A couple thousand years ago in ancient Greece, the great philosopher Socrates was strolling contemplatively around a community garden when a neighbor walked up to him and said, “You’re never in a million years going to believe what I just heard about our mutual friend…”
“Wait,” Socrates interrupted, putting his hand up in the air. “Before you continue with this story, your words must pass the triple filter test?”
“The triple filter test,” Socrates said.
The neighbor just stared at him with a blank expression.
Socrates continued, “The first filter is Truth. Are you absolutely sure the story you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well, no,” the neighbor said, “I literally just heard it from someone else I know.”
“Ah-ha…” Socrates quickly replied, “then let’s move on to the second filter. Is what you are about to share Good in any way, shape or form?”
“No… no,” the neighbor said, “This story is actually quite…”
Before he could finish his sentence, Socrates interrupted him again, “Ahh… so it may not be true and it is definitely not good.”
“That’s right,” the neighbor assured him.
“Well, you may still be able to save yourself,” Socrates said. “Is anything about the story you want to share Useful?”
The neighbor stared blankly again for a moment and then said, “No, I suppose it’s not really…”
“So, you want to tell me something that may not be true, is definitely not good, and is not useful to know?” Socrates asked. The neighbor looked down at the ground and nodded. “Well, you have no good reason to tell me this story, and you have no good reason to believe it yourself,” Socrates added, as the neighbor dolefully walked away.
Hard Questions for Hard Days
In many ways, not too much has changed since ancient Greece, especially when it comes to the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Every single day, we invest valuable time and energy into drama and hearsay. Many of us plug into social media first thing in the morning for reasons that have zero to do with what is true for us, good for us, and useful for those around us. Instead, we do it mostly just to distract ourselves… from ourselves.
In an expansive universe in which there are abundant opportunities to discover what’s true, what’s good, and what’s useful, when we do the opposite, we know it. And while making that compromise — with lots of mind-numbing distractions — is tolerable for a little while, eventually it isn’t anymore. Our negligence catches up to us, and we begin to feel pain.
Then, on really hard days, when the drama and hearsay just isn’t enough to distract us from the pain that’s been gradually building up in our minds, we begin to feel utterly broken inside.
Don’t fall into the trap of breaking yourself down like that for no reason. Instead take Socrates’ advice: simply focus on what is true, good, and useful. It worked well for Socrates a couple thousand years ago, and I assure you it continues to work well for many people today.
It’s time to sidestep the distractions and bring focused awareness to what’s on your mind, especially on those days that are harder than you expected.
Just ask yourself…
1. Is the story echoing in your head right now absolutely true?
In a very real sense, the stories we tell ourselves change what we see in front of us. When we enter an experience with a story about how life is, that tends to be what we see, even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I was reminded of this recently by an attendee at our Think Better, Live Better conference.
She compared her present marital problems and stress to an old parable in which a group of blind men touch an elephant for the very first time to learn what it’s like. Each one of them feels a different part of the elephant, but only that one part, such as the leg, trunk, side, or tusk. Then the men eagerly compare notes and quickly learn that they are in complete disagreement about what an elephant looks like… and lots of needless tension and drama quickly arises between them.
Something similar happens through our wide-ranging, different past experiences. Some of us have been deeply heartbroken. Some of us have lost our parents, siblings or children to accidents and illnesses. Some of us have dealt with infidelity. Some of us have been fired from jobs we relied on. Some of us have been discriminated against because of our gender or race. And, when we enter a new experience that arouses prominent memories of our own painful story from the past, it shifts our perspective in the present — it drastically narrows it.
When a negative past experience narrows our present perspective, it’s mostly just a defense mechanism. Every day of our lives we are presented with some level of uncertainty, and our innate human defense mechanisms don’t like this one bit. So our minds try to compensate by filling in the gaps of information by clinging to the stories we already feel comfortable with. We end up subconsciously trying to make better sense of everything in the present by using old stories and past experiences as filler. And while this approach works sometimes, other times our old stories and past experiences are completely irrelevant to the present moment, so they end up hurting us and those we love far more than they help.
Thus, my challenge for you is this:
Whenever you feel tension and drama building up inside you, try to bring more awareness to the story you’re telling yourself, and then consciously detach yourself from it. Go deeper into reality. Don’t just look at the surface. Investigate. Observe without presupposing.
Can you be absolutely certain the story is accurate? Think about how you feel and behave when you tell yourself the story. Then consider what else you might I see (or experience) in the present moment if you removed the story from my mind.
Do your best to think better, so you can ultimately live better.
2. What’s something good you could appreciate right now, if you really wanted to?
“A 10-year-old patient of mine will be undergoing her 14th surgery in three years’ time to combat a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Even after all the medical procedures and surgeries, I’ve never seen her frown — I’ve never seen her skip a beat. Although the odds continue to work against her, I’m certain her attitude, acceptance and presence are the principal reasons she has lived so well to this point. She’s still positively engaged in living her life to the fullest. She laughs and plays with her friends and family. She has realistic, intelligent goals for the upcoming year that she’s already working on. A kid like her who can go through everything she’s been through and wake up every day with enthusiasm for the life she’s living, is the reason I’m enrolled in your course and bought your new book.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an email I received recently from a new course student and book reader named, Michelle. It caught my attention for obvious reasons. (Note: I’m sharing this with permission, of course.)
Michelle went on to say, “My conversations with this incredible little girl have opened my awareness to all the self-destructive delusions I have in my head. I have it so good — I am incredibly fortunate to be alive and healthy, for example — and yet I sit at home most nights thinking the opposite. I don’t necessarily do this consciously or intensely, but I do it. I think about how my life ‘should’ be different than it is — how everything should be better, easier, more enjoyable, and so forth. And these delusions are slowly spoiling my attitude and my ability to make progress on the things that are important to me.”
Wow! Talk about a great reminder for all of us to get out of our own heads.
And the truth is, most of us come to similar realizations at some point. The older we grow, and the more real-world tragedies and challenges we witness, the more we realize how incredibly blessed we are, and how frequently the delusions in our heads hold us back from these blessings.
So today, I challenge you to move through this day and practice seeing and accepting life as it truly is, without any delusions.
Do what you have to do without worry and fearing the worst, lamenting about what might happen, or obsessing over how difficult your life is. Be present, take it one step at a time, and do the best you can.
If you don’t know where to start, simply…
And be thankful right now.
For your health,
And your home.
Nothing lasts forever.
3. How can you give yourself some useful perspective right now?
(Note: This is an excerpt from our brand new book.)
In our office, there’s a framed entry from Marc’s grandmother’s journal, dated September 16, 1977. It reads:
“Today I’m sitting in my hospital bed waiting to have both my breasts removed. But in a strange way, I feel like the lucky one. Until now I have had no health problems. I’m a sixty-nine-year-old woman in the last room at the end of the hall before the pediatric division of the hospital begins. Over the past few hours I have watched dozens of cancer patients being wheeled by in wheelchairs and rolling beds. None of these patients could be a day older than seventeen.”
This journal entry is displayed in our office because it continues to remind us that there is always, always something to be thankful for. And that no matter how good or bad we have it, we must wake up each day thankful for our lives, because someone, somewhere is desperately fighting for theirs.
Marc and I recently attended a birthday party to celebrate the thirty-fifth birthday of my childhood best friend, Janet. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with aggressive stage 2 breast cancer — devastating news for anyone, and especially for someone so young. Thankfully, she’s now in remission and has been cancer free for the past two years. When we were at lunch, she told us, “I am loving my thirties so much more than my twenties. I’m more confident, I know what I want out of life, know what my capabilities are. I know that life is limited, and that I only get this one life, and I’m doing my best to make the best of each and every day.”
Hearing Janet say those words was remarkable, because we saw how her perspective on the situation allowed her to view a horribly difficult time as an opportunity to understand what she wanted out of life. Her example reminded us that happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to use them as opportunities to change your perspective for the better. Think about your own life. What joy and opportunities might you see more clearly if your mind weren’t holding on so tightly to your struggles and disappointments? Remember, it’s not what the world takes away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.
In our New York Times bestselling book, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs, Marc and I guide readers through this process of perspective change — and breathing mindfully through life’s twists and turns.
Truth be told, inner peace begins the moment you take a new breath and choose not to allow an uncontrollable event to dominate you in the long-term. You are not what happened to you. You are what you choose to become in this moment. Let go, breathe, and begin again…
Realize that most people make themselves miserable simply by finding it impossible to accept life just as it is presenting itself right now. Don’t be one of them. Let go! This letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care about something or someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only thing you really have control over is yourself in this moment. Oftentimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on a situation — it’s looking at the same situation with fresh eyes and an open mind, and then taking the next step.
You are in control of the way you look at life. Instead of getting angry, find the lesson. In place of envy, feel admiration. In place of worry, take action. In place of doubt, have faith. Your perspective is always more powerful than your circumstance.
Now, it’s your turn…
All day long you speak silently to yourself, and a part of you believes every word. Which is why it’s important to stay mindful on hard days, and meditate on the questions above.
Please, ask away…
And share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
If you’re up to it, we’d love to read your response to the second question above:
- What’s something good you could appreciate right now, if you really wanted to?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.