You Are Not Your Thoughts
“But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.”—Dan Harris
The biggest lie perpetrated by mankind is the idea that the voice in our head is who we really are. It’s easy to understand why people believe their thoughts because they are real afterall. They come at us every moment of the day and are unrelenting until they wear us down. To illustrate how much we identify with our thoughts, years ago while meditating, I experienced no thoughts in what was a tiny pocket of time where it seemed I did not exist. It was short lived because the experience frightened me to the extent I generated a thought in the next moment to confirm my existence. This took place within a few seconds, yet it felt like an eternity. I’ve received emails from people over the years confirming the same experience. In this day and age we’re inundated with external noise. It is more difficult than ever to tune it out, yet simultaneously it is taking place within our minds. Thoughts do not confirm our sense of self, they merely add noise to an over stimulated mind. They are transitory and fleeting electrical episodes in the mind since we don’t know what we will think next until the thoughts emerge. Can you identify with this narrative of an overactive mind? If so, how did you deal with it?
Similarly, we may be tired or hungry and notice our thoughts are scattered. In contrast, when feeling energetic, our thoughts are more positive. This is when people claim they are at their best and indicative of who they are. I would argue we are not our thoughts at our best nor at our worst. Who are we then? We are the receiver and observer of our thoughts. We are the radio receiving and transmitting the thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves. As alluded to in the title, we are the person recognising the experience of the thoughts. We add context and meaning to what we experience and label it as good or bad by how the thought makes us feel. This is not necessarily a bad thing because human beings are meaning-making machines. It’s wired into our genetic disposition to make sense of the world, yet it can also be a double-edged sword if things go wrong. Thoughts are mostly neutral and have little meaning save for the meaning we add to it. I enjoy author Mary O’Malley’s point of view in What’s in the Way Is the Way: A Practical Guide for Waking Up to Life in which she writes: “Life created the mind as a tool for manoeuvring through Life, not to be in charge of it. The mind is a wonderful servant, but it is a horrible master. Giving it the task of being in charge of Life has created the world of struggle that most people live in all day long, keeping them cut off from peace and joy.”
A Pebble Dropped In The Pond
“Something I wrote quite a few years ago was: “The voices in my head, they don’t care what I do, they just want to argue the matter through and through.” It is a common mistake, to think you’re going to go into some kind of spiritual practice and you’re going to be relieved of the human burdens, from human crosses like thought, jealousy, despair – in fact, if anything, these feelings are amplified.”—Leonard Cohen
The greatest victory we can undertake in our personal development is to recognise we are not our thoughts and detach from them. This is difficult to do and requires discipline and self-enquiry. I have come to respect and pay attention to negative thoughts such as those imbued with: fear, anxiety, anger, etc. by observing them, not responding to them. This took many years of practice and meditation. Before that, I was constantly dragged down by negative thoughts because I believed the narrative they espoused. For example, if something unpleasant occurred, I experienced negative thoughts that spiralled out of control. They turned into destructive emotional states and soon I was caught in a storm of pessimism. There came a point where I had enough and started meditating in the evening to help me sleep better. Once I became accustomed to meditating, I began journaling my thoughts and discovered a theme interweaving throughout my thinking process. I objectively traced the thoughts and examined the underlying mechanism behind them. For example, if I consumed alcohol and/or caffeine on particular days, my thoughts were erratic and impulsive. Similarly, if I consumed a carbohydrate-rich diet high in sugar, I observed the same erratic thoughts. Have you noticed this with your thoughts whereby certain foods or stimulants cause you mental unrest?
It wasn’t until I switched to whole foods and eliminated caffeine and alcohol from my diet that my erratic thoughts subsided, alongside the other work I was doing. I realise this is an extreme intervention because alcohol, sugar and carbs are key components to a Western diet. Nevertheless, I was prepared to do whatever it took to gain peace of mind. I’m not proposing this is the only answer to calm an overstimulated mind. It would be remiss of me to conclude that diet alone can completely change our thinking, however it does have a big impact on our overall wellbeing. It’s said the mind is likened to a calm pond of water, whereby a thought is a pebble dropped in the pond. The ripple effect of the pebble has an undulating influence on the mind and body. I’m not suggesting you need to go to the extreme I did. In fact, it took two years of observations and what many nowadays call hacking one’s health to notice what worked and what didn’t. During that time I lapsed often, yet it was important to discover how my diet and moods influenced my thoughts. I embarked on this adventure because I wanted to inhabit my body completely, without a cocktail of chemicals dictating my quality of life. Sure, I miss foods rich in carbohydrates but the inner peace I gained far outweighs the moments of pleasure carbs offer. I mention this to highlight how the voice in our head can be influenced by external factors. If foods and stimulating drinks can influence our thoughts, the voice in our head is not who we really are but influenced by what we put in our body.
Even Negative Thoughts Are Useful
“In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? — Michael A. Singer
To gain a better understanding of our thoughts requires becoming self-aware and mindful of our inner world. Author and psychotherapist Loch Kelly explains this in Shift into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness: “One of the most important things to learn is how to separate awareness from thinking, and then we can see that thoughts and emotions are not the centre of who we are.” Many people are driven by their unconscious desires and react to their external environment. They are governed by what takes place outside of them, it becomes difficult to make sense of what is happening within. Thoughts themselves are not the problem. The voice inside our head is something we can observe and turn the volume down on. It is unwise to get rid of negative thoughts because they can serve a purpose. I discovered this through many years of self-enquiry. It requires integrating them into the wholeness of our being rather than try to abolish them completely. All thoughts have their place in the mind, even negative ones. The key is to dissociate from negative thoughts and choose empowering ones in their place. By turning down the volume on negative chatter we allow the authentic self to emerge.