If You Are Not Your Thoughts, Then Who Are You?

you are not your thoughts

To realise that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually —Eckhart Tolle

Realising you are not your thoughts is a life-changing discovery, a pivotal moment in each person’s spiritual journey.

It struck me for the first time in 1997, after reading “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.  I had read many transformational books before that, but this one blew my mind.

More accurately, it blew apart my ideas of what I thought the mind was.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly — you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over.

The notion that you are not your thoughts is a radical one. It goes against everything we have been conditioned to believe all our lives.

Everything in your experience would suggest otherwise. Your thoughts appear in your head. They are known only to you. They speak in your voice. How could they not be who you are?

Let’s take a closer look. There is more to the picture.

 

kick the thinking habit

 

Thoughts Are Only A Small Part Of Your Experience

I invite you to try the following guided meditation, one of my favourites. It offers an interesting perspective on our relationship with thoughts (you’ll find an audio version below).

First, find a comfortable position. Sitting or lying down are both fine.

Take a few deep breaths and as you exhale, do so with a sense of releasing, a sense of letting go.

Be here now, just as you are.

Now, temporarily put aside all thoughts of who you are, any image you have of yourself, any ideas associated with a personal identity—all notions such as male or female, rich or poor, young or old.

Now empty yourself of any concepts, beliefs or knowledge you have about the world.

Put aside all ideas of good or bad, true or false, right or wrong— any self-judgement, anything you feel proud or ashamed of, any achievements or failures,

Set aside all memories of the past — as if you had just arrived on earth in this moment. Put aside all thoughts of the future.

Who are you without a past or a future?

Simply be present here and now, just as you are—breathing in, breathing out.

Stripped of all these concepts, ideas and beliefs, is there still a ‘you’ present?

How would you describe the ‘you’ that remains? Aware? Present? Conscious?

How does it feel? Peaceful? Empty? Expansive?

Is there anything you have put aside that, if you were to take it back, would enhance your experience of this moment?

 

Who Are You Without Your Thoughts?  Guided Meditation Audio (7:30 mins)

 

 

If You Are Your Thoughts, Who Is The One Watching?

When you learn to meditate, the first thing you learn is to take a step back and watch the mind objectively—with an attitude of curiosity. You become aware that, “there is the mind doing it’s thing and here am I, watching.”

One of the first things you notice is that thoughts are self-arising. They appear by themselves, apparently out of nowhere, linger in your awareness for a moment or two and then disappear again— like clouds passing across the sky.

You have no idea what the next thought will be. You could say they are impersonal, in that you play no part in their appearance and disappearance. The mind has a mind of its own.

Just as clouds of all shapes and sizes float across the unchanging sky, all kinds of thoughts come and go against the backdrop of your unchanging awareness.

Happy thoughts appear, sad thoughts appear but awareness itself doesn’t change. Thoughts are many, awareness is one. It has no beginning or end. It has no preferences and remains unaffected by whatever thoughts pass through.

The ‘you’ you take yourself to be today is very different from the 10 year-old, 20 year-old or 40 year-old you. And yet, the awareness that is aware of thoughts (feelings and emotions too) hasn’t changed one bit. In spiritual parlance, it is immutable, immaculate, eternal.

Some traditions say that who you really are existed before the appearance of this body and will continue to exist long after it is gone—that the body is a garment you wear for this lifetime and thoughts are part of the package that comes with it.

I go into this topic in more detail in my book “Awaken The Happy You.

 

Awaken The Happy You

 

“When you observe the mind, you begin to realise there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realise that all the things that truly matter — beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace — arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.” Eckhart Tolle

What About Your Feelings And Emotions?

The Sedona Method is a powerful technique for letting go of troublesome thoughts, feelings and emotions. It is well worth checking out.

In his introduction to the method, the founder, Hale Dwoskin, uses a great analogy to illustrate our true relationship with the mind. You might want to try this exercise?

  • take a pen and roll it back and forth in the palm of your open hand.

The pen represents any thoughts, feelings or emotions that are present right now. Your hand represents YOU, awareness.

Note that the pen isn’t attached to your hand. The passing thoughts, feelings and emotions are not who you are. They are temporary events arising in awareness.

  • now grip the pen tightly.

This is what we do when we grab onto thoughts— when we identify with them, believe they are who we are and struggle against them.

  • now turn your hand to face the floor, unclench your fist, and allow the pen to fall.

Because the pen is not part of the hand, you can choose to drop it in any moment.

Your thoughts, feelings and emotions are not who you really are. They may be a part of who you are in this moment. In the next moment, however, they may or may not be there.

If they were part of your essential nature, they would always be present. You wouldn’t be free of them even for a single moment.

This is clearly not the case. Everyone, regardless of how troubled they are, experiences moments of joy, of laughter, of OK-ness.

It’s the same with your emotions. You say “I am angry” rather than, “anger is there just now”. You identify with the anger.

If you really were your anger, your sadness or the broken person your mind would have you believe you are, it would be your continuous experience.

You suffer, not because anger or sadness is present, but because you mistake temporary states as being who you are. You personalise them and suffer as a result.

 


Check out this free 4-Part Video Workshop with Eckhart Tolle, who speaks with such wisdom and clarity on the topic of awakening. He has been, without doubt, one the most important and inspirational teachers on my own  journey. (affiliate link)

Eckhart Tolle


 

Thoughts Aren’t The Cause Of Your Trouble. Identification WITH Thoughts Is The Real Issue

Realising you are not your thoughts is a pivotal moment in each person’s spiritual journey.

When you know you are not the mind, you no longer have to take it so damn seriously. Realising this was the biggest relief I ever experienced!

As one of my teachers told me, “Leave the mind alone. Mind your own business.”

“Don’t be concerned about the thoughts that come and go. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone. Leave the mind in peace to do it’s dance and it will leave you in peace to do yours. Don’t touch it at all and you will remain untouched by it.”

—from my book Kick The Thinking Habit

If you want to read more about making peace with a busy mind,  check these articles out:

Why Trying To Fix Your Thoughts Will Never Give You The Peace You Are Looking For

How To Stay Calm, Even With A Head Full Of Negative Thoughts

 

If you enjoyed this article, why not leave a message below? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

38 thoughts on “If You Are Not Your Thoughts, Then Who Are You?”

  1. I am at this present time suffering from a period of mental turmoil,anxiety, and feelings of hopeless . However Just reading this has given a feeling hope and that I can find peace of mind once more and enjoy life more.

  2. What does that say about love? Is love just a passing emotion not continuous and is to be observed but not really a part of who we are? How does that work for relationships?

    1. hi Denise,
      Great question! There are two types of love. Love as an emotion that comes and goes and love as the truth of who you are.
      If you look closely at everything that makes up what you call ‘me, the person’ — body, mind, thoughts, feeling and emotions — you will see that none of it is constant or solid. Who we take ourselves to be is really an ever-changing kaleidoscope of all the above. The person only APPEARS solid because there seems to be continuity. In truth, who you are today is not the same person you were yesterday, or even 5 minutes ago. This is one of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. Love is a beautiful emotion to experience but can you truthfully say that it is always present. Who you really are is the EXPERIENCER of the emotion of love. Emotional love comes and goes within a greater you. The spiritual teacher Papaji said: “Don’t be a person in love. BE LOVE.” Love is the ground of who you are beyond thoughts, feelings and emotions. It is what the whole Universe, including you, is made of.

  3. I too was very struck by Eckhart Tolle’s book. That moment of taking a moment to pause before indulging in the emotions attached to a event or situation is such a valuable lesson to learn and you are so right to bring it to attention.

  4. I really liked this article however I feel that there is still some resistance in me, maybe because of my mind. So if the thoughts are not who we are, why are they private for each of us? And where do they come from then?

  5. Hi I do get what you are saying but without connecting to the thoughts and emotions as an idea of who you are. You would be directionless like an empty zombie not knowing what you want or dont want. Just empty.

  6. I respectfully disagree. The observation is order from thought, the feeling turns into observation with thought. You are not judged by these thoughts but they are presented to you, through you. What is awareness to you? A thought or a feeling?

    1. I’d say that awareness is neither a thought nor a feeling. It is something (that’s not a thing) that cannot be expressed through words. It can be alluded to or pointed at but not expressed. Perhaps the closest we can come through words is “that which is?” It is the impersonal aspect of existence. The moment we try to define it, it is not IT any more.

  7. Jonathan Winspeare

    Really good article. When I realised a couple years ago that I was not my thoughts I felt liberated from my mind. Life changing moment.

    1. Is being thankful also emotion? Then what should I do with emotions? I know you have to just let it be and observe. But what should be the next steps in order to act ? Say, your GF who you love so much is screaming at you, you notice the anger and sadness in you arising, so you observe it, don’t name them. But that can’t solve the problem that is happening to you. You may say it is problem because you percieve it as problem, but she won’t stop. I tend to think mindfulness makes you emotionless and lack of empathy for others for how quickly you drop your feelings. I used to like to think myself in others’ shoes when I watch movie, anime, or in real life because I loved getting emotional and feel for the individuals, but after practicing mindfulness, I lose interest and find it pointless to make emotional rollercoaster. Am I becoming selfish and emotionless ?

      1. Hi Andrew, In my experience, not identifying with the drama in my head doesn’t make me emotionless or lacking in empathy for others. Quite the opposite—it allows me to feel fully alive and to actually be fully present for others. There are two wings in mindfulness. The first is the non-judgemental acceptance of whatever arises in your experience. The second, and equally important, aspect is the attitude with which you observe your inner world—the attitude of kindness, compassion and empathy for the human condition. I have practised other forms of meditation in the past which I would agree are a bit mechanical and lacking in empathy but I wouldn’t say that about mindfulness. For me, mindfulness has made me a more compassionate and loving person.

  8. Hi Richard, I found this article very helpful. I have recently been reading a lot about how we are not our thoughts, but I was stuck with the ‘why’. Nobody seemed to be able to articulate it in a way that made sense to me. Until now! This article really helped me to see the distinction between consciousness and thought/emotion, and I will be exploring more of your work and books. Many thanks!

  9. Max Allan-Patel

    Great article, I recently REALISED that I am not my thoughts. I understood the concept before, but I really experienced it now. It’s freeing. There is still quite some work to do, to keep practicing observing thoughts and moving away from the old conditioned mind pattern. But it’s work I’m very willing to do!

      1. When I realised thoughts were just thoughts and I can take them or leave them i felt free but it’s also a little overwhelming.. who have I been all this time ? Trapped in my thoughts. I see now I have been running with many thoughts for a while …. . I feel like a piece of me knew the truth all this time but I can now really see it for what is …. I will continue to keep meditating and staying present because the present moment is all there ever is

  10. Hi,
    Interesting read. I stumbled upon a guided meditation that chanted “I am not the body. I am not even the mind” and I got really interested in this concept.
    My question is , what do we do of the emotions then, even if we don’t identify myself with the emotions, are you saying we just let them pass? Positive or negative emotions both? Am I supposed to be completely indifferent to them?
    Thanks a lot!

    1. The only thing that makes an emotion positive or negative is mental commentary. Without commentary, thoughts, feelings and emotions are neutral events.
      And yes, all you need to do is notice them … notice how they arise from nowhere, linger for a bit and then pass on. You don’t even need to be indifferent to them for that, in itself, would be an action you are taking. Find the part of your experience that doesn’t change and abide there.

  11. I have been on this journey for some time now and I still feel a bit lost. Grasping this is tough when you have “been your thoughts” for many many decades. My confusion comes from the fact we use language to communicate to each other all day everyday. Most conversations hold a lot of meaning or emotions. If we are not our thoughts how are we holding conversations of meaning with one another? I understand this practice when done in stillness but not as you go through you day in between stillness with self and interacting with other people. I hope this makes sense. Because it’s even confusing to me typing it out.

    Look forward to exploring more of your work!

  12. Oops, one last question I had that I forgot to add to my first comment is if we are not our thoughts (slowly grasping that) then how do we move through our day when many things may fall under “what should I do today” which may be based on an emotion? Example – waking up today I “feel” like painting (an emotion is attached to that action) or I “feel” I need to organize the house because it causes me to feel stressed. So much life is dictated by emotions so are we only observing and acting on ones we label as good or useful? That would seem like we are dissociating from negative ones or ones we may not want to act on. I’m stuck at not understanding moving through life with flow as well as being able to interact with my surroundings if not based on my thoughts. Does that make sense? Like someone mentioned above it seems very robotic or zombie-like being present without thought. How do you carry on a conversation in that state or do day-to-day activities?

    1. Tiffany, this is a great question. Here are my thoughts on this, and I would like others to share.

      Feeling dissociated with thoughts needs to be stressed when you are sad, angry, and other negative emotions. You observe and choose to act or not act upon the ideas, even the happy ones.

      If I have ten things to do on today’s list, and I “feel” like painting today, I will acknowledge the thought and weigh in on doing what I feel like vs. what I have on my list.

    2. Good question Triselle. You say “it seems very robotic or zombie-like being present without thought”. Which “you” are you referring to? There is not a you with thoughts and a you without thoughts. “You” are presence itself. You are not ‘you being present’ or ‘not being present’ . You are presence itself, believing you are ‘your’ thoughts. This is the error.

      Furthermore, without our unconscious, conditioned thinking patterns we are able to do our day-to-day activities no problem—or engage in a conversation. How does a bird build its nest without thinking? How does a tiger hunt without thinking? If anything, we function more efficiently. We do what needs to be done without being pulled in a hundred directions at once.

      1. Richard,
        Thank you for this beautiful article. I am a bit lost after your reply. If I am in a situation that makes me feel happy – what should I do? Should I dissociate myself from my feelings and let it pass? Or should I try to enjoy the present?

        1. There are two types of happiness Santosh. The feeling of happiness, which comes and goes, and the happiness of your true nature, which is eternal and unchanging.

          When the Indian saint Papaji said, “Don’t be a peaceful person. Be peace,” this what he was referring to. It’s perfectly possible to experience feelings of sadness and remain totally happy. Just enjoy the moment, whatever passing feelings are there… whether happy or sad.

  13. Thoughts changes frequently. It’s a buzzing mind I reckon that keeps me alive, re-think, helps me perceive life experiences and dig out simple wisdom from quiet introspection. We need to realize that “The Essence of Life is … Life Itself” and Life Is “Now” The Moment

  14. I shared this article (to aid someone) and was warned that this was spiritual bypassing. Can you speak to that please?
    Thank You

    1. Hi Wendy,
      Your friend is right. The notion that you’re not your thoughts could provide you with an excuse for not taking responsibility for the negativity within ie to spiritually bypass. OR it could simply be a statement of truth… that we are in fact, way more than our thoughts and our feelings. That our underlying nature is that of pure, conscious awareness.

      I was in a spiritual organisation many years ago who taught that all you have to do to be spiritually awake is to never entertain your thoughts, feelings etc. This is spiritual bypassing. And it’s over simplistic. In my opinion, it is good to work with healing the negative patterns inside ourselves whilst at the same time maintaining the overview that the mind is only part of who we are. I believe it’s also possible to get too stuck in the negative aspects of ourselves… to become a therapy junkie. Hope this helps.

  15. I loved this article! I’m trying to really understand, but it’s tough. Really simply, if I’m not my thoughts and emotions, who or what am I? I just can’t grasp it. Help!

    1. Yes, the mind can’t get ii. It is gotten more as an inner knowingness than a mental understanding. But think of it logically, You can only be one of two things. The passing traffic (ie the thoughts, feelings, emotions that come and go) or the awareness that is aware of it. One is constantly changing , the other one is timeless and ever the same. Ot makes more sense, even to the mind, that the latter would be you. How could you be something that is in a constant state of flux.

  16. I suppose real power, is when you can engage your thoughts emotions fully, or leave them alone. Knowing exactly what you are doing at all moments.

    I think there is a danger of seeing emotion as something alien, and therefore every time strong emotions arise – we think there is something wrong. Almost like eating a tasty pizza and not being able to enjoy its taste fully.

    Also as I am sure you know, we are bio-chemical beings. Emotion is not just of the mind like a computer printout. It involves body chemistry, hormones, neurons, the gut etc.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for that Abe. We are either conscious of our thoughts and emotions… or not. Most people believe they ARE their emotions and remain slaves to whatever arises. Realising you can step back and watch your thoughts is a big turning point… a huge thing to see. It shifts your perspective from BEING the thoughts to being able to choose how you engage with them. You don’t have to engage with them at all if that’s what you choose. This is freedom.

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