-out to breathe, or stretch, or do anything pleasant you like, while the very real adrenalin in your body subsides. We breathe our way back to the present moment, amazed yet again at the phenomenally creative special-effects department inherent in every single human being’s brain/mind.
Most (if not all) of our experience of life is colored by our brains’ innocent attempts to connect past experiences to present life. It’s how our reptilian brain kept us safe, and still tries to, even when we’re not in danger at all.
Our moment-to-moment experience of Life is 100% shaped by the convoluted tales our brains spin. Ideas and opinions pass themselves off as absolute facts all the time (we can see this in others way better than we can see it in ourselves, right?!). That is, until we shift our perspective just a little, and see right though our fabrications. It can be no other way, it’s how we’re wired, as thinking, interpretive, creative beings. And yes, it is both humbling and liberating to see this amazing truth.
So what on earth does this have to do with sketching, you ask?
Absolutely everything, of course.
Sketching is my favorite way to see the simplicity and power of this understanding, this new paradigm. Here’s how:
Anyone who has a piece of paper, a pen, a functional hand, and eyesight can look at something and draw it. Literally anyone with these four items (pen, paper, hand, eyeball) can draw. Not accurately at first, of course, but still, you can make an easy, pleasurable beginning. Or can you?
Not necessarily, because sketching often feels more risky than writing a grocery list using those same four elements. Why? Because with sketching, you might have a judgmental subtext. It’s the same brain-voice that tried to figure out why your boss yelled at you, and now it’s having a field day making up stories about you, about your rotten character, because you looked at a straight telephone pole, and drew a wobbly line instead. It’s so predictable: when “A” doesn’t equal “B”, your brain is off and running to make sense of it, and decides, more than likely, it’s Your Fault. Or maybe Someone Else’s Fault. Silly brain.
Are you hard on yourself in any area of your life? How about your finances, or relationships, or health, or education, or anything else? Is your brain’s message about that situation neutral, or does its storytelling habit restrict you?
Imagine just for a moment what it would feel like with the exact same situation, without the fortune-telling fearmonger voice. What if you listed the same facts, and then said, “Thank goodness I’m never too hard on myself. I can easily figure out the next step toward my really exciting goal.” Would you find yourself suddenly breathing better? I certainly do.
My very bumpy past has given me experience and wisdom and a depth of empathy for people in rough spots because I’ve been there. I remember those times, but those times no longer own me. They are simply resources in my multi-color, multi-texture reference library. Nowadays, most of the time, I can experience Thought Illusions without falling for them. Instead, I smile and say, “Thanks but I’ve seen that trick before.”
That’s why even my most blundered sketches are fun today, because they’re not about me. Any more than my award-winning paintings bought by collectors are about me. They’re delightful marks on paper, moment-to-moment observations frozen in time.
It’s magic really, once you see how easy it is to get out of your own way.