“I think therefore I am”, the famous phrase uttered by renowned Philosopher Rene Descartes was perhaps one, if not the most, fundamentally flawed philosophical statements of all time (sorry Rene). To assume that I exist and I know that I exist because I think thoughts, sends us off on a dangerous trajectory where we believe that we are our thoughts. This, arguably, is almost as absurd as saying that we don’t feel pain, we are pain.
If both thoughts and pain arise in the brain then how is it any less absurd to believe we are pain, or we are hunger or any other cognitive or physical experience? Anyway… simply, what Mr Descartes suggested here is we don’t have thoughts, we are thoughts. Not only that but, thoughts are the sole proof that we’re actually conscious at all… dangerous.
Think about some of the thoughts you’ve had. Dark thoughts that you’d never share with anyone. Are those thoughts you? Is that who you are? A bit deep?… stay with me.
My point is that we all strive for a sense of identity, qualities that I define as ‘me’. Due to the nature of how we experience thoughts, it’s very easy to mistake that we are indeed our thoughts or, our thoughts are us. Think for a moment, a thought, a sunset over the ocean. Now, while you’re having that thought of a beautiful orange sun sliding through the violet sky and dipping into the watery horizon, something else very strange is happening. You’re aware that you’re having the thought of a sunset over the beach. So, what is this awareness? Who is this watcher of thoughts? Perhaps this awareness of the thought is the real you, not the thought itself. The more that you sit and just observe your thoughts, the more you become aware of this third person observer. This person experiencing the thought… strange?
The problem is that we don’t often spend time contemplating this awareness… Instead, we go from thought, through awareness of the thought and straight on to judging the thoughts (is it good, bad, indifferent?), then onto emotion… how does the thought make me feel? From emotion we then have thoughts about thoughts and the vicious cycle comes back in through the back door and never ends.
You see a thought is like a seed. It lies dormant before breaking open. Under the right conditions, it cracks and a small sprout fights through the fertile soil of your subconscious and bursts through the surface and into our conscious mind. But to grow… to become a fully-fledged living thing, it needs to be fed and it can only be fed by your attention to it. If you move beyond simple awareness of it and progress on to judging and feeling emotions, then you water the seedling. The more attention you give it, the more its intricate, weaving root system spreads and spreads, causing more to sprout through the surface to the point where the root system is so deep, so ingrained in the soil of your subconscious that it’s very difficult to neatly uproot.
So what do you do? You notice an evil weed starting to sprout, you are aware of its presence but you allow it to be and then move on. You don’t water or feed it. It then dies. This is where meditation comes in.
A lot of people think that meditation is about blocking your thoughts out and not thinking anything at all… this is not true. When I did my meditation retreat in Thailand, we were taught that you must allow your thought to be, acknowledge its presence but then move on. Don’t judge it, don’t pay attention to it and it will die away. You see, meditation breaks the cycle by putting a wall up after the ‘awareness’ phase and stopping you from going on to judgement, emotion and then more thoughts about thoughts. Fighting the thought is the same as paying attention to it, so you simply allow it to be and shift your focus back to the present moment or your breathing.
So, back to our sense of self… Where does the ‘I’ fit in? If I’m not my thoughts and I’m not what I think, then where is the ‘I’? Well, this is a hard chestnut to crack and the question as to where will vary depending who you ask. I like to believe that the I is in the awareness. The seeing and sensing presence… the watcher of thought. It’s in the stillness and the fleeting moments of no thought that the true I is exposed. I believe the true self is on the awareness side and that the false self is bred from the judgements of thoughts and emotions they breed. The false self is a dangerous realm where we mistake ourselves for dark and dangerous thoughts and get caught in a never-ending mental cycle of mind chatter and noise that is a self-perpetuation cycle. We feed our thoughts, they get stronger, leading to more judgement, more emotion which in turn, feeds more thoughts. The problem is that no one fully understands where thoughts arise from and there’s a misconception (in my opinion) that your thoughts are who you are.
Years ago, I worked for a wellness retreat as marketing manager. The retreat catered for people suffering depression and anxiety and had seminars with ‘motivational’ speakers etc. It was all a big warm and fuzzy Kumbaya self-help group hug with organic food… The problem was that their slogan was (and still is) ‘you are what you think’... This is where problem stemmed from. You are your thoughts was their philosophy and they spent their efforts on programs where they tried to get people to stop their thoughts and, radically and quickly, change their thinking. What they should have done instead is helped people change their relationship with their thoughts and break the ‘thought-> judgement -> emotion -> more thought cycle’. Instead of helping people to stop ‘feeding’ their thoughts, they tried to reinvent the wheel by blocking thought and, needless to say, weren’t very successful. Their slogan should’ve been ‘relax, you’re not what you think’.
I think that part of the reason that anxiety and depression are on the rise is because of this very erroneous belief. Humans are highly evolved beings and the only species (that we know of) able to have thoughts about thoughts and the only creatures to possess the power of imagination and self-reflection. Don’t get me wrong, this ability is incredibly useful and crucial to making decisions everyday. The problem is when we go from using our self-awareness and cognitive abilities as a tool and instead believe that these cognitive processes are who we are… Once we do that, then that’s just a whole world of messed up.
Thoughts aren’t controllable. We all have ideas and compulsive thoughts that can be disturbing at times, to believe these thoughts are the essence of your being can be a hellish experience. What I’m saying here is not to stop having thoughts (or even try), not to ignore them, just to change your relationship with your thoughts and spend more time is the stillness of no thought to feel the silent observer who may be, the real you. The more time that you spend in the stillness, the longer the gaps of no-thought will become and the more you discover your true self… At least that’s what I reckon!
It’s funny how we strive for a sense of identity and always have… It seems so important to us nowadays that, when our identity is threatened, studies show that our bodies physically react the same way as if our life were in danger… Our ego has taken over and embedded its deep-rooted, entangled webs of thoughts and ideas that haunt us. We just need to wake up. We need to realise that consciousness is not just thoughts. I think therefore I am is completely wrong. I am and I think. I am not thoughts, I have thoughts like I have hunger, pain, thirst, desire and more… But who I am, well that’s something different altogether. Something deep and something special.