Apparently 3000 years ago Greeks would think you were delusional if you claimed the thoughts in your head were your own. Thoughts were the voices of the gods. Today if you claim the thoughts in your head are the voice of God, you would be deemed delusional. That’s just one of many examples of how thoughts, individually and collectively, change all the time.
In today’s western culture most people believe their thoughts are their own AND that they reflect who they are. This belief goes pretty much unquestioned, but if we pause our assumptions for a moment and take a look, we can see where this kind of thinking could lead to trouble: I have a bad thought; therefore, I am a bad person. My bad thoughts make me unworthy of happiness. I deserve to suffer.
Laid out so plainly, we might balk at that line of thinking, but when we notice the pattern of our own thinking, we might discover thoughts seasoned with just such unhelpful reasoning in one form or another.
In coming to Wise View (the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed to end suffering), it helps to unload the erroneous belief that we are what we think. Taking our thoughts to be who we are traps us in a hoarder’s house, constantly tripping over the clutter. No wonder we get depressed.
What are thoughts anyway?
Thoughts are electro-chemical reactions from neurons interconnected by synapses, a cognitive process of receiving input from all the senses, assessing, categorizing, then retrieving similar experiences from the inner data bank for review and evaluation. Very cool tool, right? But can we claim the process or the output of them to be uniquely ‘me’?
As we observe thoughts arising and falling away — painful or pleasurable, creative or destructive, organized or chaotic, insightful or deceitful. We can see how they recur and how they can get entangled like twigs and leaves in a stream, stuck in a swirling vortex, sucked down and then spring up later or decay and get flushed downstream. Thoughts (and emotions) are the results of biological activity reacting to past and present causes and conditions.
Whose thought is this thought?
Someone else could have the very thoughts you are having right now, given the same causes and conditions. This is especially true if there’s something going on that activates pleasure or fear — watching a movie together, the members of the audience will experience very much the same thoughts and emotions. In general people thrive on that collective experience, but then walk out of the theater and reclaim individual ownership of their reactions.
Even without being part of an audience or other collective experience, thoughts are pretty predictable. If you were visiting briefly in a neighbors brain, how surprised would you really be to find they have dreams, fears, anxiety and curiosity just as you do?
While you may feel blessed or victimized by the causes and conditions of your life, and they do tend to shape your view, they are not the stuff to make a solid object called ‘I’ or ‘me’. This may come as a great relief, because thoughts are often contradictory, stubbornly opinionated, flighty, gullible, infatuated with infallibility, sometimes cruel, sometimes incurably romantic. Who would really want to lay claim to all that?
Contemporary literature often focuses on personal identity and self-discovery, exploring ancestry, misunderstandings and family secrets. But — spoiler alert!! — the resolution comes when the characters are liberated from the captivity of the very chains of belief they are exploring. They discover that what they were looking for was there all along. Think of Dorothy on her search for answers from the Wizard of Oz when it turns out she only needed to click her heels three times to come home to herself. This is not to negate the enjoyment of a grand adventure and the riches there are to savor in the process. It just lets us hold it all more lightly, appreciating each moment as it arises, appreciating the rainbow itself rather than seeking the illusory pot of gold hinted to be at the end of it.
The Buddha taught: You are not your thoughts or emotions, and if you spend a little time paying attention you will undoubtedly find that is true. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, insubstantial, transitory, unreliable and uncontrollable. You might remind yourself of that the next time you notice you are entangled in them.
Thoughts are useful, of course. Thinking is a part of the human experience. All the categorizing and filing is efficient but it is not infallible. We need time out from active thinking for the brain activity to catch up with itself. Without that we can expect malfunctions and hampered judgment. Sleep, relaxation and meditation are all important ways to help the brain function optimally.
“You don’t know me”
In class students commented on how limiting it feels when people tell them who they are from their observations. I’m sure you’ve had that experience: Someone sees you do something and forevermore labels you a something-doer. It’s just the way the human brain functions – categorizing, labeling, filing away for future use. Registering how it feels to be labeled is a good reminder to notice when we are using that kind of shorthand labeling on others. It takes skillful effort to countermand the autopilot nature of that process and leave room for people to remain unlabeled. When we resist categorizing people, we keep our relationships more vibrant, loving and unlimited.
We can offer ourselves that same generosity of un-labeling. If we are not defined by our body, our preferences or our thoughts, how free we are to be alive in this moment just as it is!
“But I like my labels”
If you feel threatened by the idea of becoming untethered from the labels you believe define you, that’s useful noticing and an invitation for more inner exploration.
Liberating ourselves from the belief that we are our thoughts comes naturally when we give ourselves the gift of a regular practice of meditation — a little time out from the busy thinking-thinking, but also the ability to be more present in all moments of our lives. We begin to see the patterns of thoughts arising and falling away, and we understand that they are not unique. The person next to us could easily be having that same thought, given similar causes and conditions. When we experience a trauma we are drawn to others who have experienced it as well, feeling the bond of shared experience and a sense of being understood. There is real value in that. But there is also the potential to define ourselves solely by that experience, labeling ourselves, clinging to an identity that is no longer offering a complete sense of who we are. Staying present in this moment allows us the fullness of being alive however that presents itself right now.
All of us can notice that the thoughts we have today are often very different from the thoughts we had when we were young. Those thoughts don’t define us. To the degree that we allow them to define us, they confine us. Can we let them go?
What thoughts did you used to have that you don’t have anymore? If you are your thoughts, then changing your mind on anything would be threatening. I am the kind of person who believes ‘x’. Without that thought, who would I be? But if you are not your thoughts, then you are free to explore the wondrous world of thought. Often we adopt the thoughts of others whom we want to befriend or model ourselves after. When thoughts change, we may resist their natural flow for fear of losing connection with others. But if there is no room for inner growth and change, then that’s not a true friendship. And while role models might give us ideas of valuable qualities we might aspire to, no one is infallible. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.”
“I can’t afford to be wrong”
One of the most rewarding discoveries is the freedom from needing to be right. This one insight really helped me in my relationships. Making room for human fallibility in ourselves frees us from the drudgery of constantly having to shore up the miserable and isolating fortress of ‘self’ that we have built. Suddenly we can see how that fortress was just causing suffering. Without needing to build a fortress, we are free to be a natural expression of life loving itself into being. The ‘I don’t know’ mind is a wondrous way to live.
“Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove”
When you go on retreat at a meditation center, insights naturally arise as you sit and walk in silence. Each insight is valuable with potentially lifelong lasting benefits if we can keep them alive. On one retreat I suddenly realized I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove — but I did have something to give.
The beauty of insights is that they are universal, so I can confidently share with you that you can bloom right where you are planted knowing you have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and something to give.
What is that gift you quite naturally share when you’re not afraid, not hiding and not trying to prove anything? It helps to discover that it is not something that defines you but something that makes you happy to wake up in the morning, ready to engage for the benefit of all beings. This sounds like a big thing, but skillful things we do just for ourselves or for one other person are for the benefit of all beings. Don’t think quantitatively. Remember how things ripple out from each thought, each word and each act from each of us.
Can we let go of our clinging to a solid and certain-seeming identity, and in the process awaken to awe, discovering this moment just as it is?