I woke with a start this morning. Something bad was happening. Where was I? My heart was racing. What did I need to do? I lay there, in the gauzy land between dreaming and waking, paralyzed by not knowing. This is sometimes how I wake up when I’m in the middle of a dream. Once, I rolled off the bed, and jumped into a sparring position, hands curled into tight fists, ready to take out an imaginary attacker. It’s disorienting to realize that your ninja dream is not the reality.
While no advocate of Scientology, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics many years ago. Like most philosophies, I latched onto a few ideas and discarded the rest. His work on mental health is regarded as pseudoscience and has created couch-jumping douchebags who eschew psychotropic drugs for treating any kind of mental illness. One of the concepts that did interest me was what Mr. Hubbard wrote about the rational versus the reactive mind.
It basically runs like this: your reactive mind is the mind that deals with situations based on past negative experiences. Your rational mind is the one that logically assesses a situation based on the conditions and facts in the current situation. Scientologists, feel free to NOT comment or correct me. I have no money nor any interest in arguing you about the misguided mental health system. We actually might agree on a few things and that just creeps me out.
It is human nature to react and learn based on our experiences. Thank goodness for that. How would we know not to put our hands on stove burners or not to date men who name their cars? On the other hand, there are scenarios where reacting to life as if all your circumstances have never changed since childhood is not a good thing.
My street cred as a survivor is mediocre. I come from a home where alcoholism and domestic violence had a foothold. I grew up poor and with an inferiority complex that comes from little material wealth and low self-esteem. These are hurdles to overcome and while I was forced to become stronger and more self-sufficient as a result, I don’t recommend it as the path to being a better person. I’m still learning lessons that some people are able to assume as their birthright.
I’m at a point in life where I no longer need to just “survive”. I finally have choices about how I spend my time and where I’d like my path to take me. But I’m jumpy. When I talk about first world problems, like the difficulty of working from home (despite easy access to clean water and the fridge), it is also accompanied with an apologetic “I know I’m whining. I should just be grateful”.
I realize the gratitude zealots will say this is a good thing, but gratitude is like any other emotion – where it comes from matters. I’m grateful no one threatens me. I’m glad that I don’t have to be afraid when I go to sleep at night. I’m glad that I don’t have to count on soda can returns for a meal. I’m glad that I don’t have to wear shoes that are too small for my feet. I’m glad that I know where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Anything above that and I feel a level of shame and guilt for my good fortune. It’s not the same as heartfelt gratitude.
I still live in my reactive mind at times and it is sometimes jarring to realize I’m reacting to things as if I were a small, frightened child – defensive, ashamed and powerless. I have a misplaced sense of survivor’s guilt. If I feel shame and guilt for the smallest of fortunes, am I getting in the way of my own happiness?
If I felt hostility towards all women who wear purple scarves just because I had a vicious first-grade teacher who always wore one, maybe I’d miss the friendship of a lifetime. Or if I feared public speaking, because someone laughed at me during a middle school book report presentation, I’d miss out on a great career opportunity. Or, if I’m too busy feeling embarrassed about my good fortunes, I miss out on feeling genuine gratitude and joy.
It’s a mindful practice – to pay attention to emotions as you’re feeling them, identify their source and question whether your reaction is commiserate with the reality at hand. Is this reality, a dream or a nightmare of days long gone? Are you in the moment, or is your head in the land of Nod or Never Again? It’s a work in progress for me and for that, I’m truly grateful.