Learning How to Observe Thoughts

One of the foundations of inner peace for me is realizing that I am not my thoughts. In order to do that, though—and this is pretty much the core of everything I practice and write about—I had to learn to observe my thoughts, to recognize that the thoughts exist on their own plane, and that thoughts weren’t the same as me.

When I first began this journey to find inner peace without medication, learning to observe my thoughts seemed impossible, like peeling that last slippery layer of film off an onion. I was my thoughts; my thoughts were me. I was so identified with my mind that I was barely aware of thoughts as something separate. The only time I had ever noticed them before were times when songs wedged themselves in my mind on a loop, often with lyrics that brought to light what I was really feeling (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was pretty much on endless repeat in my 20s and 30s).

I understood theoretically that believing my thoughts caused me pain, and so I was determined to learn this sleight-of-attention trick.

Unlike many people, I didn’t begin with meditation. I did meditate, but ‘catch the thought’ expanded far beyond that, into a full-time game. I remember walking around downtown, my head cocked slightly to the side, not unlike a dog listening for a particular sound. It seemed like so much effort to separate my thoughts from ‘me.’ I kept trying to visualize who it was that was observing the thoughts, and where it was that the thoughts were appearing, and then I’d visualize the different layers of ‘thought’ and ‘me.’ 

At first, I’d notice I was thinking in places where, generally speaking, thinking wasn’t required. Like the shower. Then I’d “listen” to the thought and note that it was just a thought. 

Thoughts Just Happen

Thoughts, like breathing, can either be deliberate or automatic. Just as we can breathe deliberately, we can choose to think about a certain problem or situation. This is one of the gifts of being human. But when the mind isn’t focused, thoughts come up anyway. This is one of the challenges of being human.

In my experience, thoughts only subside when we’re completely present to the sensations of a given moment. The feel of a warm breeze or cold rain on the skin, the sounds of birds or buses or people; the smells of pine or fuel or wet dog. (My point is, the sensations don’t have to be thinks we consider ‘positive’)

IMG_7572Moments of awe can stop the mind, too (yet another reason to seek out experiences of awe, whether in nature or through art), usually because the sensory experience is beyond the mind’s comprehension.

The cool thing is that awe is all around us, if we know how to look. Just look deeply at a flower blossom or pinecone, or make eye contact with an animal. Savor the colors of a brilliant sunset, or look at the intricate perfection of a newborn baby’s hand.

Becoming Familiar with Thoughts

Almost everybody thinks all the time. Those of us whose brains are wired differently tend to have five full-blast firehoses of thoughts going simultaneously. Yet when we identify with the stories in our minds, we imagine them as facts, as parts of ourselves, rather than as ephemeral moments that will pass on their own, just like spring breezes or clouds in the sky.

This is where meditation really does help. I began meditating without any real knowledge of how to meditate, and for me, the goal was stopping the thoughts by becoming fiercely present, because the thoughts were causing so much pain (“I’m a loser.” “Nobody’s ever going to hire me again.” “I’ll wind up living on the street.”). I would sit and focus intensely on the sensations of smell and sound, as well as tactile experiences, like wind on my arms. 

Practicing presence within meditation did help, but I couldn’t always stop my thoughts. They were forceful. The vast majority of meditation teachers will say that it’s not about stopping thoughts, but learning to observe them. To notice that the mind goes into certain looping patterns (some teachers have even identified a Top 10 Greatest Hits). This is fear. Here’s anger. Oh, there’s worry again. Hey, jealousy (yes, that’s a Gin Blossoms reference). Ooh, a fantasy! They all pass. The more practice we have in noticing that these thoughts (and the feelings they create) do pass, the more able we’ll be to recognize them in our day-to-day lives without acting on them. They’re just thoughts.

One of the most challenging times for me is when I first wake up. I often have multiple streams of thoughts pouring through my mind, many of which are completely irrelevant to my present life. Like, one day last summer, I woke up thinking about cadmium poisoning in Cadbury chocolate. I can’t remember the last time I even ate a Cadbury chocolate. Other times, especially during difficult times, I’ll wake up in a panic, worrying about paying bills or finding new clients. From what I understand, this is much more common than the cadmium issue.

Six and a half years of practice in observing my thoughts helps immensely during those early-morning freak-outs. Maybe it’s that the thoughts are so painful, it quickly reminds me what I need to do. Come back to presence. Feel my breathing. Feel my hands and feet. Remind myself that these are just thoughts, not objective reality.

It’s a Practice, Not a Perfection

Yet there are far more times, on balance, during a day when I’m not aware of my thoughts than when I am. When the circumstances of my life are comfortable or pleasant, I’ve even been known to forget to notice my thoughts entirely, except when I’m meditating. That’s a real shock, to be in the shower one day and realize I haven’t been attending to my thoughts in days.

Despite the many teachers who say that meditation is about learning to observe thoughts, I still find that, during times of big challenges, it’s more effective to quiet the mind altogether, to focus so intensely on physical sensations, to stay so attentive to the moment, that the mind has no energy left to whirl. It’s not about getting drunk, high, or watching Netflix for hours on end. It’s the opposite of escapism. To use the phrase Eckhart Tolle uses, it’s about “rising above thought” not “falling below thought.”

Thoughts are as ubiquitous as air. So there’s no point in beating yourself up about the thoughts—you didn’t create them, and they’ll dissipate on their own. Try not to judge or analyze, because—well, they’re not real, and feeding them with mental energy will strengthen them (just as they will emotions).  Besides which, what’s the benefit of judging yourself for thinking? Judgment is just another thought (“Ack, I shouldn’t let my thoughts control me so much!”), and one that causes pain.  

Just be aware: “Oh, here’s a thought visiting.”

Don’t Believe Your Thoughts

There’s a phrase among meditation teachers (I first heard it from Tara Brach): “Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t believe your thoughts.”FullSizeRender (33)

The vast majority of the time, negative or painful emotions arise when I’m believing my thoughts (“I really messed that up.” “She’s ignoring me.” “I should be more compassionate.”). And often, those thoughts are that something should be different than it is. Except, it’s not. It doesn’t matter what we think should be; arguing with reality is a path to pain.

We get into trouble—emotional turmoil—when we identify with our thoughts, when we believe they are the truth. Thoughts are just stories. They’re stories about what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future, or they’re interpretations (stories) about a situation we’re in. What they aren’t is presence, that is, the facts and sensations of this very moment.   

Learn to peel the onion, to watch the thinker. Practice giving your mind a break from itself. When you realize that thoughts just happen—and that, like everything, they pass—it becomes easier not to get caught up in their drama. That, in turn, is one of the secrets to inner peace.

Caveat: There are some times when it’s not possible to observe thoughts, when the wave is too big and pulls people underwater, or when traumatic experiences or implicit memories have been triggered. In those situations, I believe it can be helpful to have just enough medication to allow perspective on the pain. The problem is that most psychiatrists or physicians prescribe enough medication to remove the pain significantly, and the person goes, “Oh, there’s no problem! What was I thinking? I must be mentally ill.” Pain is a prompt from the psyche. It is, as Dr. James Gordon wrote in Mindful magazine, an invitation to a journey, not a dead end. By putting one’s identity in the bucket of “mentally ill,” there’s no room for movement, no room for growth, change or awakening.



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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.


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