Finding Inner Peace
“A mind at peace does not engender wars.” ~Sophocles
How to Stop the War in Your Head and Find Peace
There’s a classic Buddhist story about two monks who come upon a woman at the edge of a river. One of the monks carries her across and they continue on their way. Several miles on, the other monk turns to the first and says, “How could you do that? We have made vows never to touch a woman!” The first looks serenely at him. “Are you still carrying her? I set her down at the edge of the river.”
This is exactly what our minds do, if we aren’t careful: We carry our upsets with us long after the original cause is over. (We also pick up imaginary burdens from a future that may never come.) It’s what I call “the war in your head.”
You know what it feels like. On the surface, you are going about your day—at work, driving, shopping, watching TV. But in your mind you’re going over, maybe for the hundredth time, what your boss or neighbor or ex-spouse said last week. Or what they might say or do next week.
Only a sliver of your attention is on what is happening now. The rest of you is in the future or the past, reliving an old battle or imagining a future one.
I say the war in your head, but you will inevitably feel its effects in your body as well. Maybe your throat or your chest is tight, your breathing is shallow, and your stomach feels a bit nauseous. As far as your body’s concerned, you might as well be experiencing the scene in reality: the stress hormones flow just as surely, doing their damage.
When the war is in your head, you are the loser, every time. It doesn’t matter how often you re-fight the battle (or fight it in advance)—you have ceded your peace of mind, and anything else that might be available to you in the present moment. You can wear yourself out, even boxing with shadows.
I learned this the hard way, during and after my divorce. I spent hours, days, weeks, and months with a full-scale war raging in my head. I sleepwalked through the rest of my life to the accompaniment of a continuous background rumble of outrage, pain, and anger.
Most of my energy and attention were sucked up in imaginary arguments with my ex-husband, his lawyer, and the judge. I would go over and over the same ground, inwardly reciting my grievances, telling them off, or spinning down the rabbit holes of innumerable “what if” scenarios. None of it did me any good—the war in my head only added to my suffering.
Eventually I realized what I was doing to myself and laid down my arms in sheer exhaustion. The quiet in my mind was almost eerie, like a battlefield after the ceasefire is called.
Although my divorce continued along much the same lines it had been, I refused to give up my entire life and energy to the fight. I consulted with my lawyer, did what was necessary when it was necessary, and slowly became aware of the life that had been flowing around me, unnoticed and unlived, while I fought my inner war.