You are not your thoughts. This may seem a little counterintuitive. Most of us grow up associating ourselves with what we think. But you’re more like the mediator of your thoughts — not the thoughts themselves.
If you were in control of your thoughts, you would know where they come from. But, if you’re anything like me, you have no idea where they come from. They just pop into your head like magic.
If you were your thoughts, which thoughts would you be? Perhaps you have a compassionate thought which encourages you to serve the world. Wonderful. Five seconds later an enraged thought enters your mind when someone else cuts you off on the freeway. Which one is you? How many of you are there?
Thoughts are Sensory Inputs
Thoughts are like sensory inputs. You go throughout your day seeing, hearing, and touching things. Sensory inputs are the raw materials of your existence — they happen to you and you respond. You perceive the outside world.
You probably wouldn’t say that you are what you see or hear. Sights and sounds happen to you. Thoughts are just the same. You receive thoughts and process them. You perceive the inside world.
You wouldn’t feel guilty for tasting or smelling something offensive. Similarly, the mere fact that you have a negative thought doesn’t make you an evil person. You don’t need to feel bad about it.
You are not your thoughts. Instead, you are air traffic control. You observe the thoughts flying around and decide which ones can land. You don’t need to feel ashamed for thinking negatively. You didn’t come up with the thought — you’re just experiencing it.
How to Deal with Thoughts
When you start to realize you aren’t your thoughts, you can learn to distance yourself from them. Instead of being immersed in the emotion, you can observe your thoughts from a third-person point of view. You are an interested spectator.
There are many ways you can learn to observe your thoughts. These are some of my favorite ways:
- Meditation (here is an article explaining various types)
- Reading about spirituality and neuroscience
- Walks through nature
- Art of all forms
Creating space between your self and your emotions helps you live a more balanced life. When you experience an angry thought, you can simply observe and question the anger. Why are you angry? Will holding onto anger serve you?
“Nothing ever happened in the past that can prevent you from being present now” — Eckhart Tolle
Learning to observe your thoughts can also help you deal with past experiences. If you feel anxiety, guilt, or regret from the past, you can realize that these are nothing more than thoughts. You can’t go back. You can acknowledge these thoughts (and perhaps use them productively to guide your actions in the future), but don’t let them keep you from experiencing the present moment.
Setting Yourself Free
When you are an experiencer of thoughts — not the thoughts themselves — negative emotions become less painful. We often experience personal growth following difficult situations. While feeling uncomfortable might not be ideal, if you can take a detached view of your thoughts, you can realize that you will learn from the situation. You can be grateful for it.
Thoughts and experiences are not intrinsically good or bad — they just are. When you associate your self with your thoughts, you get carried away by emotion and assign value to everything. When you learn to observe your environment (mental and physical) without judgment, you can set yourself free. You can truly live in the present.
Of course, being 100% in the present is very difficult — perhaps impossible. I am certainly nowhere near where I want to be, and I get carried away by emotion all the time. I bet you do too.
But as you start to realize you are not your thoughts, life gradually gets easier. The lows are less intense. Sadness vanishes more quickly. When you observe your world and live in the present, there’s no need to dwell on the past or worry about the future. When these unproductive thoughts come into your mind, you can acknowledge their existence without following them down the rabbit-hole.
Take the time to start practicing observing your thoughts without becoming too attached. You can learn to grow from difficult emotions, not be destroyed by them. You can only live in the present moment, so you might as well enjoy it. There’s a beautiful life out there waiting for you. It’s yours for the taking.