You Are Not Your Thoughts
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
A new breath comes; a new moment touches you. A new breath, a new moment; new choices, new decisions. Like the breath, we make choices moment by moment. We choose how we interpret a gesture, a sound, a remark; we choose to judge or to forgive; we choose to engage a thought that comes or to disengage from a thought that comes; we choose how we appraise events, circumstances, conditions; we choose our perceptions; we choose how we see the world. We are often too tolerant of mind wandering to notice, however. We often interpret the torrent of unexamined thoughts to be truth, to be reflective of reality- not subjective constructs of the brain. As such, we are playthings of thought, many of which are not original or native with us, but conditioned by our parents, our culture, our religion, our society. Many of these thoughts are not reflective of our truest values, aspirations, or ideals. Some contribute to our suffering. Over thinking, excessive worrying, chronic anger or fear, self-doubt, self-hatred, depression, perfectionism, are just some of the ways our neural wiring can undermine our sense of well-being.
In his book You Are Not Your Mind, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz calls those thoughts that cause us mental distress "deceptive brain messages." We cannot control these, but we can choose whether to engage or disengage from the thoughts that pop into consciousness. The 4 steps he suggests are familiar to those who practice mindfulness.
Step 1: Relabel. We identify the deceptive brain messages as such, very matter-of-factly. Labeling the thoughts and emotions that arise moment by moment, in formal meditation practice, shines a light on the workings of the ego, the apparent self we identify as "I."
Step 2: Reframe. We perceive these deceptive brain messages as just thoughts. Thoughts are epiphenomena of the conditioned mind. Sitting in meditation, we see thoughts as thoughts, not as truth, not as reality. We analyze, plan, investigate, recall; we have worrisome thoughts, scenario-spinning thoughts, fantasies, self-recriminating thoughts, etc. There are mood tones and emotional states. The mind may be colored happy or sad. We simply observe the weather of the mind as it changes.
Step 3: Refocus. We spoke often of observing (if the mind is restless and wandering, we label it as "restless" or "wandering"), we disengage and we REORIENT or REFOCUS our attention. In the book, Dr. Schwartz suggests wholesome or productive activities, but meditation does not require any diversion. We sit with whatever arises, no matter how unpleasant the accompanying sensations. If, for example, I'm entertaining worrisome thoughts, I can label them as "worrying, worrying." Then, I disengage and return to the object of focus- whether the breath, a mantra, bodily sensation, etc. I remain with the unpleasant physical sensations. If I am worrying, I sit with the shallow breathing, the accelerated heart rate- whatever the symptoms. In this way, I develop equanimity. I do not react to these unpleasant sensations. In so doing, I develop a kind of resilience to be better able to stand up to them in the future.
Step 4: Revaluing. In this step, we clearly see the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value.
The thinking process can be creative when thinking is required. As I type, for example, I'm dressing ideas with words and arranging the ideas in a somewhat logic order. As you read, your thinking mind translates the symbols into words and gives them meaning. This powerful and creative faculty is a blessing. It can be a curse, however, when that same power of imagination induces a state of panic as it conjures up frightful scenarios that never come to pass or imagines past grievances that arouse anger, hatred, or ill will, thus disturbing our peace.
With practice, we can rewire the mind, training to let go or to be with. There are many moments throughout the day to celebrate simply being, or to be fully present and engaged in the moment regardless of what one is doing. Gradually, (although sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly) the intensity of the thoughts subsides, the seemingly solid ego begins to dissolve, fading into the Self as we return to the natural state of being.
As you took form in your mother's womb, there was no ego. When you were born, there was no identification with thought. While you sleep, the ego is quiescent. As you dissolve back into formlessness, the ego, again, comes undone. From birth to death, you may have glimpses of the egoless state. Getting in touch with your life essence, while conscious, requires the intensity of full presence- the present moment being the entryway to peace. There is a stillness, a presence, an awareness that can be experienced now but not articulated. The din of thought, deafens us to that silence. Our blind allegiance to ego prevents us from seeing our light. In this state, we become disconnected from our true Self. We are more than our thoughts. As you sit reading, there is something animating you. It is not thought. Your thoughts are not regulating your body temperature, your heartbeat, your breath, or your hormone levels. Your thoughts are not digesting your food. Your thoughts are not maintaining your body's pH balance or glucose levels. Your thoughts are not dividing cells, fighting off infections, or healing wounds. What is that force? What is that which allows you to think, to feel, to be?
With meditative insight, we practice observing our own minds at the level of thought. Carve out quiet moments for meditation. There are several different techniques for observing the mind. Not all techniques work have the same benefit. In a study, open monitoring (using a labeling technique) was most effective at reducing distracting thoughts than was focused attention (on the breath, for example) or a progressive muscle relaxation technique.