Understand the difference between thoughts and thinking… and why your thoughts say nothing about who you are.
I’d like to share a simple insight about thoughts and thinking which changed my life when I first realised it.
Understanding this one little thing can eliminate a large chunk of your mind-created suffering in an instant… without needing to fix or change the mind in any way.
And, like most profound things in life, it is ridiculously simple.
So what is it?
It’s seeing that the thoughts that pop into your head are automatic and self-arising—unlike thinking, which is something we can choose to indulge in or not.
Let me explain.
You’re Not Responsible For Your Thoughts
Do you have a tendency to beat yourself up about the negative thoughts that appear in your head—the judgement thoughts, the intolerant thoughts, the jealous thoughts, for example?
Of course you do. It’s human nature and we all do it.
Let’s say you’re jealous because your colleague got the promotion at work.
You do everything that’s expected of you— you smile, you shake his hand, you congratulate him—but inside you’re hurting. Secretly, you can’t stand the fact that he got the job and you didn’t.
You then start beating yourself up for having these thoughts— “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just be happy for him like everyone else? You’re such a mean person.”
But here’s the question.
Did you choose to have these thoughts? Did you decide to feel this way?
Given the choice, you’d probably rather be genuinely pleased for him.
But the truth is, you aren’t.
Are you responsible for the content (the thoughts, feelings, and emotions) that spontaneously appear in your head? Is there anything you can do about the fact that jealousy arose within you? Did you play any part in it?
I’m not talking here about what you do WITH these thoughts… that’s another story.
What if all your thoughts (feelings and emotions) were impersonal— simply a product of your conditioning— and there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with any of it?
What if nothing that flows through your head says ANYTHING about who you are?
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Thoughts Are Self-Arising
If you’ve trained in mindfulness, you may be familiar with the model of ‘the undercurrent and the observer?’
The idea is that, in each of us, there’s a never-ending stream of impressions—thoughts, feelings, emotions, physical sensations etc.— that flow, like a river, through our awareness.
There’s a mindfulness exercise in which you watch the mind to see what your next thought is going to be——like a cat watching a mouse hole.
It becomes apparent that thoughts appear by themselves, with no input from ourselves—that you have no idea what’s going to show up in your head next.
The key point about the undercurrent is that it is self-arising. We have no control over it. We can’t change it, alter it or fix it.
It’s an echo of the past… of all the impressions that have been stored in our minds through our life experiences (and our past lives according to other traditions).
The undercurrent is as it is. The only real choice we have is to resist it (and create suffering for ourselves) or allow it to be as it is, and experience peace—even when it’s not comfortable.
You could say that thoughts are impersonal—that, as we play no part in the process of which thoughts arise, we’re not responsible for them. They don’t say anything about who you are now.
The observer is the part of you that is aware of the undercurrent.
Normally, we find ourselves floundering about mid-stream, frantically trying to control the river, like a crazed thought traffic policeman.
Every thought, feeling and emotion is categorised as good/bad, right/wrong, desirable/undesirable and we drive ourselves crazy believing we are responsible for everything that comes down the river.
Trying to fix the undercurrent is like trying to iron the ocean.
Let’s go back to the jealous thoughts from earlier.
They just appeared out of nowhere. Who knows where they came from? Maybe, when you were a toddler, another kid took your toy away and you were jealous?
Rather than getting lost in the commentary about what a bad person you are, you could just watch the thoughts without judgement and understand that they are just part of the passing show.
This is freedom.
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Thinking Is A Choice
So, I said at the beginning that we’d look at the difference between thoughts and thinking.
The main difference is that, although thoughts are self-arising, thinking is a choice. It is something you can choose to engage in or not.
What usually happens is that a self-arising thought triggers a story.
The thought/feeling, “I feel sad” appears by itself in your head and triggers a commentary, “This is bad. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be happy like Bob?”
The Buddhists have a name for this. They call it second arrow.
The self-arising sad thought is the first arrow and the commentary ABOUT it is the second arrow.
I was going to say that 90% of our suffering comes from the second arrow, but I actually think it’s 100%.
Thoughts are neutral events until the mind jumps in and assigns them a good/bad sticker.
Sadness isn’t intrinsically bad or wrong. Thinking makes it so.
Without judgement, what’s the problem? It might not feel pleasant, but that doesn’t make it bad or wrong.
Unlike thoughts arising, which you can’t do anything about, you can choose to stop thinking in any moment.
The first step is awareness. To be able to change these patterns, we first need to be aware of them.
For most people, the transition from thoughts appearing to thinking about them is so deep-rooted, automatic and seamless that it takes some effort and perseverance to break the pattern.
But it’s definitely something you can learn to do with practice.
I’d highly recommend it, of course! And I’d be very happy to help you achieve it.
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Understanding the difference between thoughts and thinking is a game-changer if you wish to live in harmony with your mind.
Next time a jealous, impatient or fearful thought pops into your head out of nowhere, recognise that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it being there. This will allow you to experience instant peace.
It’s just what’s appearing in this particular twist of the river—a ghost from the past.
There’s a great poem from Rumi called The Guest House which beautifully describes how to deal with the ‘uninvited guests’ that show up at the door.
If you’d like to work with me one-on-one, I offer a 3-month coaching package specifically designed to help you break free of the mind and connect deeply with the peace that’s ever-present within you.
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