The Irrelevant

As is so often the case on evening flights, my flight I was delayed. I was fatigued, and I still had a long drive home after my flight. The best way to pass the time was to find a relatively empty gate and take a nap.

I found a quiet place. As I sat down and picked up my tablet, a woman about forty years old sat down just a seat or two away. She too was looking for a quiet space—but not to nap. She was calling a girlfriend to talk about her latest boyfriend.

My quiet spot was no longer quiet. What should I do? Should I move? I needed to rest; but instead, I restlessly began to listen to her conversation while checking my email. Her conversation continued, loud enough for me to hear. I was tired and disappointed but then the questions came to me, Why was I treating her conversation as if it were relevant to me? Isn’t my need for rest more important?  Literally seconds later I decided the conversation was not relevant to me. Making that decision, instantly, I fell asleep.

I awoke about a half-hour later, head drooping, but feeling refreshed. I found a lesson in this experience.

I pay far too much attention to the irrelevant. All day long, a lot of ego chatter goes on in my head. How much respect I pay to that chatter determines the quality of my day. What difference is there, in truth, between irrelevant external chatter and irrelevant internal chatter?

Just because I have a thought doesn’t mean the thought is relevant or important. If I treat the voice that speaks for my ego as a trusted advisor, I am certain to have a very rough day. And it is equally certain that I will blame my circumstances for my poor decision.

Here are just a few of the irrelevant things that I can catch myself paying attention to:

I have far too many opinions about things that really do not concern me. My peace of mind is diminished with every one of these unnecessary opinions.

Many of my thoughts are future oriented. I imagine future scenarios and conversations. In all honestly, my ego has not been an accurate prognosticator. Just imagine how much time I would save if I fired my ego from its self-appointed job as all knowing seer.

Complaining thoughts often feel important, but I’m catching on. When I complain I’m often bragging to others about how unjustly I have been treated. Sometimes when I catch myself complaining I stop mid-sentence, laugh, and say “never mind.” Complaining is an absurd habit.

The critic in my head often asserts its voice to deliver negative evaluations of my work; that noisy but mostly irrelevant critic exists in most of us. In a recent interview with Paul McCartney, Sir Paul explained that he still hears the voice in his head telling him that his music doesn’t measure up. Takeaway lesson: The voice that speaks for our ego will never go away, but we can choose to not listen to it.

The more I listen to irrelevant thoughts, the more upset feelings I experience. Most people have dysfunctional habitual ways of dealing with upset feelings. When we are in the midst of our upset feelings our habitual responses seem like a good idea. The way out is to realize that when we are upset our thoughts and feelings are a completely unreliable guide to behavior. This is easier said than done. When we are upset we have a story to explain why and what to do about it.

Here is a rule of thumb: We are always wrong when we think our circumstances, rather than our irrelevant thoughts, are bothering us.

Mavis Karn has written, “The only thing that can keep you from enjoying all that you already are is a thought. One thought, your thought. Not someone else’s thought. Your thought . . . Whatever thought you are thinking at the moment that feels more important to think than feeling grateful, alive, content, joyful, optimistic, loving and at peace. . . that’s the only thing that’s between you and happiness.”

To be sure, I am not saying we should control our thinking. We wouldn’t have much success if we tried. The key is simply to understand that just because we have a thought it doesn’t mean that thought is relevant to anything.

We are always just one thought away from peace and love. When we decide to stop honoring the irrelevant, peace and love are ours.

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3 Responses to The Irrelevant

  1. Iwan Karlsson says:

    Always one thought away. Thanks.

  2. Ian Crawford says:

    Having had a conversation this morning with colleagues about thought and how it can affect your state or quality of mind, your piece helped me reflect on it i.e. it’s your thought that gets in the way and not your circumstances that spoils your day. So much of the thought that passes through my head is fragmentary and irrelevant, especially if I am focused on the past or future, one I can’t change and the other I can’t yet know. Having the ability to understand them for what they are is helping me to break the habit (easier said than done) of giving space to these flimsy attention-grabbers. Thank you for putting irrelevance in its place in such an eloquent way Barry.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Ian. I too have observed how fragmentary my thoughts are. At my Inner-Work of Leadership Facebook page I recently wrote: “My difficult days share something in common: I devote a lot of thinking about what is happening to me and what I should do. A little investigation reveals that these thoughts are often fragmentary as I jump from one thing to the next. To do what really needs to be done doesn’t require any of this thinking at all.”

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