As a psychotherapist for nearly thirty years, I’ve heard every possible life situation. From the most sublime to the most horrific, I’ve accompanied clients, friends, family (and myself) through circumstances that would have seemed unfathomable and un-survivable in terms of the suffering involved. Along the way, I realized something unexpected and even paradoxical. Namely, that it’s not our life situations that are the real cause of our suffering. Of course our life situations create suffering, there’s no doubt about that. But fundamental well-being is not about winning the battle against life’s lifeness, and it’s not about successfully muscling the contents of our life into a shape we want and and pinning it down so it stays that way.
More than anything, suffering is a result of the condition of our mind—what we’re telling ourselves, believing, and paying attention to inside our head. Our mind—not anything outside of us—is what determines our experience of life. Most of us live in our heads; we experience ourselves, who we are, as some sort of entity, like a little “me” located somewhere in our head or face, usually just behind the eyes. We’re constantly carrying on a conversation with this “me,” who specializes in telling us negative and repetitive things. Our “me” narrates our life to us as we’re living it, perpetually telling us what’s happening that’s good for “me,” might harm “me,” what “me” likes, doesn’t like, and everything else that our “me” needs to know to protect itself.
The fact that we have a radio station perpetually playing inside our head (with no off switch) is problematic enough, but even more problematic is the belief that what’s coming through the air waves is “True.” We think our thoughts are valid, trustworthy, and inherently meaningful. Simultaneously, even though we would never choose many, if not most of our thoughts, still we imagine ourselves as their author, the one who originates and sanctions the words and images appearing in our head. If a thought appears, it means we thought it up, it’s important and have to follow it, engage with it, and live it out. If we dislike or are frightened by a thought, as in the case of intrusive thoughts, we think we have to unravel it, figure it out, and convince the voice in our head that it’s false. And ultimately, get rid of it.
Our attention is tethered to what is essentially an out-of-order computer in our head that pumps out troves of content all day. This might not be a problem, except that we are taught that we have to read and consider every word on every page, even as the pages are spilling out onto the floor. And not only read, but respond and obey. As such, we are dragged around without our permission, from the cradle to the grave, by the content of our thoughts.
In fact, we not only believe our thoughts to be True, but we fully identify with them. We are our thoughts, our inner-thinker, the little “me” voice in our head who talks to us all day and night. As Descartes wrote, “I think therefore I am,” and indeed this continues to define our relationship with thought. Thinking is being; without thought there is no us—we do not exist.
And yet, a remarkable thing happens when we start noticing our thoughts as something happening on their own, and noticing the voice in our head as something talking to us. And noticing, too, that we are the one being talked to and listening to that voice. Once we can see that distinction and experience that separateness, a sense of spaciousness opens up inside our mind. We discover that we have a choice as to how and if we want to pay attention, engage with, and respond to the voice in our head.
Simultaneously, we develop a healthy skepticism toward the content of our inner chatter. The fact that a thought appears doesn’t make it true, trustworthy or even particularly important. Our sense of authorship wanes, as does the credit or blame for what’s appearing in our head; our thoughts cease to be a reflection or defining aspect of who we are, and for which we are responsible.
As a result, we can give up the relentless and futile attempt to change the content of our thoughts, and accept that they happen with or without our approval. We can then focus on creating space between us and our thoughts, and freedom in thought rather than from thought. In so doing, we discover a deep sense of peace and equanimity.
Astonishing and profound benefits come with the shift from knowing ourselves as thought to knowing ourselves as the witness of thought. But there’s one benefit that’s rarely mentioned, which may be the most powerful and liberating of all when it comes to our relationships.
When we believe in the veracity of our thoughts, our reality is not just our reality but universal Reality. Our thoughts are not just true for us, but for everyone else as well. Furthermore, because we are our thoughts, anyone who thinks differently than us is a threat to our emotional survival; their different-ness means we are wrong and invalid. Anyone who thinks differently must therefore be converted to our version of reality, so that we can shore up our identity, and at the root, so that we can continue to exist.
When we realize that our thoughts are just our thoughts and don’t contain fundamental truth, that we are not the keepers of absolute reality, and who we are is not fused with our thoughts, something unthinkable happens. We’re released from needing other people to think what we think; we can relax and make space for other people’s truths and no longer have to pummel them into sharing our reality. We’re free to listen, understand and empathize with other people’s experience, even when it’s different from ours. It can feel like a miracle, like being released from a prison we didn’t know we were in. Other people’s differing truths no longer pose an existential threat to us; their thoughts can peacefully coexist with ours, without anyone having to be wrong, or annihilated.
This awakening releases a primary (and often unconscious) tension within us. When our relationship with what’s happening in our own mind shifts, every other relationship shifts along with it. Having dropped our claim on the Truth, and lost the faith in our thoughts as what is, we can, at last, let other people be who and how they are, even love other people for who and how they are, and release the burden of always having to right the reality ship.
The ability to feel safe and at ease when others have differing thoughts, realities, and truths, is perhaps the most radiant of all the jewels that emerge as we loosen our grip on, and fall out of love with our own thoughts. Indeed, it’s the jewel that allows us to move through the world with real openness and curiosity, and to truly know others as they are without needing them to become something else so that we can be okay. Our fundamental okay-ness is then unshackled, not only from the out-of-order computer in our head, but also from the one spitting out contents in everyone else’s head.