The Burned Tea Kettle
The risk of distraction during critical times
by Ron Parks, MD
The Tea Kettle
My wife and I had sat down to watch a recent movie about a family with turmoil and conflict. After the first short segment, we suddenly became aware and jumped up. We had forgotten about the tea kettle on the stove. In my defense, after I put enough water in it, I had asked her to remind me when the high-pitched whistle sounded since her hearing was better than mine.
I ran to the kitchen as if struck by a bolt of lightning. There was an intense burned smell, and I saw the tea kettle smoking. Quickly, I jumped to turn off the burner. I noticed that the whistle cap had blown off. The kettle’s lid as well was lying nearby on the stove. The handle was too hot to touch, so I grabbed a potholder and removed it from the heat. The intense burned odor had spread throughout the house.
My wife was so angry and seemed hotter than the kettle that was just scorched. She condemned me for not putting enough water in the pot, which I thought I had.
I wanted to see if it was salvageable, even though the whistle part on top had burned to a crisp. My wife still was so furious she wouldn’t let me even go near or touch it. She, with great reverence, picked the tea kettle up and put it in the garage on a shelf to put it in a protective haven until ready to deal with the catastrophe. All the apologies and calming strategies in the world didn’t work, as she was so furious.
This tea kettle had been under her careful protection for almost thirty years and was a gift from her sister, and it had special meaning for several reasons. One of them was that my wife prided herself on being responsible and always saw herself as super reliable as the oldest sister. Her sister, who has a similar tea kettle, had already burned up three of them.
A little later, there was a calming down and discussion of the significant loss of the damaged tea kettle and its meaning to us. It had been an essential steadfast valued companion and utensil in our domestic life for all these years — now a burned relic. We talked about replacements and looked at the cost and so on. My wife got to the kettle the following day and was super scrubbing it. She tried to remove the burned stains on the surfaces, severely blackened by the intense heat.
We Googled a couple of articles on getting the burned smell out of the kettle and if it was OK to use still. The diagnosis was that it was too far gone and needed replacement or would make an attractive flower pot. So, there was a hope that there could be a new use for the damaged kettle and possible redemption for me.
Being reminded of other people’s more extreme losses, in recent months, from severe storms and tornadoes, got us in action to send relief donations as we had in the past to the Red Cross.
Significance of a Loss
If losing a special tea kettle can affect us as it did, one can understand the immense toll on people affected with significant losses such as a home or loved one. These profound losses can impose an enormous mental health burden, increasing grief, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
A possession, fabric, or piece of our life can have a particular meaning and purpose in our day-to-day activities. When a calamity happens, a varying degree of mental processing, anguish, and grief occurs relevant to the significance and meaning of the loss.
An impactful event can feel major or minor, depending on the context in which it happens. Any surrounding events can determine the effect, especially when accompanied by other calamities currently or in the past. There can be conflict when a significant other sees an event as a minor loss, but the other experiencer considers the occurrence to be a consequential catastrophic loss. So, a seemingly insignificant life happening related to some disappointment or loss can have unanticipated consequences. Losing a possession with special meanings, associated with multiple prior losses, can cause a major meltdown, breakdown, mood crisis, or post-traumatic stress reaction — especially with the extra burden of a recent occurrence.
The Big Story in our Mental Life
The main story, narrative, or core beliefs always dominate our mental life and thinking. The personal inner saga has a developmental history since our birth. It defines us continually in relation to other people, things, or objects seen or perceived as external to ourselves. The mental beliefs and inner story can define and give greater or lesser significance to any external possession, person, or need that may be gained or lost.
The critical necessity of our brain’s mental activities is always to have a schema or story to function and interact with the outside world. It is necessary to meet our basic survival needs like food and shelter, staying safe, and avoiding harm.
Having a mental blueprint is essential to finding and distinguishing safe from toxic situations or foods. The blueprint is also a guide to help avoid dangerous situations or people and aid in finding and characterizing compatible, nurturing people and relationships. It is an evolutionary part of our nervous system to protect our survival, safety, needs for nurturance, intimacy, and reproduction. The brain-developed narrative discrimination system selects who will be in our life, tribe, or circle of friends — who is safe or not.
When mental health issues arise, some of the difficulties are getting stuck, fixed, or rigid with an inner narrative; this can lead a person into areas contributing to pain, suffering, isolation, or problems affecting himself or others. It may be a minor part of the person’s dominant life story or just a segment of the overall beliefs that are causing issues.
Help or targeted therapy work might focus on the particular segments of the overall operating mental belief systems. A person might become obsessed with a specific person or things, such as a phobia about snakes or driving a car that leads to limitations. Beyond the particular obsession and dread, a person’s life can otherwise seem to function OK. Impairment with the difficulty of meeting crucial life needs and adapting to life’s demands occurs when fears or phobia dominate mental activity — the guiding, controlling inner mental narrative configuration.
When we experience a loss with a significant impact on our functioning, emotions, and mood, it is time to be more aware of our inner mental activity and its outer expression; it is the time to reach out for help. Getting help can turn a difficult time into an opportunity for learning, growth, and healing.
The benefits of receiving guidance or support, as with a therapeutic intervention, bring the opportunity to develop a more flexible and aware self. With increased openness and flexibility, one can harness the inner guiding mental activity for change, growth, and healing.
Better mastery and balance are possible by developing the art of awareness of the larger perspective. When one gets beyond personal needs, limiting mental beliefs, and limiting self-narratives, liberation, and transformation are possible.
Being aware, compassionate, and understanding about our smaller personal and more powerful life stories is critical for health and well-being. The smaller and larger mental stories define us, our identity, and our response to what we see as the separate outside world.
Getting Out of the Trap
The ancients and modern philosophers have thought that we get trapped in dualistic binary thinking — splitting things into good or bad, black or white, safe or not. Being able to separate or distinguish items that come into our perceptual world is an essential working of our brain mental system to avoid danger and toxicity for our survival and safety.
There is always the necessity to have a non-dual, non-personal experiential sensing beyond personal needs and analytic thinking to maintain balance. Our dualistic thinking survival system, however, is essential to get things done every day for practical needs and projects.
There is a need to experience non-analytic thinking to remind us that there is more outside our cognitive, dualistic thinking for perspective and balance. It is time for awareness and action if one finds oneself in a blind loop of an inner narrative — always running into walls or getting into the same repeated problematic situation. Moving from dualistic thinking to non-dualistic experiencing may help one become unstuck, gain perspective, and back into healthy functioning.
If needed, find the resources or help to regain balance and well-being. A time for action is when you feel entrapped in a rigid, suffocating, dualistic thinking mental state that is wearing down your mental stability and health. Engagement in the meditative, reflective space of peace and quiet is liberating from the confinement of a busy thinking rut.
Awareness of the larger picture — beyond our limiting beliefs and interpretations — is the opening into the non-duality or spiritual experiencing. The movement is from the narrative creating, analytical, problem-solving, and defining aspect of mental activity, to the quieting of mind for restoration, healing, and perspective.
Non-duality is a here-and-now experience as a walk outside in nature with the feeling of fulfillment, wonderment, and peacefulness. Meditation and mindfulness practices can open the doors and bring release from intense mental reasoning and constructing to the peace of a quiet mind.
Sometimes, there is pain and suffering when stuck in our small personal world of beliefs and ideas. Our own unique but somewhat fictional narratives can stifle our natural path, life-space, and opportunity. Individual inner stories are like bricks that eventually build a fortress that both separates and protects but can also confine.
The other side is our quest for balance and liberation, to be more in a non-dualistic state. The journey is to experience the joy, freedom, and liberty to experience connectedness rather than isolation and separateness.
If one has experienced a lot of losses and trauma in their life or has grown up in a severely troubled family, sometimes the narrative or developed story is more like a defense citadel. We can place many protective barriers to defend against any perceived evil or dangerous objects or people who appear outside and threatening. Being so defended with a tightly restricted view or personal story about the outside world, as a scary, dangerous place, can limit your life and make you vulnerable to breakdown or mental illness.
Some of the help derived from therapy work and mental health support brings awareness to one’s personal inner mental life. When assistance is needed to help with a troubling mental narrative, improvement can come with discovering where one is stuck. Change or modification in troublesome thinking, emotions, and behavior can heal and potentially transform.
Individuals who get support and help with their mental health needs can regain flexibility and perspective. The mind’s thinking and its established narrative can become effective governance and influence on thought, ideas, self-identity, self-esteem, and related outward expression.
The bottom line is to be aware, but not in the sense of being aware of external things like when you cross the street — if you aren’t mindful of the traffic or the cars, you might get run over. The awareness called for is of the mind’s inner operations for practical everyday needs, but vigilance for when it gets stuck in a life confining, limiting narrative, and a thinking loop.
Remember, if you lose awareness by getting caught up in an external story like watching a TV movie or get too distracted by your own internal story or narrative, that prized tea kettle might get overheated and burned up. The outcome of my story is that the kettle ended up as a flowerpot and now has new meaning and beauty.
- Be mind-wise.
- Develop the sense and ability for awareness of the larger context in which we live that surrounds us — all that exists beyond our self-interest and needs.
- Take part in group sharing social activities, and experience the mutual give and take of human existence and the positivity of giving and receiving the support of others with the realization of what underlies our existence as a mutually interdependent person, society, and world.
- If you lack confidence or natural abilities or fear social situations, find support from people experienced with these issues and problems that can provide specific help.
- Work on your mindfulness and awareness, as you would take care of yourself with better nutrition and exercise by doing things like mindfulness, yoga, meditation classes, or therapy work.
- Find a way of balancing the necessities of focal thinking to meet essential personal needs as with career, care of self and family, with being able to think and act with awareness and spiritual essence — in touch with the all-encompassing world outside our focused thinking. The mind, to have optimal health and well-being, needs a balance between the spiritual and mundane, the narrow and the broad.
I appreciate your support and interest.