“Wherever you go, there you are” was a phrase made famous in the 1984 cult film classic, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. You come across variations of this statement in many diverse writings from buddhism to mindfulness to psychology to quantum physics. It seems like an obvious statement; we don’t really become different people just because we take a vacation or travel to exotic places or win the Publishers Clearing House lottery. But what else is hidden in this truism?
Most of us would admit we have a few shortcomings; habits we wish we didn’t have, attitudes that get in our way or reactions that keep us from being or doing our best. Maybe we have a habit of being overly concerned about what other people (our boss, our spouse, our peers) think of us. Maybe we still find ourselves having a knee-jerk reaction to criticism or comparing ourselves to the success of others. And our culture bombards us with the idea that if we change our outer circumstances - our job, spouse, set of friends, work environment, where we live - we would have a better (read that as meaning healthier, more productive, happier, more satisfying) life. Have you found that to be true?
What I’ve seen over and over again is that whenever I attempt to change my circumstances in the hopes of getting a new perspective and becoming smarter or more resilient, it doesn’t work. Well, it may work for a little while, but sooner or later I get triggered and fall back into my old ways of thinking and feeling. You may have had the same experience that I have, which is either that it’s really disappointing or that I’ve been duped once again. But when the dust settles, I begin to see how what appears as failure is actually a blessing in disguise, because the disappointment points me in the direction of where real change lies.
There’s an old joke about the buddha buying something to eat from a food cart, handing over the money and waiting patiently for his change, only to be told that “change must come from within”. The same is true for us when we hope to change ourselves by changing our circumstances. One of the reasons external change may work temporarily is because when we’re in a new environment the noise in our heads dies down as we take in new sights and sounds. So all that habitual thinking about what appears to be happening to us takes a back seat to what’s actually in front of us.
If changing our outer circumstances isn’t ultimately an effective strategy, what can we do? Change our inner circumstances? There are certainly plenty of techniques to attempt to do that. And sure, these methods can have some temporary effect, but they don’t address the fact that we have no control over what thoughts enter our minds in the first place, and that thoughts come and go when we don’t hold on to them.
Take worry, for instance. If I’ve made my finances a reason to worry, my mind will dwell on repetitive, negative thoughts about money; the lack of it, trying to figure out what to do about it so I have more. The more I believe those thoughts to be a valid (and scary) interpretation of my finances, the more I search for tools I’ve used in the past to feel less afraid. It’s the old “I have to but I don’t know how” conundrum. It becomes almost impossible to be receptive to fresh thinking that could inspire me to take useful action.
If we don’t create or choose what thoughts come into our minds, if they actually pass through our minds - as if they were on a conveyor belt - is there any value in doing anything to make them different or replace them? Research suggests that the mind thinks between 50,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day (though they don’t tell us how they come up with that figure). We don’t stop to examine each thought so they naturally pass through our minds and many decisions are made without our even realizing it. It’s only when we believe we have to do something about our thoughts (like make them better or replace them or solve them), that we cause the mental conveyor belt to jam up and the natural flow is disrupted.
Wherever you go, there you are. Most of the time we get stuck on our repetitive thoughts and assume that’s what we take with us. But there's something far more important that we take with us. If real change comes from within, it comes from our built-in capacity for fresh thinking that contains the solutions to our problems and the inspiration for our actions. Why waste time and energy trying to force something that’s already happening on its own? If there are unhelpful thoughts coming down the conveyor belt, we can be sure that other, more helpful thoughts will be coming along soon. Just like the bus or the subway; we may not see it yet but we know it will arrive.