The Instantaneous Mental Switch

The Instantaneous Mental Switch

I nearly cursed at an innocent German woman. 

The last eight miles of the Berlin marathon were about to be miserable. 

But then I let go of anger in a flash. 

Sam Harris, author, neuroscientist, philosopher, and podcast host, says the difference between being angry for 10 minutes, 1 minute and 1 second is enormous. Running the Berlin Marathon was the first time I understood this viscerally.

Meditation teaches that while you can’t control your thoughts, you can choose where you focus. I was angry because between miles 18 and 19 of the race my shoelaces untied four times, causing me to finish with a worse pace than I would have had I been able to run continuously. Rather than accepting, “I’m so unlucky my shoes came untied this sucks” as true, I told myself, “I’m in Berlin. This is all new, cool and exciting. I’m grateful my legs and body allow me to be here. That I have a loving family and friends who support me. That Jim and Cam are here running the marathon with me.” Looking around at other runners, I realized that we’re all in this together. Who am I to say that I’m special or important because my shoes untied? What if I got a call right now that my mom died, or that I had a brain tumor? There’s not enough money in the world I would pay to be in this exact situation – the one I’m currently interpreting as annoying and miserable. Let it go. Return to gratitude. One step at a time.

The process described above – of choosing to see events in a productive way regardless of what happens – has been called “framing.” David Foster Wallace, in his This is Water commencement speech, says the ability to create a story from experience that leads to positive feelings rather than negative ones is key for thriving as an adult. While he doesn’t specifically use the word “framing,” he describes the concept as:

“being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience…If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

Why was I able to instantaneously drop anger in Berlin but struggle with ridding negative emotions in everyday life? Because while running the Berlin marathon, I refused to suffer. Tony Robbins calls this commitment to be happy regardless of what happens “living in a beautiful state.” I had flown too far, trained too hard, paid too much money and sacrificed too much not to enjoy this race to the fullest. It was that commitment that allowed me to drop anger instantaneously. 

Practicing framing is like exercising – the more I do it, the stronger I will become. And as cliché as it sounds, it really is life changing. The Berlin Marathon was an incredible experience largely because of this instantaneous moment. How enriching can life be if I can strengthen my framing muscles to snap out of everyday suffering in a flash? I don’t know, but seeing if I can get there, or at least closer, is a worthwhile pursuit. My experience in Berlin convinced me of that.

Not that certain events don’t suck. But, David Foster Wallace continues,

“The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.”