You Are Not What You Think
I’m grateful for a lot of things:
My family’s health, as well as my own.
Excellent friends, all over the world.
A luxuriously thick head of hair.
But despite my attempts at the whole Attitude-of-Gratitude thing, I regularly work myself into a tizzy over the stupidest of stupid stuff.
And if I didn’t listen to the voices in my head, I would have gone f@$*ing insane by now.
Let me explain.
If you’re anything like me – and God help you if you are – then you’ve got a constant stream of mental chatter running through your consciousness. Every waking moment, your mind is blathering away about anything and everything.
Rather than focus on where you are or what you are doing, your attention flits from one thing to the next like a toddler that’s just discovered Crystal Meth.
To function in society, we get pretty good at pretending to be present when we’re actually in another dimension altogether. We might be smiling and nodding at each other, but inside we’re mentally undressing our colleagues, replaying arguments we’ve never actually had or wondering whether the beard makes us look like the old, lonely Luke Skywalker.
While being distracted is bad enough, it’s far worse when we let the mental screeching inside our head drive our response to the world around us.
As humans, we DIE a few hundred thousand times a day. By that I mean that we Describe, Interpret and Evaluate everything that happens to us at lighting speed. If we’re not careful, the most trivial things become catastrophic events.
For example, we get to work and say good morning to a colleague. The colleague nods and half-smiles while walking past.
When the rational part of us is in charge, we describe our colleague’s behaviour as a little distracted. We interpret that she must have a lot on right now or is late to a meeting. We evaluate that it’s good she’s so busy.
But when Crazy-Angry-Monkey-Brain is at the wheel, things ain’t so cool. We describe that little smirk as rude and dismissive. We interpret that our so-called colleague thinks she’s too important to acknowledge us anymore and we evaluate that she’s only going to that meeting because she’s a total suck-up to senior management. And why haven’t I been invited to that meeting anyway? OMG, I’m going to be fired! SHE’S GETTING ME FIRED.
But the worst is when our self-talk defines who we think we are.
For a tiny sliver of the population, this works out just fine. With Trumpian bluster, they tell themselves, “I’m amazing,” “I’m incredible,” “I’m fit to rule the world!” No matter how much evidence to the contrary is visible to everyone else.
But for the rest of us, the self-talk narrative is rather less encouraging: “I’m angry.” “I’m sad.” “I’m useless.” “I’m a fraud.” “I can’t do this . . .” et cetera ad nauseam. If we let them, those thoughts become as much a part of our identity as our own names.
Bad news first: those thoughts will never go away.
Try to stop them or suppress them and they come back with a vengeance. Try to ignore them, and they just get louder. The inner voice will never stop talking.
But here’s the good news:
We all have the ability to slow down, step back and simply observe our own thoughts – as they appear, develop and drift away. We can watch ourselves in the act of thinking. We can listen to the voices inside our heads.
In mindfulness circles, people speak of this as the distinction between the Thinking Mind and the Observing Mind. The Thinking Mind wanders, processes, jumps to conclusions. But the Observing Mind gives us the ability to watch it all happen.
The very act of using our Observing Mind reveals that we’re not just the monkey, scrambling from branch to branch – but something else entirely, calmly watching the monkey from below.
When we listen to the voices inside our head without judgement, we become aware of patterns and connections in our thinking – and the feelings those thoughts inspire.
Most importantly, we can recognise that our thoughts are just thoughts. Not facts. Not truths. Not proof. Not fixed. Just thoughts.
We don’t have to try and reshape our thoughts or ram positive affirmations down our own throats. We don’t have to try to be more present, more charitable or more positive. All we have to do is pay attention to how we think.
The rest will take care of itself.