Meaning Making Machines
“Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The one thing you could learn right now that would be useful for the rest of your life is: You are not your thoughts.
It is commonplace to accept your thoughts as real, since you experience them and reason that they must be true.
For example, if a friend doesn’t return your phone call, you may entertain negative thoughts and assume they don’t care about you.
This might lead to spiralling thoughts and toxic emotions. When the person does return your call, you will no doubt give them a piece of your mind and remind them you deserve respect.
But let’s back up for a moment and examine this scenario further.
You created a mental interpretation of a scenario you knew little about and attached meaning to it.
Even though there might be several possible reasons why your friend didn’t call, you inadvertently jumped to the wrong conclusion. You focussed on the negative aspects, instead of considering other reasons for their lack of communication.
We do it often, even though the other person might have an unblemished track-record of returning calls. We assume the worst scenario and take offence, believing we were mistreated.
So, why are we so prone to negativity in these situations?
Is it an evolutionary mechanism or is negativity wired into our DNA?
“Negative thoughts are innocent— and powerless— unless you turn them into something that must be shunned, dealt with, or fixed,” writes sports psychologist Garret Kramer in The Path of No Resistance: Why Overcoming is Simpler than You Think.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
“I find the great thing in this world is, not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Evolutionary psychologists believe negativity is part of our genetic constitution, designed to help us discern imminent danger within the environment. It is a biological mechanism to protect us, yet it is less relevant in modern society than it did when our ancestors first roamed the savannah.
Your mind uses negativity as a form of feedback to protect you from impending danger, otherwise known as a Negativity Bias.
However, in the scenario described earlier, you were convinced your friend did not care for you and you were prepared to confront them because your feelings were hurt.
Linda Graham MFT explains in Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being: “Cultivating an immediate positive response to a negative thought creates the space to shift perspective, supporting more flexibility and resilience. And, every time we do it, we are conditioning our brain for more resilience.”
Negativity is not necessarily bad, I would argue. It is something we must take into account in our daily lives, but we mustn’t perceive it as detrimental.
When I say you are not your thoughts, I am implying your experience of your thoughts does not define you as an individual.
Thoughts are projections taking place in your mind to which you assign meaning.
How do we know this for certain?
We could survey a hundred people and ask them how they are likely to react in a similar scenario. Some might stretch the truth, but most will give an accurate response.
Out of one hundred people sampled, the likelihood of different responses can be summarised as:
- Some will say it doesn’t bother them that their friend didn’t return their call.
- Others will reply that it does bothers them.
- Another group are impartial.
- The last group have not given it much thought to take offence.
Our thoughts differ because we’re essentially different ourselves.
“Positive and negative thoughts and emotions are just passing across our consciousness; when we perceive that, we realize the truth. The emotions and thoughts we have are illusory, which means they do not exist in the way they appear and they are completely dependent upon our interpretations,” states meditation Master Orgyen Chowang in Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness.
Body As The Subconscious Mind
“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle
Your thoughts are influenced by a variety of factors, including: your past conditioning, the role of stress in your life, your level of awareness, your general outlook on life, whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, and your state of health.
Yes, your health.
Those who suffer from poor health due to inadequate nutrition, lack of sleep and exercise, are biologically prone to negativity.
I realise this is a big declaration.
However, without turning this into a ten thousand word article citing medical and scientific literature, the health of your microbiome impacts your psychological and emotional well-being to a large degree.
Your thoughts and emotions are affected by: the foods you eat, how much you sleep and whether you exercise. These factors affect the gut—brain axis, which regulates the immune system and your interactions with others.
Louise Hay and Ahlea Khadro write in Loving Yourself to Great Health: Thoughts & Food—The Ultimate Diet: “Every cell responds to every thought you think and every word you speak, so continuous patterns of thoughts and beliefs can produce body behaviours and patterns of eases and dis-eases.”
How do we know for certain that food affects your thoughts?
Whilst I realise this is observational evidence, consider how you feel when you suffer from: constipation, diarrhoea, food poisoning, parasites or bacterial infections, gut dysfunction, intoxication and hunger?
These factors influence your mood, which in turn affects your thoughts. So the axiom ‘You are what you eat’ rings true in this scenario.
Thoughts passing through your mind are not who you are, they are projections on your mind. They are predisposed by factors within and beyond your control.
Thoughts can be likened to a radio that receives AM and FM frequencies and transmits them via radio waves.
You are the receiver of thoughts. Thinking is the process of electrical impulses within the brain that produces thoughts.
Depending on your past conditioning, genetic constitution and epigenetics, you may be more prone to negative thoughts than you realise.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you are a negative person. It simply means, your bandwidth is prone to negativity because your biological environment is conducive to it.
I should say that I am talking about a person who is constantly in a negative state, not one who occasionally thinks negatively.
It should also be said, negative thoughts are useful if we take time to examine them. There is usually an underlying mechanism as to why they prevail.
Mark Coleman clarifies further in Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic: “If I continue to give negative thoughts attention, then of course they grow in importance. If I stop giving them the time of day, then they have less room to take root and grow.”
Our Negative Bias
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust
If we want to change our bandwidth away from negativity, we must first attend to our environment. For example, engaging in self-exploration helps us understand the nature of negative thoughts.
Underlying negativity is a dysfunctional belief system adopted earlier in life that includes not being safe.
I often cite the work of the late neuroscientist Candace Pert who said: “Your body is your subconscious mind.”
Your body is an integrated organism that relies on different branches of your physiology to function.
They communicate with one another and relay information via the central nervous system and parts of your brain.
So, even eating something as simple as chocolate can influence your thoughts and send a cascade of impulses throughout your body.
Candace Pert’s work with opiate receptors, as the cellular binding site for endorphins in the brain, showed that our bodies are a giant network of communication channels.
This is empowering for several reasons, least of which it means we can influence our thoughts by being mindful of them and our environment.
The age old debate of Nature vs Nurture now suggests we should Nurture Nature.
I trust you now appreciate you are not your thoughts but the receiver of thoughts.
Your environment, the past and present has an influence on your thoughts more than you realise.
Whilst we’re wired for negativity, you should not feel helpless because of this. However, if you appreciate your predisposition towards negativity, you’re likely to manage it better through mindfulness.
It comes down to paying attention to your thoughts in a much more consistent fashion.
Know the essence of the person you call “I” and work with what you’ve got, instead of pushing to become something you are not.
Our thoughts are rarely the problem.
It is when we identify and attach meaning to them, that we invite the greatest danger to our long-term happiness.