- We use thoughts to process information and make decisions, but they aren't fixed aspects of who we are.
- Our conscious mind allows us to observe the automatic thoughts that are based on past learning.
- With mindfulness, meditation, limiting distractions, and more, we'll connect more to the conscious mind.
As a cognitive psychologist, I spend a lot of time talking to my clients about their thoughts. Your thoughts are extremely powerful. They are the basis of how you feel and create your life. But one of the most profound insights from the practice and teachings of mindfulness, which has been widely embraced by the field of psychology, is that you are not your thoughts.
A lot of people find this idea very confusing. How can your thoughts be responsible for your feelings and actions and not be who you are?
Let's take a step back and define what a "thought" is. Thoughts can be defined as mental processes of the mind that involve beliefs, attitudes, images, and ideas. They can be conscious or unconscious and can range from simple to complex. Thoughts are what we use to process information, make decisions, and understand the world around us.
Thoughts aren’t necessarily true, right, or wrong. We can have thoughts about things that have no basis in reality whatsoever. Our thoughts come and go, they change, and they can be influenced by our experiences and external factors. They are not a fixed or permanent aspect of who we are.
So, if you’re not your thoughts, who are you?
You Are the Observer of Your Thoughts
The answer is that you are the observer of your thoughts. We all have a level of conscious awareness that observes our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. We are the witness to our lives, the silent observer that watches as our thoughts come and go.
Think of it this way: Imagine you're sitting by a river watching the water flow past. The water is constantly changing, as it moves downstream. You are the observer, the one watching the water flow past. In this analogy, your thoughts are the water, and you are the observer. Just as you are not the water in the river, you are not your thoughts. You are the consciousness that observes them.
This may seem like a small distinction, but it has profound implications for our lives. When you identify too closely with your thoughts, you can become trapped in them. You can become attached to certain beliefs or ideas, which can lead to suffering when those beliefs are challenged or proven wrong. You can also become overwhelmed by negative or intrusive thoughts, which can impact your mental health and well-being.
However, when you recognize that you are not your thoughts, you can create distance from your thinking. You can observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them, which can help you to stay calm, focused, and centered in the midst of life's challenges. You can also become more aware of the patterns and tendencies of your thinking, which can help you to break free from unhelpful or harmful patterns of thought.
This doesn't mean that you should ignore your thoughts or dismiss them as unimportant. Your thoughts are a valuable source of information and insight, and they help you to make sense of the world. But you don't have to be defined by them.
You Are the Chooser of Your Thoughts
As the observer, you get to choose: Which thoughts are true? Which thoughts are helpful? Which thoughts do I want to respond to? Which thoughts do I want to ignore? Being the chooser of your thoughts is where all of your power is in life.
To understand being the chooser, it’s important to know you have two mental systems that are distinct enough to be referred to as two "different brains": The automatic fast brain and the conscious slow brain.
Most of our thoughts during any given day come from our automatic fast brain, which is a storehouse of things we learned in the past. Why can you drive home and not remember getting off the freeway? Because you don’t have to think much about it, your automatic brain has learned the way home and automatically generates the thoughts you need to execute the behavior that gets you there. This thinking happens so quickly it’s often outside of your awareness. This is also the brain that can keep you stuck in old patterns.
We also have a more conscious and deliberate mind that we use to make deliberate choices. This is the mind that you use when you have to pay attention and learn something new. It’s often referred to as the slow brain because you have to slow down to really focus on doing something you haven’t done before.
This is the brain you use to observe the automatic thoughts and decide what you want to do about them. The conscious choosing brain is what you use when you want to break out of old automatic patterns of behavior and do something different.
Connecting to Your Conscious Mind
When you’re in your conscious mind that is when you have the awareness that you are the observer and the chooser.
So how can you connect more with this important aspect of yourself?
- Practice mindfulness. Being mindful helps you to develop greater awareness of your thoughts and emotions, and to cultivate a sense of detachment from them. By learning to observe your thoughts without judgment, you can develop a greater sense of inner peace and calm.
- Limit distractions. Turn off your phone, shut down your computer, and find a quiet space where you can focus on connecting with your thoughts and feelings.
- Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them and connect more deeply with your conscious mind.
- Meditate. Meditation is another powerful tool for connecting with your conscious mind. By focusing on your breath and quieting your mind, you can access deeper levels of awareness and insight.
- Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can make it difficult to connect with your conscious mind. Make sure you're getting enough sleep each night so that you can be fully present and engaged during the day.
Connecting more to your conscious mind so that you can be the observer and chooser of your thoughts requires practice and dedication, but the benefits are well worth the effort. By staying in tune with your thoughts and feelings, you can make better decisions, be more creative, and live a more fulfilling life.
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