walking on custard

I Am Seriously Not My Thoughts

2 Jun 2015

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

How can we know that we are separate from our thoughts?

What does it even mean to not be your thoughts?

I imagine that people exist to whom it is obvious that we are not the same as our thoughts. To them, it must seem crazy that others have to discover this.

But I was always completely identified with my thoughts. I love thinking. It seems perfectly natural to me that the monologue in my head is ME, in some important way.

However, not only is this an unhelpful way to view the world (as I inevitably overreact to every little thought), it is logically not consistent with reality.

Observing Thoughts For Fun and No Profit

If you’re still unsure about the idea of being separate from your thoughts, I find that it’s best to prove it by observation.

It is possible to watch your thoughts as they appear, by simply listening, watching and waiting to see your next thought.

If you do this for a while, you will start to notice gaps between them, periods when you are not thinking.

(this is hard to do, since as soon as you consciously notice such a gap you instinctively start to think about it, thus ruining the gap! This is why it takes practice to develop the skill of observing your own thoughts.)

Logically, if you’re watching a gap between your thoughts, then you cannot BE those thoughts.

Whoever is doing the watching must be something else, some type of conscious awareness.

Now, at this point, it’s Traditional to get carried away with some wavy mysticism about cosmic one-ness and souls.

If you like cosmic one-ness and souls, then that’s awesome. But I’m a natural sceptic of these sorts of things. They make me instinctively cringe away, and as a result it took me a LOT longer than I needed to to discover the importance of distancing myself from my thoughts.

Feel absolutely free to believe whatever you like: that you are a soul merely observing your thoughts, or instead that you are some physical, conscious awareness that hears your thoughts but is not made of them.

It’s perfectly possible to be happy whatever you believe about your nature.

But if you identify with the stream of thoughts, believing that they represent YOU, then I think you’ll find it slightly harder to be happy.

As soon as your brain offers up negative interpretations of yourself and the world around you, you’ll immediately leap on it.

Instead, it’s more helpful to choose whether or not to believe any particular thought according to whether it’s helpful to you right now.

It’s helpful to believe:

  • My brain is merely a tool, just something that speaks to me.
  • My brain is not necessarily always right.
  • So I don’t have to believe all my thoughts if I don’t want to.

Reminding myself of these truths helps me to not get carried away when painful thoughts arise that would otherwise leave me anxious or sad.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

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