Your Thoughts Do Not Define Who You Are

Awareness of your mental activity

Have you ever stopped to notice your thoughts? To really pay attention to how they are influencing your life? How they impact your emotional well-being? Your relationships? Your feelings of self-worth?

On a personal level, we associate our thoughts with who we are. If we have frequent thoughts about being ill, or being unable to cope, then this becomes our reality. If we are constantly fearful, then we label ourselves as anxious. We allow our primary thought patterns to define us, and to influence how we react to life.

On a cultural level, there is also a lot of importance given to our thoughts, particularly within Western societies. For example, high value is attributed to pursuits such as academic learning and the ability to retain information. People who are working in intellectually based roles generally receive greater financial reward, and higher social status.

You are the observer of your thoughts

But there is a fundamental problem with this approach to thinking. If you are able to observe your thoughts happening, then your thoughts cannot be the fundamental essence of who you are. The thought is transient within your experience. The real you is the observer of the thoughts.

It is only when we become attached to a thought that it becomes potentially problematic. When we believe a thought to be inherently true, or associate it with who we are, then we allow it to have power within our life.  We incorrectly believe that just because we are experiencing something now, that it is a real and persistent presence in our life. But this does not have to be so.

In essence, whenever we project a past event or belief into our future, we are inadvertently keeping it as part of our experience. This is great if we are experiencing happiness, but not quite so pleasant when we are experiencing anxiety or fear-based thoughts.

Types of thought process

Thoughts have many different qualities, and come in various types. We have ideas or intentions which drive us into a particular course of action. Then there are fear-based thoughts, which create feelings of anxiety, frustration or depression. Or beliefs, which are thoughts which provide meaning, and give structure and sense to our experiences in life.

Thoughts are closely aligned with our own perceptions about who we are.  We have preferences about what we like or dislike. We make judgements, or have opinions, about the people and experiences which we encounter in life. This is simply part of the nature of being human.  But when we constantly see ourselves in a certain way, it creates a conflict between the transient nature of thought, and the permanence of our own beliefs about who we are.

Allowing thoughts to be transient

When we begin to pay attention to our own thoughts, we come to realise that they are transient in nature if we do not grasp onto them. Thoughts arise naturally, and then fade away. Have you ever experienced a constantly present thought which does not ebb and flow? One which remains there all the time? Probably not - because the very nature of thought is that it is transient. Otherwise you simply would not notice it.

Although it may sometimes appear that thoughts are constant, in reality this is because we are constantly dwelling upon a particular thought,  bringing it into our awareness over and over again. The more we attach our sense of self to a particular thought or belief, the stronger a presence it will become in our life.

The key to finding inner peace is to let go of the strong identification which we have to thought.

How to deal with difficult thoughts

So how can you begin to create a better experience of life?  The answer lies in non-attachment to your thoughts and beliefs.  Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Practice mindfulness. When you are fully focused on the present moment, you cannot be personally invested in your thoughts at the same time.
  • Self-enquiry. Question each thought, idea, or belief which you have about yourself, other people, and the world around you.
  • Allow thoughts to pass by without giving them any emotional charge. When you notice a difficult thought, detach yourself from it, focus on your breathing instead, and allow it pass through you.
  • When you find yourself having recurrent, troublesome thoughts, place your focus of attention on something else instead of becoming emotionally invested in those ideas and beliefs.
  • Repeatedly notice that you are the awareness behind the thoughts.  Do not mistake yourself for the activity of your mind.

Finally, remember that this is an ongoing process of learning. It requires constant practice to be able to see thoughts for what they are, and to retain a sense of inner peace in any situation. Consistent practice is the key to mental and emotional freedom.