Wasteful thoughts – anxiety, stress, blame, guilt, etc – form a large part of our thinking process. It can consume a significant portion of time and energy in a day. Mindfulness involves recognizing wasteful thoughts while thinking and seeing them drop off, at least sometimes. The character of Nobel Laureate John Nash Jr. as depicted in the movie “A beautiful mind” advocates an approach to wasteful thoughts called “diet of the mind”. Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet, suggests welcoming every thought be it “a joy, a depression or a meanness” in his poem “The guest house”. Are these two seemingly different approaches to wasteful thoughts, Nash’s dieting, and Rumi’s welcoming, related? What’s common between them? Could they be complementary? I attempt to explore these questions in this article.
First, let’ see what is common between Nash and Rumi’s approaches. In Nash’s dieting approach, it is expected that one watches the thoughts while thinking to check whether they are useful at that moment. “Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites,” says Nash in the movie. In Rumi’s poem, he says, “meet them (thoughts) at the door laughing”. Both these approaches assume a certain degree of attentional freedom such that one is able to watch the ongoing thoughts. Based on my experience, I feel this isn’t as easy as it sounds. And it is especially difficult when there is negative emotion accompanying the thoughts. However, I feel attentional flexibility can be built with practice by learning to hop off the train of thought.
Now, let’s turn to Nash’s approach. The best way to get a feel for this approach is by experimenting with it. Whenever you get a chance, watch the ongoing thoughts. And check if this train of thought is serving any useful purpose at that moment. Sometimes the answer would be “yes”, other times “no”. When we recognize a train of thought to be wasteful at that time, it drops off, at least sometimes. It may be replaced by another train of thought and so on. It is a wonderful experience to see a repetitive thought pattern drop off at least for a while. Like Nash suggests, the “diet of the mind” involves learning not to indulge in certain thought patterns by being alert and watchful.
Nash’s dieting approach may not work all the time. You feel you have recognized the train of thought to be wasteful and yet it persists. One possibility is that this recognition hasn’t touched the source that is fuelling the thought pattern. For example, I may be worrying about the impending recession and I recognize the repetitiveness of this thought pattern to be wasteful. However, deep down I may be carrying an assumption that it is absolutely necessary that I have a job. And this absolute necessity overpowers the thinking process. And this is where Rumi’s approach may be helpful.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Rumi is challenging us here. Try meeting a dark thought laughing. It is not easy. I find the phrase, “each has been sent as a guide from beyond” very helpful. What is this place from beyond that the thought is coming from? Could it be a clue to a mystery? My suggestion is that this place is where assumptions of absolute necessity reside. And they are the doorways to self-awareness.
As mentioned in the earlier para, I may carry an assumption of absolute necessity that, “I MUST never be out of a job.” These assumptions of absolute necessities are held deep down somewhere. And yet discovering them reveals a lot about oneself. If I clearly see that there is nothing absolute about this assumption and it is quite possible that I might be out of a job. And several people I know have been out of jobs and many of them got back new jobs. And even if one doesn’t get a job, it is not the end of the world. Life is much more immense and mysterious than a job. If one sees all of this clearly then it stops overpowering the thinking process.
To summarize, both Nash’s dieting and Rumi’s welcoming approach assume a certain degree of attentional freedom. If you feel you don’t have it yet, then that is the first step. Once you are able to watch the ongoing train of thought, experiment with Nash’s dieting approach. Just like you watch what you are taking on your plate, watch the thoughts you are indulging in. If you recognize them to be wasteful at the moment, they will drop off. For repetitive thoughts that persist, learn to use them as a guide to explore the mysterious place “from beyond”. You may discover an assumption of absolute necessity hiding there which makes no sense.
And don’t be alarmed if you begin to see that there is no such a thing as an absolute necessity. It is possible that this is the place where Rumi wrote his poems.
“The guest house” is from “The Essential Rumi” translations by Coleman Barks, HarperOne, 1995.
Nash’s quotes are from the movie “A beautiful mind”.
I explore wasteful thoughts and absolute necessities in my book "Mindfulness: connected with the real you".