I live in a neighborhood with terrible water quality. The majority of people I know here drink their water from filter pitches so as to avoid however many toxins and impurities there are in the tap water. Still, you can’t differentiate between the taste or appearance of the toxic water as opposed to the clean, filtered water. To all five senses, unless you’re a chemist or have some sort of testing kit, the two are the “same”. But the bad water will impact you negatively over time, expose you to heavy metals and chemicals, and could cause serious health problems further down the road.
I like to think of thoughts in a sort-of similar way, with a few added nuances. Everyone’s walking around and doing their own thing. Though there are obvious exceptions (ie. people who are visibly upset or estranged in some way), the emotional states of most people cannot be read with any immediacy, at least not within the timeframe of a passing glance.
We can’t see or know it, but some people are remarkably more satisfied with their lives than others regardless of what they possess or how they move through the world. You could walk past a suicidally depressed person and not know it. You could walk past a person who’s been calm and ‘enlightened’ for 30 years and not know it. Doesn’t matter what they’re wearing, what language they speak, etc— thought comes from within and, to varying degrees of efficacy, can be controlled internally.
This initial realization changes the way you think about your thoughts. Most of your thoughts are unto yourself, imperceptible to the outside world. Sure, they get transmuted into action and end up shaping your life, but controlling your accidental and intuitive thoughts is often far harder than controlling the actions that may result from them. This is why finding effective methods for training the mind to properly process thoughts is so important.
To make the metaphor as simple as possible, meditation and mindfulness-building activities like gratitude, empathy and physical exercise are beneficial because they serve as a sort-of filtration system for the mind. If you just drink your thoughts straight from the tap, you’ll get the essentials, but you’ll also be swallowing a ton of bad stuff, often entirely imperceptibly. But if you take daily steps to monitor your intake of thoughts, you’ll find yourself moving towards an entirely new way of dialoguing with yourself and the world.
Changing the fundamental process by which your brain processes its contents could end up changing your life in remarkable ways. As with the water, you can go about your day as usual and feel totally fine with toxic stuff swimming around inside of you, simply because you’ve grown accustomed to it. Only slowly and consistently over time can you purify your thinking, and the effects, while great, might not become apparent for quite some time. This process is worth it in and of itself, since it detaches you from immediate gratification and allows you to trust the test of time.
In learning to moderate your thoughts, you gain control over your world, but you also realize that you don’t need control. You can simply sit for a little while each day and let stuff float through you, and then interact with the rest of the world once you’re done.