You can examine them, and learn to free yourself from misperceptions.
Lately, I have been thinking a good deal about our thinking.
Most of us believe that our thinking is an accurate reflection of our history, our environment and our experience. Therefore, when we have a thought, we value it as truth.
The truth is, thinking is something our minds do, it is not who we are. Most of us don’t actually think about our thinking; we just assume it is accurate and let our thoughts guide our lives. Well, the real truth is that emotions, other thoughts, amount of sleep, stress or well-being, and dozens of other factors influence our thoughts.
Some days I ride to work thinking about how lucky I am to have pretty good skills at my chosen career. Other days I ride to work thinking that I am a fraud who has yet to be discovered. Think about that; it is the same person driving the same route thinking about the same career and yet having opposite thoughts.
Our thoughts are so malleable, and yet they often determine whether we are happy, depressed, anxious or peaceful. One day when my father was living, he told me that some days he was so depressed he was ready to leave this Earth. When I asked him what was so painful about those days, he said: “Those are the days when I am thinking about the fact that my wife and daughter are both gone and my son is in a wheelchair.” Knowing that those facts were true every day, I asked him about the days when he didn’t feel depressed: “Simple,” he said: “On those days, I am thinking about other things.”
Thoughts can control our behavior, and yet they are quite elusive and changeable. Anyone who has been divorced knows that. A divorced woman recently told me: “When I married my husband I was attracted to him because he was like a rock. Towards the end, he was more like a brick wall!” It sounded to me as if the most profound change in her marriage was her thinking.
Since the psychology of thinking is an integral part of Buddhist philosophy, I contacted Scott McBride, a Buddhist lama, and asked him how these things we call thoughts actually work inside our minds. He said, “Thoughts are shaping your experience all of the time, so that your approach to your self and other people and to all of the things you do in your life are being shaped by what you think from moment to moment. Sometimes those thoughts think one thing and sometimes another thing. Often we are buffeted around by our thoughts and the ensuing feelings that get attached to them.”
I know that sometimes my thoughts are very dark, and just take me from problem to problem. I asked McBride if our goal should be to control our thoughts.
“Not to control them,” he said, “but to become aware of them and begin to understand what they are and how they have been affecting you.”
When asked how, he responded, “To begin with, you can just take a few minutes every morning and begin observing your mind. You can watch the ebb and flow of your thoughts and notice whether they are dark, demanding, happy, etc. It is important that you just observe and not try to change anything. This can be done in a formal meditation practice, or sitting in an easy chair. This will help you begin to develop a relationship with your thoughts. This will also help you look at your thoughts more objectively rather than simply being the subjective ‘experiencer’ of your thoughts.”
It seems to me that despite the fact that these things called thoughts are changeable, fickle, and frequently unreliable, most of us live inside our thoughts and respond to them without question. I wondered whether, if we could sit back and observe our thoughts, they would lose some of their power over us. McBride agreed: “It helps us shift our position relative to our thinking, and we begin to see thoughts in a whole new light. Eventually, we begin to see our thoughts as just fleeting temporary events. This is even true with obsessive thoughts that dominate our attention. If we can look at them carefully, we can see that we keep returning to the same thought dozens of times rather than staying on it. This means that you are also leaving the obsessive thought dozens of times. But understanding this requires being able to carefully and dispassionately observe your thoughts.”
He went on to explain that in order to do this effectively, we must be in an environment that is quiet and away from stimulation. We must be willing to make a commitment to sit and literally do nothing for a period of time. This goes against many people’s instincts, as most are afraid of their thoughts and feelings and rarely sit quietly for fear of facing their demons. Just sitting inside one’s skin might be the most difficult part of the work.
McBride finished our discussion by explaining that if we become able to sit and observe our thoughts, eventually there is a shift in power inside of our minds. We discover that we are not our thoughts. Many start to notice that most of our thoughts are safe and unique to one’s individual mind, rather than objective truth.
As the late columnist Darrell Sifford used to conclude many of his columns: “What do you think?”