Why You Are Not Your Thoughts

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


What are you going to think next?

Yes, it was a trick question since you’re unlikely to know what thoughts will emerge until they actually do.

Yet, identifying with thoughts is an unsupportive habit given they seem real when you experience them.

It was French philosopher René Descartes who stated Cogito ergo sum, meaning, “I think therefore I am.” He was proposing that thoughts are evidence you exist.

Much has evolved since then, given that philosophers and neuroscientists now agree our thoughts do not define us.

Thoughts emerge from consciousness and slip away as easily as they appear. To associate with your thoughts is misleading since some thoughts are not useful.

Take for example the inner dialogue that occupies your mind when you’re at the park noticing a person playing with their dog.

Your awareness registers what you see through your nervous system, yet your mind is compelled to add a dialogue about what it perceives.

“What a cute dog, it has so much energy,” you reason.

Observing the dog alone is not enough, the mind feels compelled to narrate what it sees.

There lies the problem.

The mind adds its own narrative to everyday events which we accept as truth. This narrative is often negative.

“People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgments, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on,” states Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now.

It must be said you are the witnesser of your thoughts.

Thoughts occur through you, like a radio transmitting a frequency signal. You are not the signal, but the receiver of the signal.

Thoughts alone are not the single cause of our suffering and unhappiness. It is when we identify and attach ourselves to them we stumble.

Author and teacher Byron Katie wrote in Loving What Is: “When we believe our thoughts instead of what is really true for us, we experience the kinds of emotional distress that we call suffering. Suffering is a natural alarm, warning us that we’re attaching to a thought; when we don’t listen, we come to accept this suffering as an inevitable part of life. It’s not.”

It comes as no surprise that thoughts are likely to change as you mature.

What you regarded in your teens is no longer useful as an adult because you have outgrown your environment. Comparable to the childhood toys you no longer play with, new thoughts occupy space in your mind to reflect your current reality.

Similarly, you 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.

Mindfulness is a useful tool when we experience runaway thoughts. Our aim is to allow them 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.

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” – Eckhart Tolle

Power is maintained in choosing thoughts over others.

“Most of our self-talk is unconscious; we are not even aware of it. At times our self-talk comes in feelings that can’t quite be put into words. At other times it comes in little flashes, flickers of thoughts which never quite catch fire or glow bright enough or last long enough to become ideas, clearly thought out and understood,” states motivational psychologist Dr. Shad Helmstetter in What To Say When You Talk To Your Self.

Reflect on this for a moment.

You are only aware of thoughts in your awareness for that is where they exist. Take into account 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 as real?

Thoughts require an observer, otherwise they are nothing more than a floating barrage of matter contained within consciousness.

“No matter how lost you sometimes get in thoughts of lack, worry and insecurity, who you really are is always the same… Peace, freedom, wisdom, clarity and love,” states Jamie Smart in Clarity.

A thought appears real when given enough attention. It’s as though your mind flags it in consciousness, like an email program. Yet, flagging it in your awareness draws focus to the thought until you orientate your attention elsewhere.

Whilst my intention is to convince you why you are not your thoughts, it would be remiss of me not to offer a solution for overcoming negative thoughts.

Who better than Eckhart Tolle to remind 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.”

Avoid the inner dialogue that accompanies negative thoughts, since it sparks the negative thinking process and can lead you into a dark hole that engulfs you.

To follow your thoughts means to agree with them. To dismiss insignificant thoughts however, allows them to pass through consciousness without occupying mental energy.

If we seek 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.

Thoughts are influenced by our: beliefs, the past, moods, nutrition, illness and level of consciousness. By changing these where possible, we shift the intensity of future 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)

To overcome the weight of negative thinking, we attend to thoughts as they emerge and intercept them before they wreak havoc.

You won’t know what you’re likely to think next because thoughts are unpredictable owing to our ever fluctuating environment.

I 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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