Words and thoughts matter

When I first started writing more than 15 years ago, I expressed words matter – those we speak, write and even those we think have ramifications. Therefore my goal for the newspaper was to publish more words that heal and fewer words that hurt.

I wrote about the emotional effects of words of encouragement, praise, and kindness compared to words of blame, disapproval, criticism and condemnation. The former leave one feeling grateful, uplifted, and happy; the latter can lead to sadness, anger, and frustration. In my following editorial, I mentioned how these emotional feelings can affect the physical body.

I asked my readers to test this for themselves and see if it rings true for them. My suggestion was to sit quietly in a comfortable chair with phones turned off and other distractions curtailed. Close your eyes and breathe deeply into your abdomen for a few breaths. Then begin to think about one of the happiest times of your life. Imagine all the details of what took place. Where were you? What were you wearing? Who were you with? What was the weather like?

To get the most out of it, I recommended including the five senses – taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. In other words, if one is remembering a beach experience, think about the sound of the waves, imagine the sight of sea gulls flying above, the smell of salt water, and the feeling of the wet sand between your toes.

After a few minutes, stop and let your mind go through your body from head to toe examining how you feel. Is your heart pounding or is there a warm feeling in it? Are you taking several shallow breaths or breathing slowly? Are your muscles tense or relaxed?

Now begin to think about someone who you think has treated you unfairly. Imagine in detail all the things they said and did to you. After a few minutes stop and again review places in your body. Are your teeth clenched, or is your jaw relaxed? Are your palms sweaty, or your hands in fists? Is your thinking clear or cloudy? Does your stomach feel as if it is in a knot? Now gradually open your eyes.

Next I wrote that I expect you will notice at least a slight difference in how you feel after the two different memories, and I hope you will feel more peaceful after the first one. Continuing, I stated that many scientific studies in the last several years have shown how the mind affects the body and if one is constantly bitter over a long period of time, it can cause illness. That is not breaking news.

What is new for me is that I realized recently when I am conflicted about a situation, especially if it is something new, easily 30 minutes can go by before I even realize that I am having one troubling thought after the other. Therefore if one would like to improve one’s health, a huge first step is simply being aware of one’s thoughts.

However sometimes even once I catch myself immersed in unhelpful thoughts – which rarely lead to positive action – I still will not let go of them. I plunge right back into the whirlwind of thoughts. This is almost like a dog with a toy clenched in his jaws and when one tries to get it from him, he simply clenches tighter.

This reminds me of a favorite saying of my mother, Helen Cohen, z”l. “Don’t say, he’s upsetting me, say I’m letting him upset me,” she announced periodically. She attributed that to the book, Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer.

This first book Dyer wrote in 1976 has sold more than 34 million copies. He passed away in 2015 but in between those years, he wrote more than 40 more books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers.

This also reminds me of what Viktor Frankl said while in a concentration camp. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose his attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

What is also new for me is not only that I am able to catch myself a little sooner than before and change my thoughts to something more positive but also I have become more aware of lesser annoyances and decided I do not need to get tense over those either.

One of the strategies that has helped me let go of these unnecessary thoughts is practice. A short time after I started writing, I wrote about a friend who frequently gets ideas on how to improve his business on the Sabbath but since he does not write on that day, he will remember a key word or two so that when the Sabbath is over he can investigate his idea.

I value hearing about his Sabbath observance because I can awaken on a Saturday morning and think about business nonstop for an hour before I realize what day it is. Also now on a workday when I am caught in an unending stream of unproductive thoughts, I can pretend it is the Sabbath and let go of them more easily. I can duplicate that feeling of relief that today I don’t need to fret, fix or create anything.

I am grateful to look back at my earlier editorials and see that, even if slowly, I have made some progress. Also rewarding is seeing we have accomplished our goal to publish more words of hope and fewer of despair.
Jennie Cohen 7-4-18

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