You Control Your Thoughts, Not Your Impulses
But if you do it right, that’s all you need to improve your behavior
When you’re hungry, are you actually hungry, or do you just think you’re hungry?
“What a dumb question,” you might think, “of course I know when I’m hungry!” But do you? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.
For one thing, 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese. Not all those cases might be the result of overeating, but a lot of them are. At some point in their lives, two out of three people in the United States have lost the connection between how much they should eat and how much they actually eat. Chances are, that initial question has something to do with it.
You may not have a weight problem yourself, but you sure know what it’s like to eat something you shouldn’t have. We all do. Who can blame us? So many tasty snacks, so many great TV shows, modern technology just makes it too easy to keep munching chips long after you’re satisfied. Clearly, we can’t always tell reality from fiction when it comes to our stomachs growling.
Why is that? Let’s do a thought exercise to understand what’s going on.
The river inside your mind
The point of meditation is observing your thoughts without engaging with them. There are many analogies to help you grasp this concept.
The one I use is this: Imagine a stream of threads. Thousands of little strands of fabric, swimming by in front of your inner eye. Each thread is a thought, and they all have different colors. Whenever you want, you can reach into the river and grab one of them. If you do, however, you’ll now be looking at the thread in your hand. As a result, you’ll miss all the others passing by.
Meditation, then, is about looking at the river without grabbing any threads.
Just like the threads have many colors, so do our thoughts. There are factual ones, like “2 + 2 = 4,” bland ones, like “this wall is white,” surprising ones, like old memories that come up unexpectedly, and many more. In my mind, the thoughts that come with impulses are threads in bright red. They stand out. They’re shiny. You really want to grab them.
If you do, however, you won’t only stand there with the thread in your hand, distracted. Instead, you’ll realize you just caught a handrail on a speeding train, and now, you’re being swept away at 200 miles an hour. All you can do is hold on for dear life and hope the terror ends soon.
Sticking with the example of being hungry, it’s what happens when you jump on that first “I’m hungry!” as soon as it pops up in your mind. Suddenly, you’re not in charge anymore. The impulse is. From that moment on, it will dominate your thoughts and subsequent decisions, until you’ve either satisfied the craving or somehow managed to wriggle yourself out of its grasp.
That’s not a good way to exercise self-control because, clearly, it’s a battle we often lose. It can, however, point us in the right direction.
Every impulse comes with a thought
I’ve been meditating every day for the past two weeks. The most important thing I’ve learned so far is that every impulse is bundled with a thought. They are two separate things, but they always show up together.
So, when you engage with that bright, red, “I’m hungry” train, and it carries you away, that’s not an impulse you’re falling prey to. It’s your own thought.
Impulses are real, physical sensations. The intoxicating smell of someone’s hair. The beautiful sound of a fast car speeding by. Or your growling stomach, signaling it’s time to send something down your gullet. It only takes a few milliseconds for your brain to process an impulse, but once it has, it sends a thought into your consciousness. Given the stimulating nature of impulses, that thought is usually expressed in the form of desire.
“I want to kiss him!”
“I want a car like that!”
The moment the thought arises, you decide your own fate. Only if you jump on it will you reinforce the impulse. The question is: Can you not grab this thread? Can you keep your hands out of the river? Because if you let go of the initial thought, the impulse will quickly subside.
In one of my own meditation sessions, I dealt with this exact thing. My stomach growled, I engaged with the thought, and I noticed the desire to eat getting stronger. Eventually, I brought myself back. Later, the same thing happened, but this time, I managed to let the thought fly by. My hunger faded and I was fine eating some 30 minutes later, after my session had ended.
That’s why meditation is a powerful tool: It gives you the option to forego impulses by not giving in to their correlating thoughts. As it turns out, that’s all you need to change your behavior in the ways that you want to.
All you need to know
Yesterday, a friend pointed me to another meditation analogy. Headspace co-founder Andi Puddicombe describes it as “sitting on the side of a busy road, watching the cars representing thoughts and feelings.” “Often, observing the traffic makes us anxious, so we run into the road, trying to stop the cars or chasing after them,” he says.
When we give in to the thoughts our impulses conjure, we take it one step further. We get into a car we’re not driving, sit in the passenger seat, and say, “full speed ahead.” Nobody would put their life into the hands of a stranger without a second thought, but when it comes to surrendering to our impulses, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
You don’t control your impulses, but you can learn to control your thoughts. If the difference between the two can obscure something as seemingly simple as determining when we need to eat, imagine all the other ways this can affect us. Smoking, drinking, binge-watching, most addictions start here. But these early, impulse-driven thoughts are also where our chance to beat them lies.
Meditation is about returning to the side of the road. You’re not trying to shut down all traffic, just practicing to get into fewer cars. Fortunately, the latter is enough to resist your impulses and change your behavior for better health and happiness.
So, when you’re hungry, are you actually hungry, or do you just think you’re hungry?
Maybe, it’s not a dumb question after all.