‘Thought in the mind hath made us.
What we are by thought was wrought and built.
If a man’s mind hath evil thought,
pain comes on him as comes the wheel the ox behind.
If one endure in purity of thought,
Joy follows him as his own shadow.’
Everybody experiences anxiety and most of the time we indulge in fearful feelings. I think we are all guilty of it at times. As an answer to this, seeking advice from ancient wisdom to modern scientific theories can help us understand ourselves and healthy ways to process feelings and worries. The famous aphorism by Socrates that says ‘Know Thyself’. This can be understood by way of processing, as to really know the self well, we must constantly put the thoughts and ideas of the self under close examination. In relation, Plato describes the human emotions as a group of wild horses pulling and dragging the self around. To control our wild horses, we have to constantly monitor and tame them. Jonathan Haidt applied a similar metaphor of a rider on the back of an elephant—the elephant representing our emotions, desires, temptations; controlling the direction it goes and the rider as our rational self.
‘Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.’ Jonathan Haidt
Personally, understanding this concept helped me face anxiety with a much clearer perspective of the self. Acknowledge this: we are the masters of emotion. Too often we let our emotions control us, instead of owning them. We concentrate too much on external things affecting us, but everything we think and feel is equally a choice as it is a reaction to stimuli and events. So often, we let someone else’s attitude and behaviour affect our emotional state. If it’s one thing we humans are good at; it is coming up with excuses to justify our behaviour. When we stop reacting and become proactive, something magical happens, the confidence that builds as a result of this is soothing, calming and prepares for so many other trials along the way.
‘Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw star.’
This quote perfectly sums up the freedom of the mind. Two men found themselves experiencing the same misfortune; one decided to see the positive and the other the negative. Who wins? Believe it or not there always is a winner even when it appears that all is lost. We have the freedom to choose how we perceive things. Constant focus on external factors that we have little control over can result in surmounted stress. It is better for us to change our attitude and perception of a situation, and gain clarity to take control of our lives. When we experience true mental freedom and happiness, the kind that lasts throughout life and brings us back to neutral in super speed, can be learnt and practiced. I don’t think this is a quick affair, but its a worthwhile journey.
‘Nothing is miserable unless you think it is so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.’ – Buddha
How do you control your emotions? Think deeper about what you are feeling at the moment stress arises, find the cause and address it, step back and reflect. Why are you anxious? Where do you feel it? What is the trigger? When I got news from a very unpleasant estate agent that I had to pay an extra month of rent even though I had to leave the country due to visa issues, a wave of anxiety pass through my body. That’s £710 down the drain, how am I going to explain to my parents my lack of organization and attention to detail? Why didn’t I see this coming? I’m so foolish. But amongst my anxiety I paused and subjected my emotions to reflection, why am I feeling this? I was annoyed at having to pay another month’s of rent despite not living there and it felt unjust. But if money is just a cause to an end—and the end is ultimately happiness; why be so protective of money? Would my parents love me any less if they found out? Of course not, I am fortunate enough to have loving parents. For me, fortunately a tendency to feel calm and reflect comes from childhood conditioning from parents, teachers and grandparents. Yet they also told me; ‘don’t waste money, money doesn’t grow on trees’, and that somehow crept in. This notion that money is sacred is simply not true, it should be respected and managed wisely but getting emotionally attached to a man-made creation is not the way to happiness.
Having grasped that everything in life will be a lesson, until you have experienced the wisdom life is trying to convey; the lesson is going to keep appearing in your life until it is learnt. So, for now at least, lesson learnt! Life is ultimately a series of trials, once we succeed over one, another will appear. Attitude is key. So stop being critical of yourself, if you have a tendency to be so, everyone makes mistakes, how else are you going to learn and grow? Remember: you always have a choice. When Viktor Frankl was held prisoner in the concentration camp during the holocaust, he decided if there was one freedom he had, it was his attitude. That is something so powerful that we can all learn, someone had to go through that horrible tragedy to impart this life lesson. So many have gone through similar trials, so relish this knowledge and wisdom and prepare for times of need with schools of thought that promote problem solving and spiritual growth. Call it the mental road to happiness.
Written by Ellis Liu
Edited by Hollie Bhol