“You can’t stop thoughts from appearing but suffering is a choice.”
Many people spend years looking for peace and contentment in places where it will never be found—much like trying to find your keys in the garden when you’ve lost them in the house.
This article discusses the nature of thoughts, where they come from and how we can either create peace or suffer depending on how we relate to them.
So let’s start.
When I teach mindfulness classes, the very first exercise we do is called “Recognising the Restless Mind.”
The instructions are really simple—for a minute or two, make the conscious decision to sit and do absolutely nothing. Experience what it’s like to sit and do nothing.
After a minute or so, I ring the gong and ask people what their experience was.
Everyone, without exception, says that, despite their decision to do absolutely nothing, the mind remained active throughout.
Random thoughts, ideas, images, sensations etc. kept popping into their heads.
What does this tell us about the mind?
It tells us that, although we can make the conscious decision sit still and not to move the body, the mind will continue to do its own thing regardless. Like the waves at the beach, thoughts will continue to appear and disappear by themselves. We have no control over it.
You can’t stop thoughts from happening.
In mindfulness training, this never-ending stream of self-arising thoughts is called the undercurrent. It is autonomous and does its own thing.
As well as the undercurrent, there’s another part of the mind, the observer, which is also ever-present.
It’s the one that knows what is going on. It knows what’s happening in the undercurrent, unless there is distraction, in which case, this knowing quality is lost. We’ll talk more about the observer later.
You Can’t Stop Thoughts or Change the Undercurrent
The undercurrent is autonomous. It manifests by itself without any input or any intention from ourselves. And not only do thoughts continually appear by themselves, they also fade by themselves, constantly being replaced by new ones.
New thoughts, which we have no control over, are constantly popping into our awareness, grabbing our attention and then fading.
This is why it’s so difficult to settle the mind and why lasting peace of mind can never be found. (Peace can be found but not on the level of the mind. Read on!)
As the Indian Master, Nisargadatta said, “There is no such thing as peace of mind. Mind itself is disturbance.”
So Where Does the Undercurrent Come From?
If you observe the undercurrent closely, you’ll see that it never comes up with anything new. It plays the same old records over and over, on repeat.
Essentially, it is a record of all the impressions and past experiences we’ve taken on board and assimilated throughout our lives.
The undercurrent is very much like a computer program that plays over and over on autopilot. In most people, it determines the way they react and interact with the world around them.
And here’s the interesting part. Since the undercurrent is a manifestation of the past, it can’t be changed, at least not through direct intervention.
As we are only aware of it after it has already happened, there’s no way of changing it.
It’s important to understand this, otherwise you can spend years looking for solutions where they can’t be found.
Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible or that peace can’t be found.
We just need to be clear about what can be changed and what can’t, so we’re looking in the right place.
Peace, joy, happiness etc. can be found through changing the way the observer interacts with the undercurrent.
Like the undercurrent, the observer is ever-present.
It knows what’s going on in the undercurrent and in the world around us.
It’s the part of the mind that we think of as “me”.
Most people, when asked “how are you?” will briefly scan the content of the undercurrent and report back on what’s going on there.
If there are pleasant thoughts, feelings or emotions appearing, they’ll say, “I’m well.”
If there are dark clouds thoughts through, they’ll report that they are having a rough day.
Not many people will say “the mind is full of neurotic thoughts but I’m doing well!”
The main two reasons we suffer is because we judge and reject the content of the mind and take it to be who we are
So there are two things going on simultaneously; the self-arising undercurrent doing its own thing and this strong sense of self that’s completely absorbed in the content.
There’s a character I like to call the thought traffic policeman, who stands waist deep in the middle of the stream, thrashing about as he tries to control the self-arising thought traffic.
A happy thought comes round the bend in the river and, meeting with his approval, is allowed to pass freely without resistance.
The moment a sad or anxious thought appears, however, he’s up in arms, frantically resisting as he slaps a bad/wrong/ undesirable label on it.
And this is where 95% of our suffering comes from—not from the thoughts, feelings or emotions themselves, which arise without any input from ourselves, but from our unconscious reactions to them.
We suffer to the extent that we resist the thoughts, feelings and emotions that are self-arising.
We suffer because we are compulsively pre-occupied with the content of the undercurrent and are constantly asking ourselves “Do I like this or not.”
The problem is obvious. Our happiness or unhappiness is dictated by something we have no control over.
You Can’t Stop Thoughts But You Can Change How You Respond to Them
Peace can never be found within the undercurrent itself. The mind is restless by nature and can never be settled… or not for long anyway.
You can learn to settle the observer however.
Instead of being unconsciously tossed around by our likes and dislikes, by the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the river, we can learn to step back and not get involved.
We can train ourselves to sit quietly on the riverbank watching, without feeling the compulsion to leap into the stream every time something that is not to our liking comes round the bend in the river.
One of my teachers used to say “You suffer because you are open for business”. And this is exactly what he meant—grabbing onto thoughts and being dragged downstream kicking and fighting.
In truth, you don’t need to get involved with the minds incessant activity.
This is the way to find peace.
You’ll never find it through trying to iron the river.
There are two paths to finding peace and fulfilment.
There’s the path of self-improvement which stems from the belief that ‘I’m not acceptable as I am’ —in other words, the content of the river is not to my liking. Trying to fix ourselves can take years and years.
A much quicker, much more effective path, in my view, is the path of self-understanding—understanding that you don’t need to iron the river to find peace—understanding that peace comes from these two things: non-resistance and non-identification.
Leave the mind in peace to do its dance and it will leave you in peace to do yours—from my book, Kick the Thinking Habit. Click on the link for your free copy.
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And if you’d like some help with learning to make peace with your own mind, then why not book a complimentary coaching session? The first one is free of charge and offered with no strings attached! Just click on the link below to pick a time that suits.
12 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Stop Thoughts… But You Can Stop Suffering”
A great article. Very helpful. It’s so hard not to be influenced by your thoughts. Trying to separate the Undercurrent from the Observer is tough.
Also I think you should sell your book “To Kick the Thinking Habit”. It’s a great book. Just like Mind Calm is. I think it would sell a lot of Kindle copies on Amazon. Plus then you can highlight sections.
Thanks Tony. I will get round to putting it on Kindle at some point.
I am enjoying your class so much and learning new concepts every week. This was a great recap in identifying the undercurrent and the observer. I am trying to remind myself (nicely) to be the observer and stop trying to be the traffic cop! Not an easy thing to do but with practice and perseverance I can make small strides in lessening the suffering.
Absolutely Meg. You’re doing great!
I love how clearly you explain how to experience peace. It’s fresh and simple. I appreciate the reminders. You rock!
Amazing article …
Thank you Joase-Ann!!
The visual of sitting along the river and watching thoughts go by without reacting has been very helpful. I keep coming back to that often. Practice, practice, practice!
Thank you for the work you’re doing and sharing it.
Happy to hear Pam! Sometimes I use the analogy of sticks floating down the river. You get brown, sticks, green sticks, long sticks, short sticks… but you don’t get good sticks or bd sticks. Good and bad are creations of the human mind.
Thanks for a great article Richard. I am humbled by the thought that while I am nearly 60 years old, you are able to teach me ways of being that are a vast improvement on the life i have lived so far. I have passed your “To Kick the Thinking Habit” on to my dear mother, who at 83 still struggles with her monkey mind – she is still learning too! A question for you: what is the relationship between the police officer and the observer – am I right in thinking that the police officer and the observer are both coming from the same place? So practising observing is in effect quieting the police officer…
Exactly Peter. The police officer is an agitated observer! Consciousness/awareness is behind both the observer and the undercurrent. It is simply aware.