I was cleaning my office a while ago and found an old letter. Not a love letter (I can feel you leaning in), but a query letter addressed to John Nash. Do you know who he is?
He’s the mathematician who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
He was also the subject of the film, A Beautiful Mind.
You know . . . the guy from Princeton who suffered from mental illness.
(Which is the only reason I was reaching out.)
I not interested in numbers or game theory or economic behaviour.
I don’t have the intellectual aptitude for the kind of work Mr. Nash was so passionate about.
But mental wellbeing? Honey, that rings my bells.
For good reason.
Throughout my life, I’ve suffered from chronic anxiety.
In my mid-thirties, (after realizing that benzos weren’t cutting the mustard), I decided to give Cognitive Behavioural Therapy a try.
At the time, this felt like a radical step. Even my doctor was sceptical.
You want to ditch medication so you can pay attention to your thoughts and emotions?
And it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
(Please know I’m not suggesting that you need to stop medication to benefit from CBT—or that you need to stop medication at all.)
My anxiety wasn’t so much about a chemical imbalance, as it was dysfunctional patterns of thought and unfinished emotional business.
Thankfully, that’s what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treats.
And because of it, I learned some astonishing things:
Our brains don’t care if we think a rational or irrational thought.
Our minds tend to generate a lot of mental mistakes that actually need to be questioned.
Our thoughts aren’t necessarily true or even REAL.
Healthy brains make us feel the way we should based upon our thinking.
In other words,
Our feeling states are caused by our thoughts and interpretations.
Which means my symptoms were actually brought on by my own mental patterns.
This one realization changed the direction of my life and put me on the path to self-awareness.
I started to become conscious of my thoughts and began to see how they were driving my emotions and actions.
I also began to see why Eckhart Tolle said that thinking has become a disease.
Getting lost in thought is one thing, but getting LOST in thought is quite another.
In today’s world, most of us have become fused to our thinking to the point that we believe we ARE our minds.
And that’s a problem. Because how can we check for mental mistakes if we don’t have some psychological distance?
If we’re not the ones using our minds, then our minds are using US.
And that leaves intuition and creative intelligence out in the cold.
So when I learned that John Nash (who was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for paranoid schizophrenia) had stopped his medication and instead, chosen “a diet of the mind” I sat down and wrote him a letter.
“I’m deeply curious about your ability to separate yourself from your illusions and would like to interview you.”
Because, honestly! If someone with schizophrenia can train his focus away from “the voices in his head” anyone can.
Sadly, Nash and his wife, Alicia, were killed in a car crash before I even signed my name to the page. I tucked the letter away and that was that. Then, almost a year later, I watched A Brilliant Madness (a short documentary about John's life) and was pulled right back into his story.
In it, John describes his recovery from mental illness as "moving from one type of thinking to another".
When a friend asked him how he managed to do it, Nash said, "I willed it. I decided I was going to think rationally."
And that's when I realized . . .
John Nash didn’t stop hearing voices—he just stopped listening to them.
And while I’m in no position to speculate on John's mental condition or the extent of his recovery (there are professionals who argue he was misdiagnosed and wasn’t really a schizophrenic) I am here to point out one incredible fact:
John Nash was able to separate himself from the voices in his head so he could make healthy, rational decisions.
And that’s worth talking about.
Because I believe mental illness is only a matter of degrees.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we all have a voice inside our head.
And that voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, criticizes, defends and is responsible for a LOT of internal noise.
Which can cause imbalance (like anxiety and depression).
Just ask Eckhart Tolle.
There was a time in his life when he was so unhappy he wanted to die. One day he saw a “crazy” woman angrily arguing with herself on the street.
He looked at the woman and thought, “the only difference between us is that I’m not talking out loud.”
Maybe you can relate.
I certainly can.
I‘ve had so many angry conversations in my head (mostly with intolerant Christians) that I’ve physically and mentally exhausted myself.
Maybe you’ve done this too. (With your boss? With your mother?) And maybe you noticed that the “voice” played both parts of that confrontation and that you got emotionally heated even though you were COMPLETELY ALONE IN A ROOM BY YOURSELF.
Eckhart Tolle noticed this too.
During one particularly unhappy period in his life, he thought, “I can’t live with myself any longer.”
And the duality of that statement hit him like a white-hot bolt of lightening.
"If I can’t live with myself, there must be two of me. And maybe, only one of them is real.”
He was so stunned by this realization, that the voice in his mind STOPPED TALKING.
He says in The Power of Now that he felt himself being sucked into a void within himself. He was still present and conscious, but there were no more thoughts.
Years later he came to understand this part as his true nature—consciousness in its pure state without identification with the physical body.
For the next 5 months he lived in a constant state of deep inner peace and bliss.
The same kind of peace Jill Bolte Taylor talks about in her amazing book My Stroke of Insight.
When Taylor suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain, the voice in her head stopped talking too.
She says in her book, “In place of that constant chatter, I felt enfolded by a blanket of tranquil euphoria.”
Like Eckhart, she experienced a state of peace created by a lack of noise.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you try to stop your thoughts. (Good luck with that anyway.) Suppression of ANY kind only leads to backlash.
I’m just suggesting that you stop taking your thoughts so seriously.
Which means asking yourself three very important questions.
The 3 Rational Questions
(an adaptation of Dr. Maultsby’s Five Criteria for Rational Thinking)
1. Is my thinking based on fact?
2. Does my thinking help me achieve my goals?
3. Does my thinking help me feel the way I want to feel?
Three yes answers means your thought is rational.
Well, yes and no.
There's usually resistance to this type of probing—the same kind of resistance we feel when it’s time to put the potato chips down and drag ourselves off the coach and onto the treadmill.
It takes some effort, my lovely!
But mental wellbeing is DEFINITELY worth it.
So the next time you find yourself caught up in your own brand of madness, please take a breath and step back.
You're not the voice in your head.
Your TRUE self is the listener, or the observer of that voice.
You are the consciousness behind all the noise.
And just like John Nash, once you train yourself to recognize what's real and what isn't, you're capable of incredible brilliance.
If you need a coach for that kind of training (or just a friend in your corner), I'm always here.
Sending you so much love,