Cleaning up the post-its
Not every thought I have is true. Not every thought I have is kind. Not every thought I have is mine.
Our minds are full of 100,000 post-it notes covered in thoughts that have accumulated over our life. During our childhood, a lot of the thoughts jotted down came from the adults around us. How do we feel about spending money on a to-go coffee? What do we think of people who dye their hair weird colors? What are our thoughts on marriage? How do I feel about myself?
As we get older, thoughts start to infiltrate in from more places. Advertisements tell us how to look at our bodies. Movies paint a picture of how true love looks. A teacher tells us we should study harder. Our friend says we let them down.
And more vague and harder to pinpoint than any of the above examples are the societal thoughts woven into everything around us. Women should be agreeable and nice. Men should be tough, no matter what. We should all be productive and hardworking all of the time. There’s a lot of pressure for us to fit into pre-determined boxes, and it can be exhausting.
Of the 100,000 post-it notes in my mind that are covered in thoughts, many of them (perhaps even most) aren’t mine. They were someone else’s thoughts that I absorbed. Nevertheless, they swirl into my head at random moments, often unconsciously, and they can dictate my behavior. If you never stop to analyze your thoughts, you’ll run through life on auto-pilot — regardless of if the thoughts are true, kind, or yours.
My quality of life improved greatly when I was able to change my relationship with all my post-it notes. I began to see them as separate from myself, and I was able to look at them more critically when they swirled into my brain. Where did this thought come from? Do I even agree with this thought? Is it true? What evidence do I have to support this thought?
My ability to organize, declutter, and better use my 100,000 post-it notes improved dramatically when I got into meditation.
I was introduced to meditation in a very Western way — through my therapist. (Side note: I’ve done a good amount of work to understand Buddhism and meditation through a less-Western lens, and I’ll continue to do so.) I typically practice zen meditation, which means I curl up somewhere in a comfy position and focus on my breathing. You focus on your breathing for as long as possible, and then — once you realize you’ve been thinking about your grocery list, the phone call you need to return, what that weird noise is outside, and how upset you are at that person — you let go of the thoughts that have popped up and go back to focusing on your breath. Over and over and over again. That’s kind of it.
Once you do this for awhile, your brain starts to change. Thoughts no longer immediately turn into reactions. (“I think you are inconsiderate, so I’m going to say something rude.”) It’s easier to observe thoughts and then mindfully respond. (“I think you are inconsiderate, and I ask myself why I have this thought. What evidence do I have to support this thought? Maybe you’re having a really tough day. I’m not going to assume, and I’m just going to continue on my way.”) It’s also easier to stop negative thought spirals, too, since one negative thought can often lead to another and another. (Side note #2: There’s a lot to dive into when it comes to meditation and neuroplasticity, but I’ll let you research that on your own if you’re interested.)
Thanks to meditation, I’m more patient, more thoughtful, less stressed, and happier. Meditation was one of the first steps I took to change the way I live, and it was also one of the most impactful. As someone whose life has typically revolved around being a “good thinker,” the answer to my happiness being in not thinking is pretty ironic. It’s undoubtedly made me a better friend, coworker, partner, and all around person — all because I’ve gotten better at cleaning up my post-it notes.