step 4: to think consciously
Updated: May 24, 2021
The most frightening point of a roller coaster ride — that one moment that might force your fingers to dig into numb skin, the pit of your stomach dropping to your toes — it's when you're at the very top.
It's a short sharp second of time that hits like a flash across the face, it doesn't need any more time to convince you. It hits when you see your feet so far off the ground. You start going over every possible way things might go wrong. A loose seatbelt. A broken screw standing idly by on the tracks. An unfortunate instance of being caught in the crossfire of someone else's anger.
But it doesn't quite hold up to the fear of knowing you had a choice. Knowing that at one point, maybe just a few moments ago, you could have chosen to walk away but you didn't.
Amidst the excitement, adrenaline, and hunger for a feeling stronger than what you're feeling at that very moment, that fear sits on still water. Slow, growing ripples that only end when you drop from that one point where you had the least control.
Last year, I read the book "THINK STRAIGHT: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life." It was a simple yet thought-provoking read. Some pages spoke right to me, and some I disagreed with. There is no clear formula to thinking better. There are no pro tips or best practices to guarantee you a mind that could help you do the impossible.
But there was one section in particular that I have consistently internalized since then:
When we sit down and observe our thoughts for a few minutes, we will notice that a lot of things flow through our minds. The thoughts are just "there." Nothing we can change about that. But since we have free will, we can decide which thoughts we focus on. Hence, we can influence the direction of consciousness. This realization is critical to the way we live. It's the difference between "I can't help but feel this way" and "I feel this way because I decided to feel this way.
There was a period of time where every day felt exactly the same. I opened my eyes each morning to the same dense cloud of fear hanging over my head and it followed me around like a shadow, always a few steps behind so it could watch my every move. I hit the same wall each afternoon, playing hide and seek with something that was waiting to grab me by the ankles.
The rest of the day felt like that one short sharp second in repeat. Like the top of a roller coaster. A tight grip on numb skin, the pit of my stomach scratching the ground beneath my feet.
The worst part about days like these is the lack of a problem. I had nothing to blame, nothing tangible that I could fix. All I had was a cloud of worry, its vagueness even more consuming than anything I've ever known. It makes you weak — there was no way you should be broken down by something you can't identify, clearly not strong enough to take on more weight life had to offer.
But somewhere under those looming questions, perched in the far corner of the cloud's shadow, a tiny figure tries to break away from it. I like to call that 'the kid.' The me I sometimes fail to recognize. The me that could love and laugh without restriction and embrace the girl she saw in the mirror. She was always there, trying to escape the cloud's grip. But I always decided to let her sleep.
For hours, I would find myself sitting on the thought of a lost choice. Nervous like I was at the peak of a roller coaster, waiting for the drop.
Had I stopped myself from thinking too far ahead, could I have avoided the last six hours spent spiraling without a cause?
Had I taken an extra five seconds to pause and think, would I have reclaimed a day I thought was doomed to fail?
To think consciously is to be aware of a choice before it passes me by. It's to cup that choice right in my hands and take in its weight, feel just how slowly the seconds drag on when I give it my proper attention.
There was always a moment in the day where I made a decision to let go of my control, to stop fighting, and to give in to what my head was telling me. I could always tell by the guilt I felt after, a reminder that if I had just spent a little bit more time thinking about what my feelings really meant in the grand scheme of things, I would be OK.
Was it really worth the effort to revisit buried memories? Imagining pain that hasn't even happened yet?
This is where I drew thick red circles on the differences between the way I was thinking and the way I wanted to think.
I know what my mind is capable of. I know that as much as I want to think about calm spring days with flowers in bloom over stained walls and windows, I'm just not that optimistic of a person. After years of shoving poster-worthy positivity fixes down my throat, I was well aware that it did little to keep me from choking on it. It wasn't genuinely me, and that made it an unproductive and futile effort.
Personally, what I needed was a confrontation. To sit in the same dark room my subconscious took shelter in. I needed to hold onto her, feel what she was feeling, and listen to what she was trying to say. Shutting that door in her face only bred more anger and fewer answers about what I was doing right or wrong.
I wanted to consciously decide to open that door during my darkest hours, taking those extra seconds to breathe in the room and the fog that hovered above its floors. I needed to think with awareness, completely in touch with my head and my heart even if it showed me the ugliest sides of myself.
I needed to see her with my own eyes.
Today I see her when I meditate, journal, or work out. Sometimes I see her when I do absolutely nothing — her grip usually forceful and surprising enough to leave me gasping for air — but I know better now than to be afraid of her. Instead, I grip back, trying to understand why she came.
What's scaring her so much?
What does she need to see, hear, or say?
It's humbling to face the parts of yourself you refuse to acknowledge.
In that dark room, you may see a self that's too broken, too impatient, too angry, too sensitive.
It's too raw a moment. A wound so fresh you don't trust yourself in its presence. But it wakes you up from a very bad dream, one written by your own pen, with all its hunger for everything you're scared of.
Seeing that self reminds me that there's so much more I want. There's so much I've done that I need to credit myself for. I embrace that shadow the way I would embrace a best friend, reminding her about the good things, keeping her excited about the days to come.
In that dark room, you find yourself fighting harder for some sort of peace.
So when I lose ground— I stop to think.
☁️ Am I worrying about something real or is it just another 'if'?
☁️ Are surrendering to these thoughts worth more than what the rest of this day could give me?
☁️ Am I trying to find an answer that fixes the problem or am I looking for something that makes it worse?
It's going to be difficult to answer these questions, largely because you don't want to hear the answer. You don't want to know that you're wasting your time on something you shouldn't be wasting time over. You envy those who seem to have no problem letting go of thoughts that don't matter, how easy it is for them to be so content with the present. So aware of the now.
But answering those questions gives me relief, even though the process hurts. It gives me more closure than the act of locking them away, convincing myself that I've fallen off the deep end. I don't mind being proven wrong, because it helps me see the path ahead.
I can see a chance to let it go, whatever it is I'm so afraid of. I'll slowly let it go if it means I can spend the next few hours stretching my arms for a bite of joy. It doesn't work like a miracle, it doesn't wash away my pain, but it lets me try to live a life without it.
It reminds me that the cloud hanging above my head isn't always there. And when the sun shines on my skin again, it feels great. It feels so great it protects me even when the cloud makes its way back.