Perspective is EVERYTHING

Photo by  Saketh Garuda  on  Unsplash

A couple years ago I hosted Seder, the Jewish holiday where you consider slavery in its various forms and, more importantly, are encouraged to drink four glasses of wine. In the olden days, this used to be over as many hours, but our Seder lasted about 45 minutes and we all managed to consume the requisite number of glasses. It was great fun. Everyone was happily drunk by 4pm. 

By 5pm I was in bed, cozy as a clam and ready for a nap with Jason and both cats snuggling close. I felt so grateful, warm, and surrounded by love. 

At 6 I woke up with Jason laying over to one side, trying not to overheat and snoring gently. Jocelyn was purring away on my other side while Zander and Tussle were curled around one another on the chaise by the window.

Then all of a sudden…boom! My perspective flipped. I went from feeling surrounded by love to feeling completely alone in about half a second. Racing through my head was the thought, “No one is paying attention to me! I'm awake and drunk all by myself and this sucks.” 

I took a couple of breaths and tried to remember all the learning and practice I had done to control my perspective and maintain positivity. I thought back to the “Secret History of Thoughts” on the NPR podcast Invisibilia, the most impactful of my research, and the three stages of perspective explored in the study of psychology.

First came the Freudian perspective in the late 1800s, suggesting that thought has meaning.

The idea is that every thought is the tip of an iceberg. Your thoughts are very intimately related to who you are and there can be a tremendous value - profound value - in understanding where they come from. I was happy to learn that this is not necessarily the case, which helps when thoughts are dark.

The second perspective was originated by Aaron Beck in the 1960s - it later came to be known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - and focused on interrogating your thoughts.

Perhaps they weren’t the facts you thought they were; perhaps they were actually demonstrably inaccurate. This concept centered around the idea that thoughts in your head did not necessarily indicate anything deep about you but instead are intimately tied up with your emotions, physical sensations and actions . This is the most common type of approach in therapy and the study of perspective today. This approach was certainly an improvement for me over Freudian thought, but still wasn’t what I felt to be true, or the most helpful way of thinking.

Most recently we have perspective number three, mindfulness therapy, an approach I view as a lens of focus.

This concept suggests that thoughts often have no meaning at all. Instead of contradicting or fighting negative thoughts, reduce or eliminate them and focus on the positive side of the picture. This is an extremely empowering way of thinking, and one that most helps me calm down when my mind races in panic.

A great way to illustrate this is a conversation on the podcast with a therapist that we’ll call Morris.

"As I sat with her, Morris pulled a book from her shelf. She told me that this book represented all of the painful thoughts that I had all day long. You know the ones: that you are not thin enough, you are not smart enough, that you are too old or too young; the thoughts that quietly tell you that the path from here to there is insurmountable; that you are weak and small, and not good enough. 'Those are the thoughts', Morris told me, 'that this book represents. Now hold it up to your face so that it’s just about touching your nose.' So I took the book and I pressed it to my face. Morris explained that most of us walk around the world with these thoughts right in front of our eyes in this way.

'And how is that for you, to have your painful thoughts and feelings be the primary focus of your attention?'

'Not so good,' I replied. 'I mean, the view isn’t great.'

'When you practice meditation,' Morris told me, 'you learn to control where you place your attention, and when a disturbing thought comes into your brain you learn how to just let it float by without ever engaging it.'

She then took the book and gently pushed it into my lap. 

'It’s still there, but now it’s not the focus of your attention. You don’t engage the bad thoughts, they don’t matter that much. Just find those that are helpful, that help you to live the life you want to live. Keep those thoughts in front of you, and the rest? Just let them float away. There’s no good reason to focus on them. Most thoughts we have are just nonsense, just synapses popping off in our head, and we don’t need to take them all so seriously.'

This way of mindful thinking is how I live my life. Consider the bad stuff, don’t shy away from it, but at the same time look at the situation with a lens of positivity. Look for the bright sides, the color, the beauty and warmth and comfort and kindness. It’s there. 

So when I awoke from my Seder slumber having a crisis of perspective, I put my mindfulness training to use and practiced gratitude. Meditation doesn’t work for me, despite plenty of trying. In fact, it causes me anxiety and difficulty breathing. So I do something that does bring me calm and peace: I practice gratitude. 

I think of five things I’m extremely grateful for and hold each one in my mind for a long moment. Four can be ones I’ve used before, as long as they still really ring true, and one needs to be unique. I think of big things like having a wonderful, healthy, supportive family. I think of small things like a newfound skill — learning how to caulk the bathtub. I think of my son’s smile, or how he will sometimes cup my face in his little hands and press our foreheads together. I think of how much energy Jason has to give, and how he works so hard to bring cuddles, ease, and comfort to our family.

A few minutes later, on a wave of this gratitude, I floated back off to sleep, once again in the glow of love and contentment.