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Real, But Not True

By Kristie Grasis • Teacher Blog Post

There is a line from Harry Potter that often pops into my thoughts. During the last movie, when Harry is in that beautiful white well-lit bright train station talking to Dumbledore, Harry says, "Is this real professor? or is it all in my head?"

Professor Dumbledore replies, "well, of course it's in your head Harry, but why should that mean it's not real?"

What a powerful exploration. Are the things that happen in our mind real?

The Tibetan monk, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, told a story of how he was visiting the Twin Towers in Malaysia. (They are named the Petronas Towers, which is why I probably made the Harry Potter connection). These are the tallest Twin Towers in the world, and connecting them is a glass bridge, complete with a glass-bottom deck. It is the tallest two-story bridge in the world. Add to that, this bridge isn't physically attached to the towers. It's designed to slide in and out of the structures. Buildings that tall sway in the wind.

Rinpoche starts to cross this bridge, gets about five steps out, and freezes. He realizes he’s deathly afraid of heights.

Backing up quickly, he gets off the bridge, returning to the safety of the tower. When he gets his heart rate down, he reminds himself that he's a Buddhist monk and should probably lean into his practice. He spends a few minutes mindfully observing the people on the bridge, noticing all the different individuals crossing with ease. Couples were stopping to take pictures, large groups of people, and families. He mentioned a heavy-set man who passed without a problem. The monk he was visiting with was already on the other side, waiting for him.

Rinpoche said he realized something vital that day. What was happening in his head was very tangible, but it wasn't factual. It was real, but not true.

Let me explain. In Rinpoche's mind, he had all these thoughts of the bridge collapsing, of falling to his death, all the things that come with being on the tallest glass bridge in the world. This fear was genuine to him, and it caused a real fear response: adrenaline, panic, increased heart rate, a lump in his throat, muscle weakness. But when he looked out at the people crossing the bridge without a problem, and he considered the bridge's architectural structure, the fact that it had been up for a long time, there had never been an issue, he realized that what he was fearing wasn't true. The bridge wasn't going to collapse. He wasn’t going to fall to his death. From this experience, he coined the phrase "real, but not true."

There is a beautiful lesson to be learned from his experience. We spend a lot of time in our own heads, having conversations that never actually happen, ruminating on the past, planning for potential future. We have old tapes that play on a loop, over and over. These tapes might tell us that we aren't good enough, we aren't worthy of something. They might convince us that we’re unlovable, or that everyone leaves, or that we aren’t capable of doing something.

Sometimes these statements are true. For example, I can never become a fighter pilot; I'm past that age. But, a lot of the time, the things that we tell ourselves aren't based on truth. Rinpoche called them leftover residue.

It usually comes from something in our past, something that is sticky, that we can't seem to let go of. Something we believe as truth, which makes it very real to us. It is real in our minds. The feelings we have, our reactions, all of that is genuine, but it doesn't make the statement we're telling ourselves true. We might feel unworthy or not good enough, but because those feelings are real, it doesn’t make the statement true.

So how do we deal with this when it comes up? You know what I'm going to say, right? Practice. We practice what we learn in meditation, which is non-reaction, non-judgment, and loving-kindness.

When we have a systematic thought come up (i.e., I'm not worthy of love, I'm not good enough), we cannot dismiss it out of hand, because it is real. The feelings are real. But we don't have to get swept away in those feelings. We don’t have to believe them as true.

The first step is mindfulness. Recognize it's happening. Second, sit with it. We can't push it away, but we don't have to believe it either. We just need to hold it.

And how do we hold it? With loving-kindness. There is a part of ourselves that feels the realness of it, and that part needs our love and understanding. We can’t belittle or react harshly to that part of ourselves. Think of a five-year-old afraid of a thunderstorm. You wouldn't tell her to “suck it up, buttercup” or say to him that his “fears are real and the thunder is going to get him." You don't need to become afraid with the child. You simply hold the child with loving kindness until the storm passes. This is the same idea.

The logical part of your mind does not have to believe it’s true. But the rational part should never belittle the part of yourself that feels the emotions in a real sense. The logical part of your mind just meets the part that fears with loving-kindness, understanding, and patience. Be gentle with yourself - always.

The next time you hear that inner voice feeling cynical, small or incompetent, damaged, or not good enough, remember to be easy with that part of yourself. But know that just because it’s real inside your head, that doesn’t automatically make it factual.

Real, but not true.

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