When struggling with our mental health one thing we can all agree on is that sometimes our minds feel out of control and reactively judging or interpreting a situation may not only be inaccurate, but actually make us feel worse (see recent blog). Read the following scenarios and notice your initial response. When a recent date doesn’t call back, does that mean the romance is cooling or that the person has been busy? Does getting a speeding ticket mean the world is out to get you, or that you need to slow down? Is showing your emotions a sign of weakness or a sign of courage? Lack of awareness of automatic negative interpretations can keep us in a cycle that continually leads to anxious feelings and tense physical sensations. Mindfulness is a vehicle to slow things down and notice habitual tendencies to automatically interpret events in a negative direction and can remind us of other options. What might seem like a disaster may actually be a gift.
There is a story of a very wise old man in a village: Everyone in the village looked up to him and sought his advice. One summer day, a villager came to him in a state of panic, “Wise sage, I don’t know what to do, my ox has died and now I am unable to plow my fields. This is the worst thing that could have ever happened.” The sage looked him in the eye and replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.” In a state of disbelief the man returned to his family and proceeded to tell them how the sage was no sage after all and that he had lost his mind because surely the death of the ox was the worst thing that could’ve ever happened.
The next morning the man went on a walk to mourn his ox and in the distance saw a strong young horse grazing in the field. Immediately he had the idea that if he could catch the horse then his troubles would be over. He brought the horse back and realized how blessed he was; plowing was even easier than before. The image of the sage came up in his mind and the man ran over to him to apologize. Upon seeing the sage the man said, “Please accept my apologies, you were absolutely right. If I had not lost my ox, I wouldn’t have gone on that walk and would never have captured the horse. You have to agree that catching this horse was the best thing that ever happened.” The old sage looked into his eyes and said, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
“Are you kidding me,” thought the man. “This guy is a nut. I don’t think I’ll be coming by here again.” The man returned home to the village. A few days later his son was riding the horse and was bucked off, breaking his leg and now unable to help out with the farm. “This is the worst thing that could ever have happened,” thought the farmer. “How will we eat?” Again, the farmer went to the sage and told him what had happened. “You must see the future, how did you know this would happen? I don’t know how we’ll get all the work done now. This time you have to admit, this is the worst thing that could ever have happened.” Once again, the sage calmly and with love, looked into the farmer’s eyes and replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The farmer was furious by this response and stormed back to the village.
The very next day troops arrived looking for all young men who were healthy and able to fight in the new war. His son was the only young man not taken because of his broken leg and was spared having to go through an impossible war where almost all the men would surely die.
The moral of this story is simply that we can’t always be sure if an event is good or bad. What seems like a negative event, may lay the path for something positive. Maybe getting a speeding ticket allows a person to slow down so they don’t get in an accident fifteen minutes later. Mindfulness gives us the ability to notice when we are automatically interpreting an event negatively, come back to our breath to ground us in the present moment, and gives us the space to consider alternatives. In time, we can gain a sense that things will turn out okay.
As always, please share your thoughts, insights, or questions about anything that came up for you while reading this blog. Your additions here create a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
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Last reviewed: 9 Feb 2009