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  • David Crean

Half full? Half Empty?

There is a glass of water sitting on the table. Looking at it I ask myself a familiar question, “Is this glass half full or half empty?” Sometimes I am sure the glass is half full, at other times I am quite sure it is half empty. Undoubtedly there is a connection between how I’m feeling and this thought process. Usually we are not aware of how intimately our feeling state is connected with our thought processes. What you think has a physiological response in the body… and, conversely, what you feel in your body has a corresponding thought pattern. The body and mind are linked in a biological feedback system.

I look at this glass of water and I have the thought that it is half empty. I am sure that only yesterday I would have thought it was half full! Yesterday I felt full of energy, perhaps the result of my beloved making me some delicious and very potent ‘bulletproof’ coffee*. Today I feel listless. Yesterday feeling full of energy that glass was clearly half full; today the same glass of water appears distinctly half empty.

I’m not sure which came first, my feeling state or my thought processes? Taking a moment to consider this, I become aware that whatever my answer I will simply be reinforcing whatever thought processes and/ or belief I have. It’s a small step to deduce that because I considered the glass half empty I must be feeling ‘negative’ and from that to think that I ‘should’ be positive. This thought creates pressure. It is a stressful thought.

Stressful thinking has a distinct pattern: it is circular in nature. We turn the same thought around in our minds like a hamster on a wheel. We might think we’re having different thoughts on the matter but if we could record that stream of mostly unconscious thinking, we would likely discover the same thought coming around over and over again. The more you think about it the more anxious you become.

A psychologist working with stress management holds up a glass of water to her audience. Everyone expects her to ask the ‘half full/ half empty’ question, but she doesn’t. Instead she asks, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Participants call out answers that range from 200 to 500 grams.

The psychologist responds, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So… remember to put the glass down. Whatever stress might be occurring in your life, whatever burden you might be carrying; a simple awareness of the internal feedback loop between thoughts and emotions can give you a little space. And from that space another perspective: the glass is neither half full nor half empty (it might be both!). The greatest stress is the stressful thought; that stressful thought carries more weight than whatever might actually be happening.

I’m thirsty. That glass of water looks invitingly refreshing.

* For coffee aficionados, Bulletproof coffee is based on Tibetan yak tea: for a recipe see here


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