Are you experiencing anxiety, fear, depression, grief or other emotions that you are struggling to live with? Do intrusive thoughts bog you down? Do you find yourself getting lost and spiraling down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts? Are you struggling to relax? Does your life feel like one crisis after another?
It is common for us to incessantly attempt to avoid pain and move toward things like pleasure, safety, comfort, etc. We attempt to forecast the future and avoid situations, people, and things that might lead to discomfort, pain, and uncomfortable emotions. In a way, one can arrange their life around what they believe will bring pain and what will bring pleasure, relief, safety, or comfort. We focus on our external environment in hopes of quelling our fear, anxiety, depression, etc. And while this may work from time to time, it likely runs out of effectiveness pretty quickly. This can cause quite a predicament and shrink our world down to the size of a thimble. We are no longer adventurous, curious, or spontaneous.
We seek safety, familiarity, and comfort over exploration, fun, growth and what we really want to experience in life. Some say life becomes dull, predictable and loses any sense of aliveness. With all this being said, I want to posit a new way of looking at things. It is a shift from looking out there at the external world to looking in here at one’s internal world. This is where I believe transformation and healing takes place. This can also be quite the relief to stop seeking and looking for the next external thing (relationship, job, city, toy, etc.) to feel better and find happiness.
A Simple Exercise
Let’s start with a simple exercise that has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Fill in the following sentence with whatever comes to mind. Take a minute, pull out a sheet of paper, and jot down what comes to mind. Be exhaustive.
“I’m the kind of person who...”
You may have filled out the sentence with descriptor words like “intelligent, lazy, insecure, driven, wealthy, poor, etc.” You may also have listed emotions that you feel often like “anxious, depressed, optimistic, sad, boring, etc.” You may even have listed several roles you play in your life like “parent, spouse, friend, manager, salesman, etc.” Whatever you wrote in the blank reflects a belief you hold about yourself. Some beliefs are helpful and probably work in a lot of ways and other beliefs can be limiting, unworkable and possibly cause suffering or pain in your experience. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach I integrate into my work with clients that is a process of looking at one’s beliefs and seeing how they impact one’s experience. CBT works to help one change core beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. While this can be a quite powerful approach, I want to take this a step further and provide a metaphor that can be quite freeing and can help to relieve suffering.
The Old School Film Projector
Imagine there is an old school film projector that stands on a tripod. The film projector plays the film reels and projects it onto the screen in the front of a dark room.
Now that you have the idea of the film projector, I want to tell you a story. Someone once told me a story about cowboys in the early 1900s entering a movie theater that was showing a film in black and white. During one particular movie, there was a scene of a bad guy trying to rob a young, beautiful lady in an old western town. Just as the bad guy entered the screen and attempted to rob the beautiful lady, a cowboy sitting in the theater quickly pulled out his gun and shot the robber on the screen. The other cowboys laughed hysterically as the movie scene kept playing and all that was changed was a bullet hole in the movie screen. In the heat of the moment, the cowboy who was watching the film believed the events taking place on the screen were real, when in reality they were only being projected onto the screen. They originated from the projector in the back of the theater. If the cowboy would have turned around and shot the projector, he might’ve stood the chance of effecting what was being projected onto the screen.
I laugh every time I think of this story because I know in my own life, I can often be like the cowboy who is shooting at the screen, attempting to change what is out there. This silly story is a beautiful depiction of how our consciousness works. We tend to focus on out there and the external world and we forget the role that our internal world plays in projecting onto and creating what we experience in the external world.
Let’s explore more deeply what the screen, the film reels, and the film projector represent. The screen represents the outer world that we project and interact with. We project meaning onto everything and while it can sure look like it is coming from out there, it is subtly being created from our internal state and experience (emotions, thoughts, beliefs, etc).
The film reels represent our various emotional states, patterns of thought, beliefs or even roles we play in our life. When we over-identify with a certain role, emotion, belief or thought loop, we mistakenly believe that it is us. We forget that it is merely just a film reel or a program (the software) that is running and we make the false attribution, “I am ____”. One of my favorite authors, David Hawkins, said, “the origin of emotional sickness lay in people’s belief that they were their personalities.” From this, one might ask, “If we’re not the reels of film, then who are we?” This is where the film projector comes in.
The film projector represents our consciousness. It is the unchanging, immovable part of our experience that can observe all that is taking place in our experience. It is beyond our physical body and even our mind. It is the awareness that can observe both the mind and the body. It is the Self that is beyond our personality, the roles we play, our beliefs, thoughts, and emotions.
The Power of Meditation
This can be a challenging idea to grasp and is something that is beneath all meditative practices. Meditation can be a means of dis-identifying from one’s thoughts and ideas, creating a space of observation and non-attachment. By practicing meditation (in any of its various forms), difficult emotions and thoughts become less scary to be with because they aren’t so all-encompassing or self-defining. They simply are the images being projected onto the screen. They can be watched, they don’t have to be shot at, fought with or resisted. This is a place where transformation and healing can begin. I have seen counseling be a space where people leave with a greater sense of ease, certainty, calm, and peace of mind that they might not have known to be possible when they started.
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPC
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