When I think of antidotes, the image that springs to mind is of an apothecary’s workshop, bottles of strangely coloured potions on dusty shelves, cures for snake venom and spider bites. Perhaps something like this: An antidote is a substance which counteracts poison. But what if the most poisonous thing in our life is our own thoughts? Is there an antidote for our tendency to judge and criticize? A kind of ‘alchemy of the mind’ which can transform negative, destructive, poisonous thoughts into their opposite–kind, supportive, compassionate ones? Is there an antidote for our habit of self-criticism?
This is an important question, because we act on our thoughts. The running stream of thoughts have power. When our thoughts are compassionate, kind, encouraging, they can convince us to pursue our dreams. Or, if our thoughts give voice to cruel words, if they dwell on our weaknesses and our mistakes rather than our strengths and our successes, they can crush our dreams. Our thoughts act like an omniscient narrator of our lives, and the way this narrator tells our story can determine our story.
So the question is, what kind of thoughts are running through your mind these days? And if these thoughts are negative and unkind, especially when it comes to yourself, is there anything you can do to cure them? I often feel like the thoughts that pop into my head are beyond my control.
I drive myself crazy sometimes thinking about the same scenerio again and again, or questioning a decision I’ve made. It feels as if thoughts and feelings are so intangible that they exist in a place beyond reach. But we can approach our thoughts and the state of our minds with a more practical, dare I say ‘scientific’ attitude. When there is a poison, look for its antidote. And just as combining an acid with a base creates a neutral substance, when we have certain negative thoughts…thoughts that make us feel unhappy, we can actively cultivate their opposite…their ‘antidote’.
“With anger, for example, we need to see how destructive anger is, and at the same time, realize that there are antidotes within our own thoughts and emotions that we can use to counter it… In order to reduce the power of a negative emotion like anger or hatred, we need to encourage its antidote, which is love and compassion” (Dalai Lama Transforming the Mind, 2000).
This is so important, particularly because we can be so critical of ourselves. The picture we often paint of ourselves in our own minds can be so unkind. In fact, in a recent interview the Dalai Lama’s main translator Thupten Jinpa describes how surprised he was when he first lived in the UK at how many people lacked an intrinsic sense of self-worth, and how critical we westerns can be of ourselves. (This part of the conversation starts about 28min into video.)
Recently something I witnessed in my own family has convinced me that we really can change the way we think about ourselves, and that this kind of’ mental alchemy’ can have a profound impact on our lives. My four year old has been going through what I’m going to call a ‘challenging stage’. He has been digging in his heels and saying NO over the smallest of things. Park trips have become dominated by tantrums when everything didn’t go exactly as he wanted. In fact, our whole days seemed dominated by NO NO NO. And I found myself getting more and more strict, attempting to discipline and punish his behaviour. I knew a big part of the problem was my own perspective, that I was getting too wrapped up and hooked in to his ‘bad’ behaviour. I needed to change my focus, and so as much for my own sake as for my son’s, I started a “Good Deeds book”, a notebook where I began to write down a list of all my son’s good deeds of the day.
The first evening, I sat down and told him about the notebook. Then I began to write down and say aloud all the things I could remember that he had done well that day. All his successes. All the moments he was kind. All the times he faced a challenging situation and was able to manage his feelings, use his words or problem solve and not simply throw himself on the floor screaming (yes, this is a good deed when you are four!). That evening I saw a complete transformation take place, and my little boy’s face went from a slight scowl to a bright shining smile. In five minutes, the way he saw himself had changed. Rather than someone who was always being told ‘don’t do that’ because he was wrong, he had become someone who did A LOT of good deeds. And this wasn’t a “one day wonder”. It has been several weeks now and his approach to all kinds of things has completely changed. I honestly can’t believe how much a little ‘Good Deeds’ book has helped him be more flexible, helpful, and kind…more than any disciplinary measures, more than any positive reinforcement of his individual behaviours during the day…and I think the reason is that, when you write things down and put them all together and he saw a big list of all the Good, it was like holding up a new mirror in front of him and saying, “See, you look like THIS! See how amazing you are!”
It was the antidote to his negative thoughts.
I don’t believe this applies just to children. So many of us carry around a very critical perception of ourselves in our heads. There is a silent but very powerful voice of our own thoughts that berates us for our mistakes, and tells us we should have done everything different or better…and that we should be different or better. But unlike children, who we know need encouragement and compassion and patience and love, we adults often feel guilty acknowledging when we did something well. We think of it as bragging if we are proud of our talents or accomplishments. We think we are ‘letting ourselves off the hook’ if we show compassion for ourselves when we make mistakes. And so we rarely challenge that critical voice in our heads. Instead, tragically, we believe it.
Psychologists, spiritual teachers, our friends and family all might tell us that we should accept ourselves just as we are…that we are perfect already. But this is hard to believe when you’ve got a voice in your head telling you every day that you are not perfect, that you are a bundle of mistakes, mis-steps, imperfections and bad habits. This is the big realisation I had with my son’s Good Deeds book. It was like a mental antidote to all the negativity that had built up. So maybe this mental alchemy is possible. Maybe, if we actively cultivate good, positive, supportive thoughts about ourselves (and others), they will neutralise the thoughts that drag us down.
Maybe we could all use a Good Deeds book!