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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Thoughts are Not Facts: A Story Everyone Should Know

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 22nd 2010

Stories, poems and quotes can sometimes convey a deep message that can help us make a shift in our lives. When we're feeling depressed, manic or just anxious we often jump to conclusions, interpreting events depending on the mood state we are in. It's important to understand here that thoughts are not facts. The following is a story similar to one in my upcoming book A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook that is meant to help us see that sometimes our interpretation or judgment of an event in our life as good or bad may not always be so black and white. Here it is:

There is a story of a very wise old man in a village. Everyone in the village looked up to him and sought his advice. One summer day, a villager came to him in a state of panic, "Wise sage, I don't know what to do, my ox has died and now I am unable to plow my fields, this is the worst thing that could have ever happened." The sage looked him in the eye and replied, "maybe so, maybe not." In a state of disbelief the man returned to his family and proceeded to tell them how the sage was no sage after all and he has lost his mind because surely this was the worst thing that could've ever happened.

The next morning the man went on a walk on in the distance saw a strong young horse grazing in the field. Immediately he had the idea to catch the horse and that his troubles would be over. He brought the horse back and realized how blessed he was, plowing was even easier than before. The image of the sage came up in his mind and the man ran over to him to apologize. Upon seeing the sage the man said "Please accept my apologies, you were absolutely right, if I had not lost my ox, I wouldn't have gone on that walk and would never have captured the horse. You have to agree that catching this horse was the best thing that ever happened". The old sage looked into his eyes and said, "maybe so, maybe not".

Are you kidding me, thought the man. This guy is a nut. I don't think I'll be coming by here again. The man returned home to the village. A few days later his son was riding the horse and was bucked off, breaking his leg and now unable to help out with the farm. This is the worst thing that could ever have happened, thought the farmer, how will we eat? Again, the farmer went to the sage and told him what had happened. "You must see the future, how did you know this would happen? I don't know how we'll get all the work done now. This time you have to admit, this is the worst thing that could ever have happened." Once again, the sage calmly and with love, looked into the farmer's eyes and replied, "maybe so, maybe not". The farmer was furious by this response and stormed back to the village.

The very next day troops arrived looking for all young men who were healthy and able to fight in the new war. His son was the only young man not taken, and having chance of surviving in an impossible war where almost all the men would surely die.

The moral of this story is simply, we can't always be sure if an event that occurs is good or bad. What seems like a negative event, may lay the path for something positive. Maybe getting a ticket, allows a person to slow down so they don't get in an accident 15 minutes later. Mindfulness gives us the ability to notice when we are automatically interpreting an event negatively and gives us the space to consider alternatives. In time, we can gain a sense that things will turn out Ok.

To the readers: How does this show up in your life? Please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interact here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

things are not as they seem - - Jan 28th 2010

very good story indeed, and I have to agree that things are not as they seem a lot of the time. And in time we feel again that maybe it was for the best.

I'll remember the story.

thoughts - steph clarke - Jan 26th 2010

Hi I liked the story, and i think its very relevant to someone who think in those extremes. 

What about someone who can see already that things could always get a lot worse , knows its not the worst outcome, but doesnt change the fact they are struggling and can't move past that?

I had a string of rubbish things happened in last 48 hours, i know things could get so much worse, doesnt mean they will, i know its just thought,


but like the story was sayin, this is the worst that could happen, i dont think like that.  when something good happens, i dont think the opposite.

so what then??

I'll tell my sister - Thanks - Jan 25th 2010

Thanks doc

I'll tell this story to my sister. She is in relationship problem due to misunderstanding. Hope this helps her to realize the facts.

life examples - Sue S - Jan 23rd 2010

When I look back upon my life to date, I can see many examples of when something that seemed at the time to be the worst thing ever turned out to be a 'blessing in disguise' or lead to opportunities.

My father was diagnosed with a heart problem at the age of 50. He had to retire from work etc. We thought it was awful, and worried a lot about him. However, the enforced early retirement enabled him (and my mother) to enjoy holidays to places he'd always dreamed of visiting - Alaska, the Rockies...  At 63 my dad died of cancer.  Had he still been working, he'd never have had the time to experience what he had always wished for.

Soon after Dad died, whilst I was suffering from a severe depressive episode, my marriage broke down.  I was left raising 2 children alone, a long way from the support of my family.  I became suicidal.  To get some moral support and give myself a focus, I was encouraged to study and to make contact with other lone parents.  As a result, I have made a lot of new friends, had some fabulous times at concerts etc with them, and am still taking courses 10 years later.

I could go on and on... but I'll leave it there, lol!

Thanks, Dr. G. - JR - Jan 22nd 2010

I am currently suffering from a severe depressive episode (Taking the Tablets), and have suffered an adverse career event to which this episode has contributed directly.  Having read this story (reread, since I had come across it before), I am less convinced that the event in question will, necessarily, prove "adverse".  We all - all - have our problems - was it 67 each, according to the Lord Buddha ?  It is not a question of whether we have them - more a question of how we deal with them !

Thanks again !


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