Where do thoughts come from? Do they just arise in our head – the natural consequence of what’s going on in the world?
Have you ever tried to watch your thoughts?
We all seem to experience an endless stream of questions (how am i going to make enough money to pay the bills, what resolutions should I make for the year, what should i wear today, what am i going to eat for lunch, …).
Or judgments (next week’s meeting isn’t going to be fun, my head hurts, this person doesn’t like me, that other person is a jerk, it looks cold outside, …).
And all too often, fears (what if the lab result comes back this way, what will happen if i lose my job, this bad thing might happen to me or my loved ones, …)
In fact, if you’ve ever tried to consciously observe your thoughts, it is really hard. As soon as we try to pay attention to the thoughts we’re having, we get consumed by them. Thoughts are like magnets or black holes – the closer we get to them, the stronger their pull to suck us in.
The stream of thoughts is truly endless. All day long the thoughts are going, and even when we fall asleep at night, they sometimes continue as dreams. And when we wake up in the morning, the thoughts start right up: ugh, I’m so tired, what time is it, what’s the weather like, how many unread emails do I have, I’m hungry, …
If you’ve ever experienced tinnitus – that ever-present ringing in your ears – thoughts are just like that. The constant din of a noisy voice in our head that we’ve become so attached to, so accustomed to, and yes, so addicted to.
Unlike black holes, however, we can actually escape the force of being consumed by thought.
The first step is the realization that our thoughts don’t just happen on their own. As hard as this may be to believe – and it was very hard for me to get this – every thought we have is a thought we choose to have.
The significance of that point bears repeating: we choose every thought we have.
There are a few reasons this concept is so hard to get. The first is that it doesn’t feel that way. I’m not aware of choosing my thoughts. They clearly seem to just occur on their own. I’m the innocent bystander.
That hurdle is the easiest to overcome when we begin paying attention to our thoughts. It becomes quite clear that, yep, I choose that thought. Ohhh, I chose that one as well. And pretty soon we realize, I’m choosing all of them.
The more challenging reason it’s so hard to get this concept is that it makes us responsible for our sense of well-being.
Crappy thoughts lead to feeling crappy. Ditto for anxious thoughts. Fearful thoughts. Sad thoughts. Our thoughts translate directly (and nearly spontaneously) into our emotions.
The corollary is that our emotions (our state of happiness or lack thereof) are caused by our thoughts.
Being responsible for our thoughts – which means being responsible for our sense of well-being – means that we have to let other people off the hook. I can no longer point the finger at them (or other things in the world) and say, “It’s your fault!”
Nope. It’s on us.
While we’re certainly not responsible for the awful things other people do or say to us, we are completely responsible for the meaning (thoughts) we give them.
But that is also incredibly liberating!
The realization that we have complete control over our thoughts is unbelievably empowering.
Then the next step, after realizing that we are the ones choosing our thoughts, is to make a different choice.
If we want to be happy, all we need to do is change our thoughts. As William James so eloquently put it:
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
By choosing one thought over another, we can shift the internal noisy voice to something much more soothing and consciously directed.
The more we practice this two-step process of observation and consciously choosing our thoughts, the easier it becomes and the more peaceful we feel.
Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the nature of thought and how we can practice the two-step process of observation and making a different choice – one that leads to much greater joy. I look forward to seeing you then.