Are your thoughts really your thoughts?

We talk about “our” thoughts. According to Stanford University a person will typically have somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 of them per day. But here is a question: “Are those thoughts really your thoughts? Just cast your mind back: of the 30K thoughts that you had yesterday, how many do you remember right now? If you are like most people then you will probably be able to recall three, perhaps a few more of yesterday’s thoughts.  Now here is another question: How many of those thoughts did you consciously choose? Again, if you are like most people, your answer will be: none or close to none.

Reflect for a moment, thoughts and sounds share certain characteristics in that they are random; we mostly do not choose them. They simply arise in our awareness, exist for a while then disappear. Our experience of both is very similar. Thoughts are like the sounds I might hear sitting on the porch. They are random; they arise, exist for an instant, then disappear. I have no control over them and the next day I will have trouble remembering all of the sounds I will hear today.

Your experience of the thoughts that arise in your head is in many ways identical to your experience of sound with one very important difference: you do not confuse yourself with and you do not identify with the sounds you hear. You would never for example talk about “my sounds” in the same way as you talk about “my thoughts”. It would be frankly absurd. You would not rush to judge yourself based on the random sounds arising in your experience. For example, imagine that you hear a tractor start, would you immediately think “I am a tractor”, then immediately get lost in thoughts about whether or not you are a good tractor or a bad tractor, or then start to criticise yourself based on that assessment of your tractor-ish qualities? To do this would be sad and hilariously absurd. It would not happen. You experience the tractor noise for what it is: just another random sound over which you have no control.  

Liberation from suffering begins when you wake up and see the thoughts arising not as “my thoughts” but for what they are: random, impermanent mental events. When we do this, we free ourselves of the greatest source of suffering: “too much thinking”.

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