We Are Not Our Thoughts

We Are Not Our Thoughts

Thoughts arise and we grab hold of them. We generate other thoughts in response to that one, perhaps embellishing our thought in pursuit of something we desire, or perhaps changing the subject in an effort to push away an unwanted experience. And on and on and on it goes, thoughts tumble one after another, all spurred on by “needs” of our afflictive emotions. We want to attract this thing we’re thinking of, and push away that other thing.

All those internal conversations you have going on, oh, once in a while. The endless problem solving, as you try to figure out how you can get that promotion, push that difficult person out of your way, make someone like you back, etc., etc., etc.—that’s not letting well enough alone. That’s not Tranquil Abiding. We sign up for life in every moment, involved with the movie, jumping in and starring in it, trying to produce, direct, rescript, and recast it as it flows by. We could stop at any frame, but we don’t even notice that there are separate frames, or even that it’s a movie.

Let’s look at this chain reaction in slow motion. Let’s even say you’re actually meditating, sitting in quiet. You’re sitting there, meditating, breathing and gazing peacefully. Thoughts of your manager at work pops up. Yesterday she told you she didn’t like your clever idea. You see her face in your mind’s eye. You hear her dismissive tone. NOW is the moment you could simply be aware of that thought and let it pass. But in a less-than-mindful moment, with frustration (the little brother of aversion/aggression) in your heart, you jump to the next link in the chain reaction. You think of what you’d say back to her, trying different sentences, imagining how she responds. Then you decide maybe it would be better to go over her head and tell her manager or to get your fellow workers to join you in putting your idea forward. The more you spin these scenarios, the more agitated, and less peaceful, you feel.

You see how this plays out: now you’ve got a whole movie going on, and you’re the star. And there is nothing tranquil or abiding about this production. And maybe, at some point in your revved-up agitation, you remember: Oh, yeah, I was meditating.

The drama started not with the image and words of your manager, actually, but with your following after those thoughts. And in that moment you went from peace to agitation.

We commonly say, “You made me mad.” But we must understand that our reaction is quite another thing. This uncoupling of outer goings-on from our reactions to them is key to our finding peace. If we’re dependent on everything being just right in our outer world, it’s going to be a long wait (and by “long,” I mean “infinite”), so we’ll never find happiness. Gaining the ability to respond as we wish to is the only way I can imagine to be happy all the time. It’s also the way to true freedom.

If we don’t have any personal (ego) stake in what happens when a face and words pop up, then they very quickly vanish, without any drama. In my teachings, they sometimes speak of a thief coming to an empty house. There’s no point in staying. So if we become a dispassionate observer—not numbed out but simply without indulging in that “personal stake”—these thoughts, appearances, even feelings can come and go in an endless flow, and we haven’t lost our seat. Under these circumstances, gradually the flow of thoughts will naturally slow down. We can experience the true nature of our minds, see to the depths, only once the waters have been stilled.

Even in the early stages of my practice, I found I could experience a bit of stillness in the pause between breaths. I found I would lengthen that pause a little, to savor that lovely stillness. You might try that yourself, without pushing or making a big effort out of it. Just a little pause.

Adapted from the book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? (p166)