The concept that we are not our thoughts is central to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer, Deepak Chopra, Buddhism, Hinduism and too many more to mention. But for many on the spiritual path this is a difficult idea to wrap their arms around.
“What do you mean I’m not my thoughts? Of course I’m my thoughts. I’m the one who’s thinking them!” Actually, those thoughts are a product of your conditioned past and have no bearing on your true identity.
Who are you?
What is that true identity? The teachers and spiritual traditions mentioned above would say your true identity is the consciousness that notices those thoughts.
As I posited in a previous article, disidentifying with our thoughts is difficult. Why? Because most of us have been identifying with them for several decades. In that piece I laid out a three-step process for improving our ability to disidentify with our thoughts.
The first step in that process was becoming aware of and acknowledging that you and your thoughts are two distinct entities that are entangled inside. Because they are so entangled, most people think they are just one entity — their compulsive, incessant, involuntary thoughts. Peoples’ conscious selves are so swallowed up and enveloped by their thought-producing minds that they think that their thoughts are who they are.
Acknowledging the two selves
So what needs to be acknowledged is that humans consist of two inner selves: 1. A conscious self that is the real you; the you that exists only when you are rooted in the present moment and not lost in a stream of thoughts. And 2. The egoic/unconscious self that constantly pulls your attention to your thought factory mind. This egoic self is extremely powerful and dominates the conscious self in most people.
Recently I came upon another technique that helps strengthen my ability in this arena. Whether I’m meditating or practicing mindfulness during my daily life, when I notice that my mind has whisked my attention away into involuntary thinking, I do the usual and say to myself, “Okay, I’ve gone off into thinking. Let’s bring attention back to the here and now.”
The new technique
But I’ve added a new wrinkle. I include to what I say to myself, “And these thoughts are just like anything else that is happening in my experience of the present moment — the faint sound of the cars driving by, the low whirr of the fan in my office, the breath I was following and the stillness I sense inside my head. The thoughts and all of the rest are just things happening in the present moment. And none of these things are me. My thoughts are qualitatively no more ‘me’ than the car sounds, the fan or my breathing.”
Equating my thoughts with anything else happening in the present moment helps solidify inside me the separation between my conscious and unconscious/egoic selves. And as I’ve written many times, increasing the separation between those two selves is the essence of the spiritual journey.
So give this a try. Any time you notice you’ve drifted off into thought, whether in meditation or mindfulness practice, simply acknowledge that those thoughts are no different than anything else occurring in your present moment field of awareness.
And remember that thoughts and everything else happening in your present moment have one thing in common: They’re not you.