Anyone who has ever practiced mindfulness knows that there is something akin to a wild animal living inside each of us. We call that wild animal “mind.” If you stop for just a minute, right now, and pay attention to what your mind is telling you, I am certain that you will hear all sorts of disjointed random thoughts. In the last minute, I am aware of having had at least 20 — a memory of my mother’s sneakers on camp visiting day 30-something years ago, the feel of the indoor arena footing beneath my boots at a horse show in the late ’90s, something I need to tell my husband, dinner plans, fixing the piano, and everything in between — literally. Between the identifiable thoughts exists a background buzz, loud and energetic but without any specific content. What is clear is that there is no reason or sense to how, when and why thoughts appear. Thoughts simply appear without asking us if we want to hear them. And who is it then that is hearing “our” thoughts?
Still, we believe that we are the thinker of our thoughts. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we think that we decide our thoughts, and as a result, that we are responsible for their content. Because they are “our” thoughts, and we “did” the thinking, our identity is determined by their content. We are a good person if we have “good” thoughts and a bad person if we have “bad” thoughts. We spend a lot of time trying to control our thoughts and create order out of the chaos that the mind delivers.
In truth, thoughts happen — on their own. We are not in charge of what our thoughts are about. We are the recipient — the “hearer” of thoughts, the screen upon which they are projected, but certainly not the one doing the thinking.
If you are like most people, the majority of what your mind tells you, you have already heard before — many times. So too, many of the thoughts you receive are useless or boring. Only a small percentage might actually be of interest to “you.” While it is true that we can direct our attention to a particular topic and thus encourage certain kinds of thoughts, still, most of what we hear in our heads is useless chatter that we would not miss if it were not heard.
When you walk by a crazy person on the street and they yell out wild, non-sensical things at you, do you take the comments personally? Do you feel responsible for their content? Probably not. The mind is not much different than that crazy person on the street. The main difference however is that your mind lives inside your head and thus you can’t walk away from it. And more importantly, that you believe that crazy mind to be “you”!
What if we didn’t have to take credit or responsibility for our thoughts? What if we could use thought but without taking ownership of it? What if we didn’t have to do anything about or with the thought-racket that the mind makes? Indeed, all of these are possible! And how liberating and relieving to be given permission to let the mind do its thing without having to get involved or be responsible for it.
Try it for a day: Let your mind fire off like the out-of-order computer that it is. Don’t get involved in the contents of what it fires — don’t feed its firings, or build a storyline from its random fragments. Starve the mind. (Be careful however, not to turn “starve the mind” into another thought that interests you.) If you are lucky enough to hear a thought that is genuinely interesting, you can move toward it, engage with it, and build something with it. But otherwise, you can get on with your life and let the thoughts simply pass through, like weather, without much ado. Imagine yourself inside a giant mosquito net with hundreds of mosquitos buzzing just outside the net, unable to get through. You can ignore the mosquitos and go about your business without getting bitten. After a while, you may not even hear the buzzing anymore. And when not paid attention to, the mosquitos often take off to find someone else to bug. The same is true for thoughts — without your energy, your juice (in the form of attention) — they lose their power. You can make use of thoughts, but don’t believe them to be “yours” in some fundamental, identity-defining way.
We cannot stop thought but we can stop being interested in thought.
The “you” who is hearing the thoughts is the real you. You are the space within which the thoughts appear (and disappear). Practice turning away from thought — not feeding the thoughts with your attention. And then, notice what’s there — the silence behind the noise, the stillness behind the mind’s movement. Indeed, you may find that starving the mind can deliver a most profound form of nourishment. Remember, the mind is not yours to control. Let the mind do its thing — and you do yours!