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  • Lenore Lambert

Most thoughts think themselves

This is one of those ground-shifting insights that can really change your experience. It did for me.

It came to me in the first year of my personal growth journey. It took a whole stack of tension out of my life, and led to a leap forward in my skills for working with my mind.

Prior to this insight, I took my thoughts quite seriously. If I thought them, so went the rationale, then they must be meaningful - they must reflect who I am and what I stand for.

When I look back now, I think that view is a bit like gleaning meaning from tea leaves!

We like to think we're in control of our minds and that its contents are credible. But that's only partly true and only sometimes true. This is both liberating and obligating.

Our minds are best thought of as well intentioned but only semi-skilled friends.

Most of our thoughts arise on their own. We don't deliberately think them, they just come up out of our body-minds.

This becomes really obvious when we meditate. We can say to ourselves: ok I'm going to focus on the breath. And then we notice that this lasts, ooh, three seconds....five on a good day. If we were in complete control of our minds, this wouldn't happen right?

Our minds mean well. They want to protect us and to help us flourish. However we know that we have a negativity bias built into our neurobiology, so our minds are more sensitive to fear than they are to joy. In service of this they are constantly scanning the environments - both internal and external - for threats.

Have you ever noticed how after an emotionally unpleasant experience, the mind often roams into other unpleasant pastures? Someone criticises me, that criticism hurts because it feels like rejection and rejection hurts (literally, we feel it as physical pain) and then hours later we find ourselves re-hashing memories of being judged unfairly or imagining fearful scenarios in the future with the same emotional flavour. I call this a negative eddy. Yep, like the water in the toilet.

This is an example of our mind going into 'alert' mode after an alarm has been sounded (the criticism we received).

Did we consciously create this mind activity? Did we ask for it? No way! It feels horrible, why would we do that to ourselves?!

The mind sensed the presence of threat (the hormones coursing through our bodies) and it flew into action to protect us. It takes a while for the hormones to dissipate and unlike other creatures, us humans aren't great at quickly recovering from a stress spike.

This is an example of the good intentions (protecting us) but the gross skill of our minds. They can often make matters worse by replaying the movie in our mental cinema, or digging up others of the same emotional genre, and playing those too, trying to get us ready for threats of the same flavour, even though the source of that threat (the criticism) is gone and the appropriate action now is to relax.

We're not responsible for what arises

Realising this about our minds is liberating because we can stop beating ourselves up for the unhelpful movies and soundtracks that turn up in our mental cinema. Feeling guilt or shame for what comes up is inappropriate. The vast majority of what flashes onto that screen arises of its own accord. It's the product of our subconscious minds, our personal histories and our emotional states at the time. The content just comes up. We don't ask for it. We don't consciously create it.

In this way, we're not actually responsible for what arises in our minds. We need to give ourselves a break here.

This includes biased and stereotyped and unkind thoughts. We don't consciously create these. They are the product of our experience in life - the confluence of our characters, the emotional patterns that have developed through the course of our personal histories, and the situation we just encountered.

Don't take your thoughts seriously

So when it comes to the contents that arise in our minds, we need to view them as offerings from our body-mind. It's as if our mind is the person operating the film projector and that operator is trying to pick the movie that the audience needs at that moment.

Rather than automatically accepting the movie choice and sitting through the whole thing, see it as the operator sampling movies: This one? Is this one helpful? You're looking a bit worried, maybe you need to watch this one. Or like on Netflix: you watched this one, so you might also like this one?

Of course I'm talking here about the unconscious mind activity that's thrown onto the movie screen here. When it comes to our conscious thoughts, they are a different kettle of fish. They can have a massive impact on our experience and SHOULD be taken seriously. This is where the obligation comes in.

I said that we're not responsible for biased thoughts that arise and that's true. But we ARE responsible for what we do next. What do we do consciously when we notice a stereotype or biased perception or harsh thought has appeared in the mental cinema? The conscious thoughts that we DO actively think next are crucial!

Do we think: yeah that'd be right and indulge it, reinforce it? Or do we think: Hmmm, that's interesting. Look at what my mid threw up on the screen. Where did that come from? What's it trying to protect me from? Do we unpack it and get curious about it and use it to grow our self-insight? THESE kinds of thoughts ARE to be taken seriously - they are the stuff of personal growth and wisdom.

Mindfulness and self awareness are key

This un-requested stream of mind-content can be dangerous or it can be gold. It depends on how we greet it.

If we just let it rip, taking it as a credible indicator of reality, we can fly into reactivity and harm ourselves and others. On the mild end that might be deciding to distance or finish a relationship because of a comment we received as hurtful while in the overly-sensitive whirl of a negative eddy. On the severe end it can be violence - even murder.

However if we see our unbidden mind activity as simply a stream of possibilities offered to us by our well intentioned but only semi-skilled friend (our mind) we can use it as material for growing our wisdom about ourselves. We can get to know our mind's patterns and be able to discern between the offerings that are worthy of our attention and action, and those that are what I call UMJ - Unhelpful Mental Junk.

I encourage you to try this for yourself. Any experience imbued with emotion is a good opportunity to practice it. Notice what the mind does. Where does it go? What movies are being sampled on that movie screen to see if you approve of them, if you'll keep watching?

Lastly, for anyone who thinks AI is about to take over the world - this is the best it could do! It made me laugh out loud.

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