Have you ever stopped to wonder where your thoughts come from? Or are you so taken in by every movement of your mind that you’re barely even aware that you’re thinking most the time?
WHO is that thinks — and who is it that’s aware of what’s being thought? Do you think, or do your thoughts essentially just think themselves? These are all very important questions, and the answers might well surprise you.
I invite you to investigate for yourself. A great practise is simply to sit and observe your thoughts. Ask yourself, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” Then sit quietly, alert and attentive, watching and waiting. You’ll likely come to some really interesting conclusions.
I came to realise that ‘WE’RE’ not actually the thinker! Oh, sure, if we want to reflect on something, we can consciously direct our thoughts with our intention. But most of the time, we’re not the ones doing the thinking. If we were, then we’d always be able to control and predict our thoughts, but we can’t. Thoughts just happen, in awareness, like clouds of vapour rising up from the ocean, existing for a limited lifespan, then dissolving away again. Try the above practise, and keep doing it — it’s fun, relaxing and liberating. You’ll see that you’re not actually the one doing the thinking. It’s more like the thinking is doing you.
Thoughts just seem to rise and fall. ‘We’ are not the thoughts, for we cannot be that which is observable — we are obviously the subject, not the object. That said, when we’re in our ‘normal’ mode of consciousness, we tend to get completely consumed and caught up in our thinking, automatically believing in and identifying with every thought, investing our very sense of self and being in these fickle movements of mind.
But if we’re not our thoughts, then what are we?
Investigate for yourself — what is it that’s watching and is aware of the thoughts…?
No word or description is adequate for it, but it might be referred to as the ‘watcher’, the ‘witness’ or simply pure awareness. This, I believe, is our natural state, and it’s always with us, throughout our entire lives. No matter what’s happening outwardly or inwardly, no matter what our thoughts and beliefs are and no matter what configuration our personal psychology assumes, that pure space of awareness is ALWAYS there in the background, underlying our every experience in life. Without it, we’d simply cease to be. It’s like the paper on which the words (our thoughts and experiences) are written. Take away the paper and there’s nothing. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Back to thoughts. Upon observation, you can see that thoughts are like clouds passing across the sky of your mind or awareness. Sometimes they’re light and fluffy and other times they’re thick and stormy, covering the whole sky. Sometimes they move across the sky quickly, chopping and changing, and other times, such as in meditation, sleep and times of deep relaxation, they slow down and perhaps even subside for a time.
So where do they come from? I don’t believe thoughts ‘magically’ arise out of nowhere, although it might seem like that. The activity of our minds and the overall structure of our psyche is largely driven by what what in Sanskrit is called ‘vasanas’, or mental tendencies. Vasanas are like grooves that are created in the mind, much the same way as water flowing down a mountain carves grooves and channels in the rock.
You might think of consciousness as being like water and it tends to flow along these grooves and this is what largely determines the content of our mind and pysche. Of course, it’s possible to create new grooves and new vasanas by redirecting our consciousness and focussing on different thoughts, but that takes conscious effort. Outside of the ‘base light’ of awareness (the ‘paper’ on which the content appears), people’s personalities and the structure of their minds are largely just vasanas and conditioning in operation, influenced by other factors such as environment, heredity and culture.
This is what brought me to the realisation that it’s not really ‘me’ that thinks all the thoughts that ripple across my mind. Upon investigation I came to see that the thinking just seems to flow of its own accord, as consciousness moves along those grooves. Kinda groovy, huh?
So thoughts just tend to occur, driven largely by our conditioning and vasanas. They don’t have any independent existence/intelligence of their own, as they’re just the flow of consciousness assuming certain configurations.
This isn’t to say we need be slave to these thoughts. On the contrary, when we realise that they’re just thoughts, movements in consciousness, then we can experience a tremendous amount of liberty and freedom from them!
I used to suffer depression for several years, and I can see now how it was caused by the thoughts that were habitually occurring in my mind. I no longer take my thoughts nearly as seriously, because I’m very clear that they’re just thoughts — they’re not reality, just crude (and very often distorted) reflections of reality. The depressed thoughts were just a kind of weather-front passing through me. When I learned to dis-identify from it and just witness it, I began to transcend it — and it passed.
I highly recommend the practise of simply observing your thoughts. It creates a healthy detachment. Rather than being helplessly buffeted by every thought that crosses your mind, you come to realise that they are just the dream-like movements of consciousness and they have only the meaning you ascribe to them. They just rise and fall. They might be part of a chain of thoughts (clusters of thoughts can form and create big entangled structures that become beliefs, habitual thoughts and/or preoccupations) or they might be totally random.
When we’re ‘unconscious’, which means automatically buying into every thought that passes our mind, then we’re a slave to our thoughts and they can make us suffer — and how! But when we simply observe and allow consciousness to flow as it does, without grasping onto it or obstructing it, then there’s a tremendous freedom and liberty.
Nisargadatta said something that really stuck with me: he advised us to see the content of our consciousness — our mind, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, etc — as being something foreign or alien to us, something that’s NOT ‘us’, but a process that’s happening within us (‘us’ being, at the deepest level, the space of pure awareness I spoke of). This might be a radical notion to many, but I’ve found it very helpful. I still experience occasional low moods like everyone else, but I find it virtually impossible to be depressed these days, because I no longer unquestioningly BELIEVE all the thoughts that cross my mind, or give them an importance they simply don’t warrant.
When our focus is freed from the movements of our mind, it can be redirected to the witness — the awareness — the sense of being, or whatever you want to call it. And in that core level of awareness, is an incredible sense of peace, contentment and joy. It’s the happiness we spend our lives seeking in the outer world and in other people, but which can only ever truly be found within us. This is probably the most important discovery we’ll ever make.
So, try it. Watch your thoughts. Go beyond your them and trace them to their source. Be open, curious and aware. You might be amazed at what you discover.