The first time I saw the 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe, I knew I’d seen something very important. This movie has enduring value with lessons on how to live a better life. It’s about brilliant mathematician John Nash who, at the height of his career, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is not just a movie about Nash and schizophrenia, I believe that this is a movie about us all.
Stress seems to be part of life for just about everyone these days. Circumstances play a part for sure, but it has become apparent, in my life at least, that stress most often comes from my responses to circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen the movie you might want to stop reading. I must give away the whole plot to make a point about stress and, more importantly, how to reduce it.
This movie dramatically depicts how the mind can deceive. Nash, we discover about a third of the way through, sees people who aren’t there. His delusions appear as three different characters – his college roommate and friend Charles Herman, tough-minded government agent William Parcher and Charles’ niece Marcee.
I noticed that I have similar characters inside me in the form of thoughts. Sometimes the thoughts are friendly and comforting, just like the words spoken by Nash’s friend Charles. Sometimes they are authoritarian and chastise me or others for wrongdoings, just as Parcher does. At other times they are childlike, and induce me into playfulness, just the way Marcee does. These characters change places in my psyche like passengers getting on and off of a bus.
For Nash, being told that they aren’t real isn’t enough; he has to see for himself. His first breakthrough comes when he realizes that Marcee doesn’t age; therefore, she can’t possibly be real. Soon after, he responds to Parcher saying, “You’re not real! You’re not real!” Parcher responds by saying, “You’re still talking to me …” From this exchange, Nash sees that by engaging with the characters, he is making them real.
Having learned from exchanges with his doctor that the delusions might take over his life, Nash resolves to withdraw his attention from them entirely. For the rest of the movie the characters are seen following him wherever he goes, but he gives them no more attention than a person would give a cloud passing by in the sky. As a result, they deflate and become listless; they lose their power over him.
The thoughts that go through my mind seem very real and important too and some of them induce stress. However, I have come to see that I have the ability to treat them with the same indifference as Nash does with the characters in the movie. Essentially, it comes down to believing my thoughts or not believing them. This, I’ve come to see, is the cause of most stress, and I think it’s the same for everyone.
For Nash, the characters don’t go away. Likewise, my thoughts don’t go away. They have a life of their own and are waiting for me as soon as I wake up in the morning and they are still talking when I go to bed at night. After observing this phenomenon for a while, it became obvious that these thoughts operate independently of my personal will. In other words, they aren’t really mine. Nor can they be real. This reminds me of what higher consciousness guru Werner Erhardt, points out; we don’t think, we are being thought. He calls the habitual thought process “it” and asks us to consider the question “what is ‘it’ using your life for?”
When Nash is asked by his old friend Martin, “Are they gone?” Nash responds, “No, they’re not gone, and maybe they never will be. But I’ve gotten used to ignoring them, and I think as a result they’ve kind of given up on me. You think that’s what it’s like with all our dreams and our nightmares, Martin? You’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive?”
In the same way, in order to keep thoughts alive, I need to feed them with my attention.
I can’t control the thoughts, but I do have a choice where to place my attention.
The movie ends with Nash’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Economics Prize in Sweden in 1994. When addressing the audience, he says, “… I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found.” Then turning to his wife he says, “I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”
Nash discovers that love is the only reason to live.
I too have discovered this. I have also noticed that “it” doesn’t use my life for love.
I return to this movie again and again to remind myself what is real and what isn’t. “A Beautiful Mind” is set on a college campus and, having seen it so many times, I am reminded of it almost every day. Like others on campus, I walk from class to class lost in thought. However, I’ve developed the habit of noticing this, and when I do, those thoughts have no power to influence me.