Is Heaven Just a Thought Away?

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If crazy people can separate from their thoughts, perhaps the rest of us can, too. How much difference is there between the disordered impulses of OCD and the painful, repetitive thoughts many of us carry that make us scared, angry or sad?  According to Byron Katie, it’s not the thoughts themselves that hurt us. It’s the fact that we believe them.

Katie, author of “Loving What Is” teaches people not to attach to their thoughts.  “Thoughts just appear,” she says. “They come out of nothing and go back to nothing, like clouds moving across the empty sky. There is no harm in them until we attach to them as if they were true.  I have never experienced a stressful feeling that wasn’t caused by attaching to an untrue thought.”

I would add that many of our deepest thoughts come from things we heard, experienced or learned as children. We may have misunderstood them in the first place, but they have controlled our lives ever since. They may have become core beliefs, so deep that we aren’t even aware of them. By looking at our thoughts from a distance, by questioning them, we can change the way we see the world.

When I watch Katie work, or read transcripts, the rapid healing people achieve amazes me. In one tape, she talks with a man whose wife has left him and his daughter, to live in Europe with an old flame.  He sounds angry, but he looks scared and sad. He makes statements like, “My wife doesn’t accept me for who I am,” and “My wife should see how thoughtful and loving I am.” He worries that his daughter will be traumatized for life. His shoulders are sagging; he often breaks into tears.

For each statement he makes, Katie asks him, “Is this really true? Think about it.  Can you know that she doesn’t accept you?” Can you absolutely know that your daughter will be wounded by this? In most cases, the husband has to admit that he doesn’t really know. His daughter appears to be skating through Mom’s absence, actually spending more time with Dad, which they both like.

Katie’s next question is usually “How do you react when you think this thought?  Physically, emotionally, what do you do when you think this thought? How do you feel?” This husband, like most of Katie’s clients, admits that he feels terrible with whatever thought they’re talking about.  Then she asks, “Who would you be without this thought?” And the answer is usually, “I would be happier.” “I would be strong.” “I would be more loving,” or something like that.

Then she asks clients to “turn the thought around.”  There are several possible turnarounds – in this case the husband changed “She doesn’t accept me as I am,” to “I don’t accept me as I am,” and also “I don’t accept her as she is.”  He turned “My wife should see how thoughtful and loving I am” to “I should see how thoughtful and loving I am.” And then (after a pause and some tears) “I should see how thoughtful and loving she is.” By the end of the session, he is feeling love for his wife and way more confidence in himself. His posture has improved and he is even laughing at his now disbelieved thoughts.

Katie says you can’t really stop thoughts or control them.  What you can do is question them. “I don’t let go of my thoughts,” she says. “I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.”

I was totally with Katie up to this point. But she also believes that everything in the world is good. Her philosophy goes back to 18th Century “Optimists” like Liebniz, who said “This is the best of all possible worlds.”  There may be some problems, but if God removed those, it would create others that are worse.

Katie goes much farther, though – this is not just the best possible world, but a perfect world. “Everything that is, is right,” as English Optimist and poet Alexander Pope wrote. I can’t believe that, or more accurately, I don’t want to believe it. Torture exists, but it is not right. Destroying countries with radioactive bombs, pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico, things like that can’t be good, in my opinion. But Katie certainly seems to believe it’s all good. And watching and listening to her, it seems that she lives in heaven.  The streets where she walks, and the whole world are Paradise to her.

My friend Jane asked me, “Is [Katie] blissful, or just oblivious?”  I couldn’t tell. Maybe it’s not important.  She is happy; she is helping others.  And this happiness might be available to nearly anyone who wants it. It won’t change the world, but it changes our perception of the world. Heaven may be just a thought away, so why are we waiting on the far shore?  I’m not sure; perhaps you can help.

Even without total bliss, I have to admit that stepping back from my thoughts is making me happier. Other people notice it too. When I don’t attach to my own thoughts, it makes it easier to hear other people’s reality, and easier to connect with them.  Sometimes it does feel like I’m walking (well, scooting) on the Way of Heaven. And sometimes it doesn’t. But the difference seems mainly in what I’m thinking at the time, and whether I believe it.

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13 Responses to Is Heaven Just a Thought Away?

  1. Ann Williams says:

    I do believe that by stepping back from our stream-of-thought we can experience moments of balance, peace, perfection. And I also believe that real evil exists, so our peace cannot be perfect in this world at this time.

    The discussion of this could be very abstract. I prefer a more experiential, observational, approach — one might call it evidence-based. I have noticed sometimes people can experience peace, harmony, blessing. And I have also noticed terrible times, of injustice, violence, greed and death. Both exist. I can live more and more in the peace and blessing, but cannot fully be aware and compassionate without also noticing evil. And I can be even more compassionate, peaceful, whole, and harmonious by living as a member of a spiritual community where love is a practice.

    As a practicing contemplative Christian, Jesus’s words, “the Kingdom of God is within you” are comforting to me. The translation from the Greek really means both “within you” and also “among you” or even “in your midst”. In other words, yes, I have that peaceful place of unity and perfection within me, and I also experience it in the love of a community of people who sure seeking to experience peace, love, and joy together.

  2. Arlene Jech says:

    Yes, heaven is just a thought away, when we focus, stop thinking, and just breathe…When we watch our breath come in and go out, and feel the peace. From Rumi…”Stop the words now. Open the window in the center of your chest, and let the spirit fly in and out…. Your old life was a frantic running from silence. The speechless full moon comes out now.” For the neuroscience behind the above, I recommend Rick Hanson’s book “Buddha’s Brain-the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom.” Love and Peace.

  3. publichealthgal says:

    I like the concept. I do believe that quality of life is 95% attitude, since we cannot control many variables-only the way we react to them. However, living in bliss and ignoring suffering in ourselves or in others probably will not bring about substantive positive social change or fight injustice. Some recognition of suffering is needed. Also, I believe you must know sadness to also understand feeling grateful and happy.

    • Dave Brast says:

      How do we control how we react to the many variables we cannot control? Here’s an idea: maybe we can’t control how we react to them, but maybe a seed gets planted, the seed of wanting to see what is because what is is interesting. And then when things we can’t control happen (which may be just about everything) we look at them and see them differently from how we did when we didn’t look, and so the way we react to them is different – or maybe it isn’t.

      Another way to look at it is this: who is it that’s going to control how we react?

      Also, what is positive social change?

      Just some passing thoughts. Whoops! There they go. Now they’re gone.

  4. A great piece. I joined a meditation group and it lets you throw those thoughts out for at least one hour, wonderful. You learn your thoughts are just your thought, you don’t have to given them any power. Wonderful.

  5. Sounds like cognitive psychology blended sweetly with Buddhism. Sounds like what I have been practicing for years, informed by my degree in Clinical Psychology, years of work with clients, and my lively interest in religion. Perhaps I am not as consistent as I could be, since I am in heaven only half the time…. But I endorse this approach. This is a very wise and powerful blog. Thanks for the reminder and the inspiration!

  6. sekani says:

    If being blissfully peaceful is a mental state like any other, than it follows that it can be achieved more readily with practice. Likewise, having a healthy, compassionate response to suffering in the world can be developed with practice. And so on, and so on.

  7. Your thoughts are thoughts, your emotions are emotions, your judgments are judgments, your pain is pain. It can be incredibly freeing to start to recognize all of them for what they are, to watch them come and go, and to recognize yourself as the experiencer, not the experience. You don’t need to eradicate anything to start being mindful of your own process. Easier said than done, but like the answer to ‘how do you get to carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice.’
    Like all of you have already said in different words. Thanks.

  8. sekani says:

    Just to add to my previous comment:
    I’ve had my struggles with the voices in my head becoming unbearable, and it is not an experience I’d wish on anyone. But without that experience of suffering and healing, I don’t know that I would have the same level of love and compassion for myself and the world that I enjoy now.

    I’m not arguing that torture and environmental catastrophe are good things, but there is a possibility for many good things to arise out of the bad. The good ol’ lotus is still blooming out of the swamp.

    An argument could be made human beings do a decent job being, “good,” considering our given circumstances. Imagine if all 7billion of us all of a sudden had the minds of alligators while retaining our technological abilities. Things might get pretty ugly, no offense to alligators.

  9. jim snell says:

    Special thanks for sharing again. There are many fine comments, thoughts and suggestions on you web site.

    There is a real sense and reality about the mind and its radar narrowly focused on the immediate and pressing.

    This is helpful when the saber tooth tiger is bearing down for a quick snack.

    Other times one really needs to separate that system and narrow focus and stand back and smell the flowers and giving body and soul a chance.

    Sometimes that is not easy nor trivial but it is critical to giving brain and body a chance.

  10. Will Fudeman says:

    Techniques that work to bring us greater freedom and alleviate our suffering are worth practicing. I’ve found Zhi Neng Qi Gong to be a remarkable practice to create feelings of open-hearted and embodied well-being. It’s like a form of self-hypnosis, where we visualize sending golden light to various parts of our body, streaming, washing over us like a waterfall. We imagine sending smiles to our internal organs. One could call this ridiculous. Still, thousands of people go to medical qi gong hospitals in China, spend several weeks practicing Qi Gong, and some heal from serious illnesses. Anyone who does this will experience well-being. Even if my frustration at the hurtful actions of greedy and clueless people who don’t deserve the power they have to hurt others is based on an accurate perception of our world, my well-being and my ability to be effective in this world are enhanced by practicing clearing out negative thoughts and emotions and imagining that I can heal myself.

  11. Laurie Troyer says:

    Thanks David, for reminding me of this stuff. It’s really important. I’m familiar with Byron Katie’s work, but never really practised it.
    Last year I was seriously depressed, but this shifted over time, especially when I changed my activities and environment. My attention shifted onto different things and I really started to enjoy myself. It really counts what one is focusing on.

  12. Naima says:

    Heaven seems to be just a “no-thought” away. In our world of duality, the thought “this is beautiful” is bringing with it “that is ugly” or “this is right” is followed by “that is wrong.” No-thought or no-mind is the only way out of the hell that we create for ourselves. Then again, even the concept of “heaven ” has hell lurking on the other side. Anyway do you really want to be sitting with a bunch of disembodied spirits on cold clammy clouds playing harps for eternity singing “hallelujah”? Ask yourself that question!

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