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 your head is who you really are.
It’s easy to understand why people believe the narrative in their minds because thoughts are real. They come at you every moment of the day and are unrelenting until they wear you 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 and believed 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.
Authors Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith explain in Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment how we form a conceptualised self which is difficult to move beyond: “The exciting part about seeing your own conceptualized self as something you hold on to arbitrarily is that truly new narratives may be possible that are, right now, outside of the story currently being told. But it can be frightening to open up to possibilities that go beyond your conceptualized self. If you are not your thoughts, then who are you?”
In this day and age we’re inundated with external noise. It has become more difficult than ever to tune it out, yet simultaneously it is taking place within our minds.
Thoughts do not confirm your sense of self as apparent in the earlier quote.
They are transitory and fleeting electrical episodes in the mind. You don’t know what you will think next until the thoughts emerge.
Similarly, you may be tired or hungry and notice your thoughts are scattered.
In contrast, when feeling energetic, your thoughts are more positive. This is when people claim they are at their best and indicative of who they are.
I would argue you are not your thoughts at your best nor at your worst.
Who are you then?
You are the receiver and observer of your thoughts. You are the radio receiving and transmitting thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves.
As alluded to in the title, you are the person recognising the experience of the thoughts.
You add context and meaning to what you experience and label it as good or bad judging by how the thought makes you 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 you add to it.
I enjoy 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 you can undertake in your personal development is to recognise you are not your 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 happened, I experienced negative thoughts that spiralled out of control. They turned into destructive emotional states and soon enough 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 started 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 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.
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.
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 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 your head can be influenced by external factors.
If foods and stimulating drinks can influence your thoughts, the voice in your head is not the real you but subject to what you put in your 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 your thoughts requires becoming self-aware and mindful of your inner world.
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 constantly react to their external environment.
They are governed by what takes place outside, it becomes difficult to make sense of what is happening within.
To summarise the plan I undertook to make peace with my thoughts:
1. Journal my thoughts.
2. Be mindful of the foods I consumed.
3. Know how alcohol and caffeine affect me once they are consumed, particularly in the ensuing hours and days.
4. Observe my moods throughout the day while paying attention to external triggers.
5. Be aware when my blood sugar levels drop which depletes glucose to the brain. This can affect thoughts.
It goes without saying: be sensible and do not experiment with yourself if you are depressed or suffer from a mentally diagnosed condition. Seek professional advice and guidance. This is not intended to replace professional treatment, nor do I expect it to be taken as advice.
Thoughts themselves are not the problem.
The voice inside your head is something you 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 your 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 you allow the authentic self to emerge.