Solving “Thermostat Problems”

A few weeks ago, I had an absurd dream. In the meadow in front our home, we had built a large parking lot; and in the middle of the parking lot, we built a fairly large shelter much like you’d see at a train or bus transfer station. The shelter was a glass structure and apparently heated for the comfort of travelers. In the dream the contractor was showing me the finished building. My attention was riveted on the thermostat; I was annoyed. Why had the contractor set the heat to 75°? Waking from the dream I realized that I had not one thought questioning why we had turned our meadow into a parking lot and why a shelter was needed. My mind wanted to work within the parameters of my dream; the parking lot was not puzzling, but the thermostat was a problem.

Still worse, while waking I felt myself pulled right back into the dream in order to resolve the thermostat problem. My mind believed that more of me was required and I was ready to go back to work. I had to catch myself and awaken fully in order to separate myself from this nonsensical dream.

But here’s the not so funny thing. Our waking life is not so different than our dream state. We assume that our problems are real and that more of us, in the form of more of our thinking and doing, are required to solve the problems.

Notice that in my dream, my thinking and doing were in response to false information that a parking lot and shelter were needed. We think we are in control of our life as we work to solve our “real” problems. What if our false thinking is really in control?

“Thought,” the late quantum physicist David Bohm wrote, “is constantly creating problems…and then trying to solve them. But as it tries to solve them it makes it worse because it doesn’t notice that it’s creating them, and the more it thinks, the more problems it creates.”

When faced with a problem, most of us pivot our attention toward the challenge it poses. We analyze our problems; we dissect our problems—so much so that it seems problems are constantly on our mind. We justify the attention we give to our problems; after all, to turn our mind away from our problems would be an irresponsible denial of reality.

But what if there was a more efficient way to go about our life? What if many of like’s problems are like the “thermostat problem” in my dream? A “thermostat problem” is one that requires less of our attention in order to improve.

Of course there are real situations in life that need to be dealt with. And some, such as an overflowing toilet or a faulty line of computer code, may require from us a short burst of analytical thinking. But many of our “problems” are best solved by a deeper intelligence than our analytical thinking.

Consider these problems: “I feel unfulfilled at work.” “It’s time for a new car.” “Why don’t I ever get to go on vacation?” “I’m not tall enough to be successful.” “The traffic in the city is terrible.” “My spouse doesn’t appreciate me.” If we don’t question our interpretation of the problem we will continually bring our thinking analytical mind to work on the problem. Our mind will focus on the thermostat as long as the parking lot and shelter are not called into question.

If recently you have been thinking about any variation of the issues mentioned above, notice how quickly you defend your interpretation of the issue. Yet, if you are able to watch your thinking, you can notice that the more your interpretation of the problem plays in your head, the more you suffer.

We can so strongly defend our interpretation of the problem that dealing with the problem becomes a big part of our ego identity, what Ann Linthorst calls our MeNess. MeNess is the real problem, as Ann Linthorst succinctly explains:

Me-ness is a mental sense, a state of claiming identity with certain mental contents and the forms which that mental content takes …ME-sense, then, tries to make things not go against ME, tries to make other people confirm and support and gratify ME, so that ME won’t suffer … Because ME is the sufferer, and the more room we give ME to operate in, the greater the suffering.

If you become a careful observer of your MeNess, you might notice that your thinking tells you how to feel. “I can’t stand this anymore.” “The pressure is too great.” “Who did they think they’re talking to?” Notice that when anxiety or anger builds, we do not attribute the anxiety or anger to the thoughts we’re having. Instead, we use our anger and anxiety to confirm that our interpretation of the problem is correct.

We may play imaginary scenarios in our head. We imagine situations in the future that we want to avoid. We imagine conversations we will have with colleagues or with family members that we believe will resolve the problem to our satisfaction. We may even find ourselves looking in the direction of our problem just to make sure it is still there, standing as a pillar of our identity.

We can all smile as we look at our laundry list of problems. Smile at what? We can notice that nowhere on our list of problems do we itemize this problem: Our mind clings to our interpretation of our problem and that interpretation may not be accurate. This problem—that we don’t understand our problem—is the mother of all problems.

The way out is simple. We simply recognize that our thinking is not providing an objective interpretation of our experiences. We think we have a real “thermostat problem” when the problem is in our mind. With our MeNess thinking cluttering our mind, there is no room for guidance from the deeper, transcendent intelligence that is our birthright.

We often forget we have a mind that can choose against nonsensical MeNess propaganada. Again, more MeNess means there is no room for intelligent, loving, and wise ideas. These ideas arise the instant our mind becomes quiet.

Call this place beyond MeNess what you like. In my book, the Inner-Work of Leadership, I use the term Wholeness to connote this non-personal interconnected fabric of existence.

Whatever term you use, its Wisdom and Love waits on our welcome when we awaken to the truth that many of our problems are thermostat problems, no more real than a dream. The price of admission is less of our personal Me thinking.

May we all grow to recognize our “thermostat problems” for what they really are.  Best wishes for a wonderful New Year.

5 Responses to Solving “Thermostat Problems”

  1. Lyn says:

    Dear Barry,

    Guilty as charged. :) Thanks for this New Year’s reminder. Follow-up on one phrase: “an irresponsible denial of reality.” I think it’s often reasonable to assume that I’m letting my thoughts make a problem where there isn’t one, but history clearly provides cases where alarm bells should have been going off, and action should have been taken by individuals and communities in order to avoid the worst outcomes. Strauss & Howe’s “The Fourth Turning” suggests we are entering (or have entered) such a crisis phase. I wonder if you can clarify the cues from reality you’d recommend watching for: how do we determine what we should take seriously, given the creeping incrementalism that has characterized the onset of past atrocities?

    Thanks much,
    Lyn

  2. Barry Brownstein says:

    Wonderful question, Lyn. I will give you a quick reply now and think more about your point because it is an important one.

    Our thinking often prevents effective action on real problems. Why? When our ego is in charge we will feel a sense of agitation that prevents us from clearly seeing the issue. Importantly, we will be looking for solutions within the “known” when real problems often call for looking towards the “unknown.”

  3. WC Murray says:

    “There is nothing harder to change then an incorrect mind set.”

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