We suffer more often in imagination than in reality


During certain months last year, I often had many negative thoughts in my mind, ranging from “What if the war in Ukraine spreads to other European countries?” to “What if it rains tomorrow and I can’t go out for a stroll?”

All kinds of thoughts, big and small, about the unknown invaded my attention. While it didn’t keep me awake at night, at certain times, my thoughts would slide to the dark side of the moon. Negative thoughts brought negative emotions and a terrible state. It seemed as if, “Indeed, my worries came true.”

But if I think carefully, did the things I worry about really happen?

The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca once said:

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Similarly, in Buddhism, there is the concept of the “monkey mind,” which refers to the restless and unsettled nature of the human mind.

Our brains not only jump up and down but also always head towards danger.

I witnessed a girl fractured her ankle and dislocated her bones after a jump, crying out in pain on the ground.

In the following days, my brain replayed the entire process repeatedly, almost as if I wanted to stare at that moment through a magnifying glass.

Now that some time has passed, I don’t think about it often anymore, only occasionally feeling a bit nervous when I see someone jumping. But during those two days, I couldn’t let my brain idle, or else that dreadful moment would keep looping in front of my eyes.

I was hijacked by my own imagination.

Another way our brains can be hijacked is by neglecting the present.

In The Power of Now, it is said that time is just an illusion. The “past” gives me a sense of self-awareness, while the “future” provides promises of salvation and fulfillment, yet both are illusions. The only reality is the present moment.

My understanding is that we focus more on the past and the future than on the present.

But what truly matters is the “now,” because the only reality is where I am right now, what I am thinking, and what I am doing.

This is not to say that we should ignore the future and the past. Our plans for the future determine what we should do now, and the past provides the background for our present decisions.

However, constantly immersing ourselves in memories and regrets of the past and imaginations of the future is just another form of being hijacked by the brain.

When I first learned to ride a bicycle, I noticed a strange phenomenon: If I saw a stone ahead, I would think, “I need to avoid this stone, don’t ride over it, don’t ride over it!”

But the result was that on such a wide road, I rode directly over that stone.

The human brain cannot process the concept of “not.” Suppose I tell you not to imagine a pink elephant outside the window. Your brain will have a pink elephant in it. If I tell you not to crash into a tree while skiing, you will end up crashing into a tree.

Because you only think about or see the thing I told you “not” to do.

Similarily, suppose you want to start a business and consult your friends; many people’s initial reaction is to think about the thousand ways it could fail. But you can consciously choose to focus your attention on the path to your goal rather than the potential stones and trees on the way — focus on the route, not the obstacles.

The human brain has been proven to have a preference for negative information, known as “negativity bias.”

This stems from our instinct for survival. We need to react to signals that indicate danger, harm, or things that are repulsive.

We are more inclined to pay attention to negative events and information, and when making decisions, we tend to think more about negative information rather than positive data. We easily immerse ourselves in imagining a bleak future, but at the same time, we learn from failures and gain experience and lessons.

This also explains why we often remember embarrassing moments from the past while others have long forgotten.

In modern society, this instinct brings us more troubles. Unfortunately, this bias cannot be eliminated. That’s just how our brains work.

Is there really no solution?

We cannot eliminate the objective existence of things, but we can consciously choose.

Firstly, we need to be aware of what was mentioned earlier: we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Secondly, when negative thoughts arise, ask yourself:

(Regarding the past) Did it really happen, or is it just my imagination? Even if it did happen, will immersing myself in this thought improve my current situation?

(Regarding the future) Will this event really happen in the future, or is it just my imagination? Will immersing myself in this thought improve my current situation?

When we realize that these thoughts are just imagination, especially negative thoughts, tell ourselves: Stop thinking about this!

If the power of the brain is too strong, and we cannot control our thoughts, then force yourself to shift your attention and do something that makes you happy, such as playing games, watching dramas, going out for a walk, reading a book, or listening to positive music.

When positive things happen, take some time to savor and recall the scenes and emotions from those moments, and you can even record them in some form.

Gradually, you will gain the power of choice.

We may not be able to change the objective facts, but we can change the way we perceive them.

Because what truly matters is our subjective experience — am I happy?

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