Mindfulness of Thoughts and Thinkers

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Our normal relationship to our thoughts is that we identify with them - that is, we fail to see any difference between our thoughts and ourselves. We do not actually recognize that we are in any relationship with our thoughts because we are completely fused with them. We create our sense of self out of our thoughts. Needless to say, once we do that, we are very reluctant to question them. We are narcissistically invested in our private experience, committed to it in a way that can actually have negative consequences. What war could be fought if we are willing to question whether we actually believe our thoughts about our ‘enemies’? A lot of the harm we do springs from our failure to recognize that thoughts are, at best, only partially reflective of reality. Apparently, thousands of years ago, Buddha taught that if we did not “delight” in our mental creations, enmity would be ended.

In point of fact, we do delight in our ideas and imaginations. So when ACT suggests that the self is more like the context of our experience than the experience itself, we can feel confused, and somehow threatened.

Normally, we hold the opinion that thought is self. This is completely untenable, since thought is the most ephemeral of all phenomena. Are you currently thinking the same thing that you were thinking when you began to read this essay? If not, are you a different person now? Most of us are unwilling to admit that our ‘self-nature” is so ephemeral (even though it is).

One of the reasons we identify so strongly with our thoughts is that thought seems to be in the same family as speech. But while speech is frequently an effort to communicate about something we really believe is true – a need, an evaluation, whatever - thought is much more experimental! Most of our thinking is our brains trying out possible connections between experiences or ideas. A moment’s reflection will tell us that realism is not a prominent component of most thought. Thought is simply what it is: it’s “just a thought.” It’s worthwhile to remember that sometimes brains secrete thoughts, just as stomachs secrete gastric juices, and it’s important not to take them too seriously (not to delight in them). It’s often useful to be rather tentative in believing what we think.

It’s also important to recognize that there are a couple of psychological difficulties that go along with identifying too strongly with our thoughts.
  • We believe we are responsible for our thoughts. This results in all kinds of judgments about ourselves. “I must be a bad person to think such things.” And yet, how much conscious control do we have of thought? Can we predict what we will think next? Does thought follow our direction? In order to avoid self criticism, we can become very involved in suppressing thought (experiential avoidance), an activity which usually has a negative impact on mental health.
  • We fail to appreciate the ways in which we can be responsive to our thoughts. We have some choice over how we treat ourselves in response to our thoughts. Caught up in a distressing chain of thought and emotion, we can breathe ourselves into mindfulness of our wholeness in the present moment and cultivate an attitude of compassion for ourselves. We are carried along in a karmic stream which often brings us to painful and distressing experiences – a karmic stream for which we have limited personal responsibility. As such, we deserve our compassion and kindness, much as we would extend the same to our friends and family who have come on bad times.
If our self is not composed of our thought, then of what is it composed? The key to establishing mindfulness of our thinking is our willingness to accept a certain amount of indeterminacy in our sense of self. Self is not completely knowable. One way of thinking of self is that it is the complete range of experience, actual and potential. In this view, self is so vast as to be impossible to categorize. Alternatively, in the ACT view, self is skillfully conceptualized as the context of our experience, without being confused with the experience itself. In this view, self is a subject without being any particular object.

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Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm so glad I visited your blog today and listened to the mindfulness exercises. This was just what the doctor ordered for me today! Thank you so much.

sheeba said...

dear doctor i am so glad to visit your blog and would like that if you share your own clinical experiences with me and how to bring peace in the lives of those who have lost peace.how to handle them clinically.thank you waiting for your response

camilyn said...


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Mano said...


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