Oliver, a forty-something failed salesman felt down on himself. He considered his life a failure. He had failed to get promotions, failed to make a salary comparable to others in his position, failed to connect with a meaningful relationship, and so on. But Oliver also failed to take care of himself, what he wore, what he ate, the need to exercise and develop healthy self-care habits. And so, he despised himself, ruminated over how life was unfair, obsessed on how bad things always happened to him.
While he was thinking those thoughts, he stepped outside his car onto a very busy street, not paying attention to the traffic, and was struck by a speeding bicyclist. Falling hard on the pavement, Oliver fell into a deep coma that lasted a couple of days during which time God had an opportunity to squeeze between Oliver's obsessional thoughts and ruminations.
God had been trying for some time to speak to Oliver but could never get a word in edge-wise, so persistent was Oliver to preoccupy himself with his negative self-talk. So now God had a chance, and this is what God told Oliver. God said, 'Oliver, you paid no attention to where you were going so captivated were you by your thoughts, and you paid no attention to what you were doing. Now you are in a coma and could die, but I am going to have mercy on you and give you another shot at life. In fact, just to make sure you have an adequate cushion, I am going to grant you forty more years to live!
Perhaps it was this grand gesture by God that jolted Oliver from his coma! In any case, Oliver wok up and said to himself, "Was that really God who spoke to me? And do I really have forty more years to live?" Ruminating on this possibility, as Oliver was wont to do, he decided might as well take a chance on it. "After all," he thought, "what do I of all people have to lose?"
And thus it was that Oliver shifted his obsessional thinking and self-preoccupied ruminations to consider what a special person he was, blessed by no one other than God! Granted to have forty more years to live! Led by those thoughts, Oliver began to change his outer life. He bought a whole new wardrobe, updated his automobile to a luxury model, joined an exercise club that provided a trainer, nutritionist, and a full curriculum of self-help classes. His sales went up, he got a promotion, and he even got botox -- later granting himself the gift of plastic surgery, an investment that paid off, he felt, with a trim figure, a prominent chin, a youthful hairline, and abs that would be the envy of any man twenty years younger.
Work colleagues were astonished, prospective dates badgered him for attention, and Oliver's thoughts dwelt on what a grand man he had become. In fact, Oliver was thinking exactly those thoughts when he stepped outside his car on the same very busy street where he had been struck only three years earlier, and as bad luck would have it, struck again by a speeding courier-bicyclist.
Once again, Oliver fell hard on the street and went into a deep coma. This time, death was more imminent and Oliver found himself at the Pearly Gates where God was on duty, having given the gate-keeper a thirty-minute break.
Oliver felt confused. How could this be? He was dying, about to pass through the Pearly Gates. And Oliver was also very angry. He yelled over to God who was busy at the moment with some book-keeping triviality. But Oliver persisted. "God," he called. "Look over here; it's me! You promised me forty more years and I have thirty-seven left! What happened? What kind of mistake is this?!"
So God looks over toward Oliver, and comes even closer for a better look. "Oh my," said God, "this is a terrible mistake! I did not recognize you!" 1
A funny story, you may think, but what is the point? And I share the question with you. The story is funny but sad, comedic but tragic, drawing from the realm of our deep humanity but also quite archetypal if you reflect on it. This "joke" is certainly not a morality tale, but yet it does strike a moral chord. There is in each of us a "radio station" playing in our mind all the time with messages from its "sponsors," such as neurotic guilt, shame, envy, pride, anger, loneliness, fear. To draw upon another metaphor, each of us in the dark night of our souls has murmurings from the shadow-land of our deep unconscious. Perhaps as children and young people, we may have thought that as maturing adults we would have those voices tamed or at least have the volume turned down.
But we make a mistake if we think the voices are gone. We may not hear them but the "radio station of unconscious ramblings" goes on and on, twenty-four/seven. And apparently our mind's subliminal hearing of these messages pulls us into the distractions of an on-going replay of the soul's morose messages or of the ego's attempts to cover them up with games of power, materialistic yearnings, sexual exploits, or even religious ideologies.
And so, a "spell" is cast that guides our minds into the dark caverns of neurotic preoccupations or to the airy flights of distracting adventures that take us away from our deep, true self. If this is the case, which I believe to be true, then it is fitting to ask this question: "Are you mindful of your mind?" Or, "Who is watching over your wandering mind?"
And how might one engage in this practice of paying attention to our minds? You might consider these two ideas: Observe your dreams closely. What is your "mind" doing or saying, not doing or not saying? Yet again, try this. Sit quietly for a period of five to twenty minutes. Observe the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that come to your attention. But do not engage them. Simply observe.
Through our dreams and our sitting mindfully, we learn to gain some objectivity about our mind, our thoughts, our perceptions, ad our feelings. It is not that we are trying to control our mind as much as it is to see that our mind does not control us! I have a mind; it does not have me ... as it did have with poor Oliver!
Paul Gilbert. In a seminar presented by the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School. (With some revisions to Gilbert's original telling and my own adaptation of meaning.)