The Art Of Building Better Thoughts
The Buddha once said that “with our thoughts, we make the world”. I’d like to add that with our words, we make our thoughts. Thus, it’s important for us to choose our words wisely.
Sometimes, the way we choose to describe certain experiences can lead to unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. This may cause us to feel crippled in the face of ordinary, important, and beautiful parts of life, thus draining the joy from living. If we wish to fix our damaged ideas about what life ought to be like, we should first fix the words we use to build our thoughts about the world. In doing so, we may begin to live in a way that doesn’t limit our spiritual and mental growth or crush our potential with trivialities.
Think of the way people in our society talk about love, for example: “I fell in love,” “I fell head over heels for him,” “I was smitten,” “I’m completely lovestruck.” All of these terms reference pain. Falling isn’t usually a pleasant experience, and neither is being struck by something. “Smitten” is just the past participle of “smite,” which means to be struck, defeated and conquered.
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The power of words
The words we use to conceptualize love are the same sorts of words they use to describe war, conquest, injury, defeat and other painful or violent experiences. Perhaps if we didn’t think about love in this way, we’d be more comfortable with it and more at peace with our emotions. Maybe conceptualizing the phenomenon of becoming enamored with someone as “walking into love” or “jumping into love” rather than “falling in love” would make us less likely to become obsessive, toxic, vengeful or easily hurt when it comes to romantic relationships.
Now, think about how our culture leads us to conceptualize things like time, adulthood and impermanence. We constantly talk about wasting or spending too much time on certain activities, ultimately equating time to money.
When it comes to conceptualizing adulthood, younger millennials are famous for inventing the word “adulting,” which perpetuates the idea that real adulthood is a state of perfect stability in which one knows exactly what one wants from life and how to achieve it. Since most millennials haven’t reached that sort of state, this term is a way for them to describe how they don’t qualify as real adults and are actually just overgrown children masquerading as adults, barely able to complete mundane tasks or cope with life’s difficulties.
Ironically, the truth of the matter is that nobody — millennial or otherwise — lives in a state of perfect stability, so there’s no way such a state could reasonably be considered a marker of adulthood. Life is constantly changing, no matter what state of life one is in.
Impermanence is what may trouble our modern society the most. When we notice a few gray hairs or wrinkles, we wail about our youth slipping away and lament losing our beauty, as if these things ever fully belonged to us in the first place or were meant to be permanent. A word which I find particularly useful for thinking about life in all of its beautiful impermanence is “wabi-sabi”. This Japanese term encompasses a worldview in which simplicity, imperfection, impermanence, and authenticity are celebrated rather than shunned in favor of an imagined idea of perfection. Life is organic, constantly changing and full of pleasing asymmetry.
Adopting a wabi-sabi worldview is partially about knowing that nothing is permanent, that nothing is ever truly finished or complete, and that nothing is perfect. The other part of living a wabi-sabi life is learning to love and accept all of this.
Perhaps we need to come to terms with some simple, hard truths and adjust our words accordingly. Time isn’t quantifiable in the same way that money is, and while we may exchange our time for money, we don’t know how much we have left and can’t work to earn more of it. Time is something we’re given for absolutely no price at all. It’s a gift, and it isn’t being wasted so long as it’s being enjoyed.
Life isn’t meant to be stable, and people aren’t meant to be perfect or all-knowing. Using perfection and stability as markers of true adulthood creates a world in which nobody ever becomes an adult. A better indication of maturity and adulthood would be the ability to cope with instability and change. Impermanence is the only constant in life, so youth and beauty aren’t things which can actually belong to anyone, but rather things which we may borrow from this ever-shifting universe for a brief moment and then give back once our moment is done. What we have left afterward is old age — another temporary gift which ought to be accepted with gratitude.
If we hold damaging ideas about love, time, adulthood, aging, and perfection, perhaps it’s because those ideas are built on a foundation of damaging words. If we change the words we use to describe and think about universal human experiences, embracing a more wabi-sabi worldview in the process, we may create patterns of thought which lead to more fruitful and enjoyable lives.
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