What is “real”?

The computer you’re typing on, the chair you’re sitting in, the glasses you’re wearing and the one you’re drinking from are all real. The house you’re living in and the television you’re watching: those are real too.

However, your feelings, thoughts, interpretations, and emotions, all of them, are not real.

Now I have your attention, I’m sure.

I am not one to simply make a provocative statement and then walk away, so I invite you to play along with the following 2 scenarios as I explain what some of you may currently be saying is the latest proof of my craziness.

First, please imagine yourself standing in the park nearest to where you currently are. There is a line on the ground at your feet. In front of you, not 5 feet away, sits a 4-legged chair. Now imagine the entire population of your town or city (or the world, if your imagination is so vivid) standing behind you in a single-file line.

Your instructions are simple. Walk up to the line, then take up to 10 steps forward and report what happened, then move aside so the next person in line can do the same.

Assuming everyone follows the instructions, what will happen to every single person who plays this game?

They will walk into the chair. Every single person will walk into the chair. Without exception, young or old, black, white, brown, or purple, rich or poor, athletic or artistic, each of the thousands, millions, or billions of people you imagined will walk into the chair.

Consider, therefore, that the chair is real. Though that “chair” may be called different things depending on the person talking about it, the “thing” called “chair” or “chaise” or “ki-seh” or “silla” or however it is referred to, descriptively or not, is still real.

What makes the chair real? It is real because it occurs the same way to anyone and everyone who experiences it.

Now imagine yourself in a group of 300 people selected to attend a special screening of a movie, showing for the very first time. As in the last example, the instructions are simple. Watch the movie and, when it is over, answer questions about the movie and their experience of it.

After the credits roll, each of the 300 people are asked about their feelings, thoughts, judgments and interpretations about the movie.

How many different answers do you think will be given? Consider that there can be up to 300 different answers to these questions as the exact same movie can be felt, thought of, judged, and interpreted any number of ways. Each person has unique feelings, thoughts, judgments, and interpretations which may or may not come from their attitude, experience, history, fears, likes and dislikes, or some other source that they may or even may not be aware is having an impact on them.

Consider that this complete and utter inconsistency in response to the exact same input is our indication that FEELINGS, THOUGHTS, INTERPRETATIONS, EMOTIONS, JUDGMENTS, etc… ARE NOT REAL.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that feelings, thoughts, interpretations, emotions, and judgments do not occur. I am specifically saying that they are not REAL.

Now that the distinction has been made, why is it important and how can you use this knowledge?

Distinguishing what is real from what is unreal is crucial to maintaining our sanity and assists us in maintaining an attitude that is aligned with what we are committed to in life.

Knowledge alone that emotions are not real will not eliminate one’s “sadness” after a breakup or the death of a loved one. Similarly, that the emotion of “love” is not real will not invalidate the loving relationship that a person has with their spouse, child, parent, or pet. That the judgments of “right” or “wrong” are not real does not constitute an invitation to lawlessness or disrespect, and so on…

What this distinction allows is the ability, first, to understand the different impacts of “real” things vs. “unreal” things on our lives, and second, to choose how we deal with these things.

Something that is real, exists. That chair, for example, is real. Without the instructions given, if you do not want to walk into it, you can choose to walk around it, step onto it, perhaps even move it. Whatever you do, you cannot deny it. It is real. Your choice lies in what you do next, having accepted its reality.

Something that is unreal, simply, can be changed, transformed, replaced, ignored, or otherwise managed, simply by changing one’s mind.

I hear the chorus now – “but that’s very hard, Mark!” Perhaps, but “hard” is a judgment, and as such, it is not real. In the same way that you *said* “that’s hard”, you could have just as easily said “awesome! that’s easy! I’ll do it!”

To further illustrate the first example, a person walks into the chair and exclaims “Who put this stupid chair here? “Chair” is real, but “stupid” is not. The next person in line, after having followed the instructions, sees the chair and might choose to adjust their speed to minimize the effect of the impact when they, too, walk into the chair. Instead of going into a place of anger, blame, and resentment, the second person simply accepts the reality of the chair as well as its location, leaving them free to continue their life without the burden of the upset that the first person is now living with.

I doubt highly that any of us have encountered the chair-in-the-park scenario, so here’s one that’s a bit more plausible. As you drive, next to another car, at a decent pace down a narrow road behind a truck, the truck loses part of its load of carpentry nails. Both cars immediately slam on the brakes, but it’s too late, one has already pierced the front tire of your car as well as a tire on the car next to you. The tire loses pressure rapidly, and both cars are stuck. Ironically, both drivers were running late for meetings. This will not help.

One driver jumps out of his car and runs down the street trying to catch a glimpse of the license plate of the offending truck. This driver screaming about how irresponsible the driver is, how he’s going to pay for the tire, etc.. etc.. he is fuming mad! As the driver walks back to the car, disconsolate, he notices the other driver, also with a flat tire, calmly talking on the phone.

Two drivers, both with a flat tire (REAL), dealing with this reality in two dramatically different ways. The first driver refuses to accept his reality, while the second took a deep breath, realized that their flat tire wasn’t going to repair itself, accepted what happened, and took action to help his situation. The benefits to the second driver are clear and undeniable. He will accomplish more to the benefit of his situation and will suffer less on the emotional side simply because he chose not to resist reality.

In every situation, there are elements of reality and other elements that are not real. Said differently, these unreal elements are made up. The worst thing we could do is deny that we make things up. To confuse reality with our made up emotions, judgments, thoughts, interpretations, and feelings is sure to create a situation that will lead to a less-than-happy conclusion.

The key to success in the realm of reality has a few steps. First, admit that you make things up hundreds of times a day. Second, recognize that, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with making stuff up, provided that you recognize that you’re doing just that. Finally, remember the golden rule: “if you’re going to make things up anyway, only make up things that inspire you.”

Concretely, this rule will guide you well. It will remind you to stay away from making up negative-sounding stories about your mother, father, partner, neighbour etc… On the positive side, it will encourage you to make up any story that you want that brings you closer to these people and leaves you happy.

Just because love and happiness are unreal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want, (read: make up) as much of them as possible. Go create an abundance of love and happiness in your lives. Every day, as often as possible. And when you find unreal negative emotions, judgments, thoughts, interpretations, and feelings at the forefront of your lives, you know what to do: change your mind. It’s easy.

Do you know why it’s easy? Because I said so.

If you don’t want to believe me, believe Henry Ford, who offers this succinct analysis of the power we give our unreal thoughts: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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4 Comments

  1. Re: “FEELINGS, THOUGHTS, INTERPRETATIONS, EMOTIONS, JUDGMENTS, etc… ARE NOT REAL.”

    My perspective–and that of cognitive-behavioural therapists as a group–is rather that feelings, thoughts, emotions, etc are REAL but not necessarily TRUE. Just because you think something or feel something doesn’t mean that it it’s true. But the thought or emotion that you had is still real.

    Cognitive restructuring is the CBT process of disputing faulty or distorted thoughts. Once the unhelpful thoughts have been demonstrated to be distorted, people can, as you suggest in your flat tire example, accept what’s happening and take effective action.

    But telling someone that his or her thoughts or emotions aren’t real seems invalidating and unhelpful. Rather, they are reactions to an interpreted reality.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah.

      Consider that so many words are thrown around and interchanged so freely (in this case, “real”, “true”, and more) that it is important to distinguish words in order to interpret them in a clear, consistent way. My post’s purpose is to provide a plausible distinction that can be applied across the board, a tool in anyone’s belt, if you will. Note very clearly that I never said that thoughts or emotions don’t “occur”. I say that they are not “real”.

      You write : “But telling someone that his or her thoughts or emotions aren’t real seems invalidating and unhelpful.”

      Actually, “invalidating” (ironically an unreal judgment itself) assumes that the person validates themselves by way of these thoughts or emotions. My premise relies on differentiating “who you are” from “what you think” or “what you do.” And I believe that that is quite helpful. Too many people define themselves by what they think or do, when those two things can and do change thousands of times a year.

      Cognitive restructuring, and much of CBT, is a process that requires the subject to recognize, before anything else can happen, that their thoughts are “faulty” or “distorted”. I believe that it is more effective, less damaging, and less personal, to recognize that feelings, thoughts, interpretations, emotions, and judgments are “not real” rather than to base action on the premise that they are somehow “faulty” or “distorted” (i.e. somehow wrong.)

      In my distinction, the unreal thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc… are dissociated from the way that the person is. Therefore, they are not reflections of the person, but rather simply thoughts, feelings, etc.. that are held, much like a box or other package, and can be put down at any moment, figuratively, simply by changing one’s mind.

  2. A few interesting definitions to look at before sharing my view…

    REALITY:
    All of your experiences that determine how things appear to you

    REAL:
    Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verified existence;

    UNREAL:
    Lacking in reality or substance or genuineness; not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria; not actually such; being or seeming fanciful or imaginary;

    ———

    In your post, you mention that “Something that is unreal, simply, can be changed, transformed, replaced, ignored, or otherwise managed, simply by changing one’s mind.

    The same can be said about reality (or the chair being real). The chair can become a stool if I take off it’s back. It can become a ladder if I step on it to reach for something. It can become a table if I put my meal on it and sit on the floor to eat it.

    From my perspective, emotions are as real (or rather as unreal) as that chair. They can be changed, accepted, controlled, ignored, and so on. But they do happen in actuality. Happiness is created from a “real” location on the left side of the brain where as negative or anxious emotions arise from the right side of the brain.

    It has been proven that the we can choose compassion or anger in the face of the same given situation, and that by doing so we physically change the wiring inside of our brain, and thus we change reality and the way we define it.

    Your post makes many good points. The one point I believe that people should bring back with them after reading this is that believing that we are controlled by our emotions is not real, that we can choose to control our emotions and alter reality as we wish.

    The one thing that never changes is the fact that reality is always changing.

    • Thank you for your comment, Pat.

      Your example about the chair/stool/ladder/table refers to actually changing the form or use of something that is real. However, that thing exists in reality regardless of its shape or use, both before and after it is altered. Your point is well taken, though, in the sense that I realize that perhaps my definition could benefit from being more specific.

      It is crucial to this piece, though, that I clarify something: when I claim that something is “unreal”, I do not intend to imply that it did not happen. I believe that many things “happen”, some real, and some not.

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