Ever had a great idea come and then you cannot recall it later and you think to yourself, ‘Dang, I should have written that down!’
Ever walked into a room and forgot what you went in there for? Then you are aware of the transient nature of thoughts.
Thoughts, ideas, notions, memories, and daydreams come and go. They come and go just like the breath. Once we reach the end of our in-breath it turns and becomes the out-breath, then as quickly as it ends, it turns and becomes the in-breath again. Thoughts behave in a similar way. One thought comes, and just as it ends (and often before it even completes) a new thought has arisen. One moment we are thinking of shampooing our hair in the shower, and then next we’re suddenly winning an imaginary argument in our head, or imagining our next great invention, or art piece.
The mind is as restless as the wind. When we accept this truth it allows us to begin to ease the tight grasp we have on our thoughts.
When we hold our thoughts very tightly they begin to turn into beliefs. Beliefs are based on information we have heard, or read, or a past experience we had. We develop beliefs in a myriad of ways. The mind is cunning and the ego is tricky; sometimes we even make up beliefs, in our striving to feel included, or to justify our own harmful behaviors without feeling like “bad people”. Beliefs are influenced by the world around us. When beliefs arise in us again and again, they can create the illusion that we are this, or that. This is how thoughts become samskara (mental impressions). For example: “I believe that because I fought for social justice doing X, Y and Z yesterday, I am therefore a kind and just person today.” Beliefs are different than values. Values allow us to determine what is important in our lives. They are the principles by which we live our lives. A value might be something like: “I value autonomy, therefore my chosen actions support other humans in their right to self-govern.” Values are internally created; beliefs are externally influenced. Thoughts and beliefs often change very rapidly. The moment we are presented with new information they can shift. Thoughts can be influenced by our mood in any given time and space. Beliefs give us the illusion that because something was true in the past it is also true today. Values tend to be longer lasting – though they too are transient, and can shift over time, as we become more conscious, they generally do not fluctuate with emotions, as they are the pieces of our being that we hold closest to our hearts. When we are aware of and aligned with our values, we can take information we learned in the past, or ideas about the future, and hold them, while still operating from a place of truth in the present reality.
When the lines between “who we are” and “what we think” and “what we value” get blurred, we may develop aversions or attachments to particular thoughts or ideas. Unaware of our attachment or aversion, thoughts may manifest into actions which cause harm to ourselves or others, simply because we are operating from a place of unconsciousness. We might feel quite reactive and even behave in ways which don’t align with our values when presented with ideas which conflict our pre-existing beliefs. We may not hear what someone else has to say at all, even if what they have to say might expand and deepen our understanding of our own values.
When we are wrapped up in a thought, it becomes difficult to discern whether a thought is something which is just arising and passing within the structure of our being, or whether it is an actual integral part of our being.
Why does this matter?
If we take a step back and notice the thought, and it’s transient nature, we return to the awareness of our own being. It is from this place of separation from thought that true clarity arises. It is from this place of awareness that we can best align with our own internal values, and choose actions which reflect our values. Although a cloud is in the blue sky, it does not make up the whole of the sky, even on the most cloudy of days we can get in an airplane and fly high up above the cloudy and see the sun is still shining and the blue sky is still visible. In the same way when we become mindful of our thoughts and their transient nature, we free ourselves of the cycle creating new aversions or attachments around our thoughts. We can just allow them to be there, notice them, and stay aligned with our own values. We can imagine thoughts and ideas like clouds in the sky, knowing that we ourselves, are the sky. By noticing that we are thinking, and not getting wrapped up in the individual thought, we reclaim autonomy over our minds. When we do this, we slow reactivity, and make it easier to walk in the world, aligned with our truth.
When my thoughts get the better of me I like to use this little mindfulness practice as I witness my breath. I find this practice particularly helpful when I’m experiencing anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by my thoughts:
Breathing in I notice lots of thoughts coming and going.
Breathing out I recognize that I contain my thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.