How To Stop Identifying With Your Thoughts

Thoughts Emerge From Consciousness

“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” — Sigmund Freud

Quick! What are you going to think next? Yes, it was a trick question since you’re unlikely to know what thoughts will emerge in your mind until they actually do. Yet identifying with thoughts is an unsupportive habit given they seem real when we experience them. It was the French philosopher René Descartes who stated Cogito ergo sum, meaning: “I think therefore I am.” He proposed thoughts are evidence we exist. Much has developed since then, given that philosophers and neuroscientists now agree our thoughts do not define us.

Thoughts emerge from consciousness and slip away just as easily as they appear. To associate with our thoughts is misleading, since some thoughts are not useful. Take, for example, the inner dialogue that occupies our mind when we’re at the park and notice someone playing with their dog. Our awareness registers what we see through our nervous system, yet the mind is compelled to add a dialogue about what it perceives. “What a cute dog, it has so much energy,” we reason. Observing the dog alone is not enough, the mind feels bound to narrate what it sees. Therein lies the problem. The mind adds its own narrative to everyday events, which we accept as truth. In most cases, the mental narrative is often negative self-talk.

The Power Of Mindfulness

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” — Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

We are the witnesser of our thoughts which take place through us, like a radio transmitting a frequency signal. We are not the signal, but the receiver of the signal. Thoughts alone are not the cause of our suffering and unhappiness. It is when we identify and attach ourselves to them, we suffer. Does this make sense? Are you comfortable knowing what you think does not make up who you are because your thoughts are constantly changing? It may not surprise you that thoughts are likely to change as we mature. For instance, what we thought during our teenage years is no longer useful as an adult because we have outgrown our environment. Comparable to the childhood toys we no longer play with, new thoughts occupy space in our mind to reflect our current reality.

Similarly, we cannot stop thoughts occurring any more than preventing vital body functions. Our aim should be to reduce the volume on thoughts by becoming the perceiver, thus identifying with them less. This is why mindfulness is a useful tool to help us manage us our thoughts because we learn to observe them with a detached focus. Our aim is to allow thoughts to enter our awareness and notice them, instead of becoming invested in them. The moment we place our awareness on identifying and attaching ourselves to transitory thoughts, we relinquish control. In other words, power is maintained in choosing thoughts over others. Reflect on this for a moment: you are only aware of thoughts in your field of awareness for that is where they exist. How about those fleeting thoughts that come and go which you don’t have time to associate with? What of the thoughts that enter your stream of consciousness while dreaming? Why don’t you accept those thoughts as real? Thoughts require an observer, otherwise they are nothing more than a barrage of matter contained within consciousness.

Negative Inner Dialogue

“Few minds wear out; more rust out.” — Christian N. Bovee

A thought appears real when it is given enough attention. It’s as though our mind flags it in consciousness, like an email program. Yet, flagging it in our awareness draws focus on the thought until we orientate our attention elsewhere. Whilst it is my intention to convince you your thoughts are not the essence of who you are, it would be remiss of me not to offer a solution for overcoming negative thoughts. Who better than the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle who reminds us: “Be present as the watcher of your mind – of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react.”

In other words, avoid the inner dialogue that accompanies negative thoughts, since it sparks negative thinking and can lead us into a dark hole that engulfs us. To follow our thoughts means to agree with them. To dismiss insignificant thoughts, however, allows them to pass through consciousness without occupying mental energy. If we try to trace our thoughts, we realise they emerge from the depths of our psyche. Yet, to ruminate on disempowering thoughts reinforces them in the mind. Our beliefs, mood, past trauma and childhood wounds, nutrition, illness and level of consciousness can influence our thoughts. By changing these where possible, we can shift the intensity of our thoughts.

Author Rick Hanson states in his book Buddha’s Brain, “There’s evidence that negative memory – both explicit and implicit – is especially vulnerable to change soon after it’s been recalled” (Monfils et al. 2009). Therefore, to overcome the weight of negative thinking, pay attention to your thoughts by being mindful of your mental landscape and intercept them before they take control. I advise my coaching clients to meditate daily and keep a journal to note their predominant thoughts. Over time, they can observe their thoughts by becoming detached from them. They see their thoughts have nothing significant to tell them and can decouple from them. I wish to leave you with something to reflect upon the next time you are inclined to ruminate on a thought. You are not your thoughts because thoughts come and go and you should allow them to do so with little attachment.

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