The Only Two Problems in Life

05/26/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016

When something looks like a problem to us, it's because there's a way we want things to be and we perceive something to be in the way of that. That "something" often appears to exist as a condition outside us -- another person's attitude, a shortage of a seemingly essential resource like time or money, or even a missing piece of critical information.

But while it's certainly true that some of the obstacles to our getting what we want exist in the outside world, we have no problems outside of our own thinking. This isn't meant as some clever reframe or positive thought trick. It's just that there's a fundamental difference between the "isness" of something and what we make of that "isness."

For all practical purposes, a rock is a rock, my boss' attitude is my boss' attitude, and the amount of money in my bank account is the amount of money in my bank account. These are simple logistics -- the factors, some changeable and some not, that we will need to take into account to create the conditions we want to create.

What turns a logistic into a problem is only and always in the way we see it. And in my experience, there are really only two "problems" in our seeing that lead us to create problems in our world:

We misunderstand the thought/feeling system, and we massively underestimate the creative potential of the mind.

Let's take each one of these in turn...

1. Misunderstanding the thought/feeling system

I used to assume that conditions and circumstances had inherent emotional feelings attached to them. Jobs like trading in volatile financial markets or working in an ER were inherently high-pressure and stressful. People dying was always sad. Getting what you want would always make you happy. Being rich and thin meant you would be confident.

But that theory of life didn't stand up to much scrutiny. I've met some remarkably sanguine financial traders and a surprising number of doctors and nurses who meet their never-ending load of patients with ease and grace. I've seen people celebrate the death of loved ones with a palpable sense of peace and love and get what they want with sadness that it didn't fill the hole in their hearts. And in Hollywood at least, being rich, thin, and insecure is more the rule than the exception.

So what actually creates our feelings from moment to moment?


We live in the feeling of our thinking, but because thought is largely invisible to us, we attribute those feelings to what we see around us. And this innocent and seemingly innocuous misunderstanding actually lies beneath almost every problem we have in our lives.

  • Because we think our happiness will come from getting what we want, we pursue success at the cost of our relationships, our health, and our spiritual well-being. When we get what we want and we're still not happy, we assume the problem is that we're still not doing enough so we push even harder and get even further away from the experience of happiness we actually want.
  • Because we think that our sadness comes from being alone, we make desperate choices about who to spend our lives with. Then, we think our anger and frustration is coming from our new partner, so we try to change them or swap them out with a different partner instead of looking to see what might change in our own thinking.
  • Because we think that our fear is causally linked to certain specific life circumstances, we do everything we can to avoid and/or protect ourselves from those circumstances

Yet the moment we see the truth behind the thought/feeling system -- that every feeling is just the shadow of a thought, and thoughts come and go when we let them -- we stop being scared of our feelings and just feel them.

We begin to value "negative" feelings as much as positive ones for the insights they give us into our state of mind and how trustworthy our thinking in the moment is. And because "life" doesn't look so scary, we don't work so hard to try and shape it to fit the pictures in our head. We relax, and we begin to enjoy ourselves more. We begin to experience more of our natural creativity and well-being.

Which leads us to our second "problem"...

2. Underestimating the infinite creative potential of the mind

Recently, I was talking with a friend about the difference between trying to make things happen "in spite of it all" and allowing for the flow of thought to deliver the clarity, inspiration, and insight that makes it easy and effortless to move forward.

He shared the analogy of a sailboat. Trying to force yourself to do things is like trying to make the sailboat move forward by blowing into the sails the way you might blow up a balloon. Allowing for the flow of thought to move in your favor is like waiting in the water for the wind to carry you forward.

There are only two conceivable reasons you wouldn't wait for the wind. The first is that you're feeling so much pressure and stress that blowing in the sails starts to look like a good idea. The second is that you don't believe in the wind.

Yet if you look back over your life, how many of the things you value most came purely from your own hard work and effort and how many came when the wind was at your back?

If you've ever had the feeling of something coming "through" you instead of "from" you, you know what the wind feels like. We experience it as inspiration, or flow, or being "in the zone." Time slows down, and the complexities of life seem infinitely more manageable.

But because we think of these moments as rare events, we prefer to rely on our own breath as the motive force in our lives. And this can become a real problem, especially if we try to keep "making things happen" through effort, struggle, and force of will.

So what does this all have to do with you?

Well, providing that you're a human being, everything. Because if you're like the rest of us, you are living in the feeling of your thinking right now, even though it almost certainly seems as though at least some of what you're feeling is to do with your circumstances. And there are areas of your life where you are either stuck or making the best of what seems like a choice between bad, not so bad, and much, much worse, even while the infinite creative potential of the mind sits quietly in the background waiting for you to look in its direction for new possibilities you haven't even considered to emerge.

Now, it wouldn't be surprising if you are wondering what to do about the only two problems, either in general or in their specific manifestations in your life. And while I'm not big on giving advice, I can certainly share with you what I know to do for myself:

Look away from the form and towards the formless. Let yourself get quiet. Stop trying to figure it all out in your head. Let your mind get receptive. Give up the struggle and let the river carry you back to the ocean. Enjoy the ride. Have fun. Learn heaps. And prepare to be amazed...

With all my love,

For more by Michael Neill, click here.