You are not your thoughts

Let's try an experiment: sit upright and comfortably, in a chair – and let’s say you’re going to stay still for the next minute. Set a timer to ring when the minute’s up. Now close your eyes and follow the motion of your breath in and out, without being distracted. That’s all. Now open your eyes and reflect on what just happened. If you are like 99.99% of the people on this earth, you will have noticed, quickly enough, that that just doing this simple thing is a bit more challenging than you thought it would be. And the problem? Your thoughts of course! Millions of them, bubbling up out of nowhere, shouting at you, whispering in your ear, taking you by the hand and leading you to interesting, entertaining places, telling you stories, replaying memories, time travelling into the future, blaming, puzzling, conspiring, mocking, congratulating …. And so on and so, endlessly, on.

Where do they come from, all those thoughts? You don’t invite them in – at least not often – so why do they insist on visiting you? Producing thoughts is what your mind is designed to do. The truth is that you can’t really do much about it. The mind secretes thoughts in much the same way as the liver secretes bile. They keep coming because that’s the way you are made. Much of the responsibility lies with something called the default mode network. It’s a sort of production line for thoughts, churning them out even, or especially, when you are relaxed and doing nothing in particular. And you don’t have to do anything at all to make them happen.

Here’s how I believe it works; every now and then our minds generate a thought. Now a thought is just a mental event and, unless we deliberately create it, it seems to come from nowhere. If we leave it alone, it evaporates, and it’s soon forgotten. But, quite often, we are attracted to it. Maybe we find it interesting, or important, or entertaining, but one way or another we find ourselves engaging with it, giving it space and energy. In this way a simple thought, a mental event, is transformed into something else, something we call “thinking”. That’s probably what happened to you as you sat watching your breath a bit ago. One thought triggered another and another and another…

Here’s a few observations about automatic thoughts: they are never under your control, they are almost always self-referential (i.e. they put you at the centre of the story they are telling), they are often negative and make you feel bad, they are also often pretty boring and repetitive, and they always refer to the past or to the future. There is a reason why our minds work this way, but I won’t go into it here (although check this out for a great explanation of it from an evolutionary point of view), but we find that, if we leave our thoughts to carry on as usual, we get lost in them – really lost -  for much of our waking lives. And that is not a good thing because it distances us from what is actually happening in our lives, here and now.

So, do you still believe you are your thoughts? Try that experiment again, only this time catch those thoughts when you see them bubbling up and deliberately bring your attention back to your breath. Do it millions of times and, with practice, you will discover that thoughts have as about as much reality as clouds in the sky and you can treat them the same way - impermanent, insubstantial stuff that is going on at that moment. This is one of the great gifts of meditation; we are no longer slaves to our thoughts and we no longer identify with them. It takes practice though, so keep at it and you'll see for yourself.

Another post next month. Keep breathing and above all relax!