Noticing Our Thoughts
Scott Lauze MD
11 December 2014
One of my favorite “truisms” or slogans that one hears in meditation halls or in the rooms of recovery is “Don’t believe everything you think.” And we think A LOT as humans beings. Researchers say that on average we have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts each day. We have these amazing minds that are so good at making sense of our experiences. We feel we can think our way out of almost anything. And our ability to think, imagine and predict outcomes, and learn from our past and our memories, has put us at the top of the food chain. This ability also makes us great storytellers.
Jason Gots, from the blog BigThink.com, tells us in his article Our Storytelling Brains that “cognitive science has long recognized narrative as a basic organizing principle of memory. From early childhood, we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is not the main objective – coherence is. If necessary, our minds will invent things that never happened, people who don't exist, simply to hold the narrative together.” I think we’ve all had the experience of having witnessed the same event with someone else (or others) and yet in retelling the story, we notice that we differ, sometimes significantly, in our accounts of the event. We come to each situation in life with our own unique set of past experiences that shape how we look at the world, and create expectations about how the world works. Invariably, our experiences slightly distort the lens through which we see the world. Sometimes this is a good thing -- thank goodness we have artists who can convey their unique perspectives and can tell a story through words, paint, clay or dance that gets the rest of use to look at life in a richer way. But sometimes, this distorted view can color our experiences in a way that can increase our suffering.
Everyday I sit with patients who have experienced terrible losses, traumas, and hardships. Children with their storytelling minds will frequently wonder, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” As an attempt to make sense of their experience, to have an answer that feels like a satisfying resolution to the question, the child’s mind (which is normally egocentric until adolescence) will create a story. Frequently, the story goes something like this: “This bad thing is happening to me because I must have done something bad or wrong.” Or: “I must be bad or wrong.” This is such a common story kids tell themselves, and they hold on to this story, especially if their trauma or loss or abuse happened over a protracted period. They hold onto it, too, because it is easier to blame themselves than risk any disconnection from a caretaker they rely on to live.
We all wrap ourselves up in our accumulated experiences and our accumulated stories about those experiences, and these stories become how we see ourselves. They distort the lens. They become our identity, even though they may be based on stories that are not true. An innocent child is not to blame for the hardships he or she experiences at the hands of adults, and yet these kids can grow up to be adults with a feeling of low self-worth, or of being essentially unlovable, shame-based. The external events, that have nothing to do with who they are in any essential way, have come to define them.
Our definitions of ourselves, our identities, feel very personal, very true, and very important. We hold onto them tightly. Have you ever had the experience of learning that how you see yourself is not how others see you? It can feel eerie, confusing, even threatening. It shakes us to our core. Our storytelling minds want coherence not dissonance. And if we cannot bear to see ourselves as we truly are, then we may develop unhealthy defenses against the truth, like denial.
But if you are reading this blog, then chances are you are interested in seeing yourself, and life, in a way that is closer to true, free of the distortions of our experience. How do we do this? How do we learn to let go of the stories that no longer serve us or that increase our suffering?
There are several ways people do this. Psychotherapy is frequently a very helpful way of exploring past experiences and drawing connections to those experiences so we can see how our past influences our present. Once we recognize our unskillful behavior or faulty thinking, we can then make efforts to let go or change. Mindfulness practices, like meditation, can be a helpful part of that healing. In meditation, we can notice our thoughts as they arise. We notice how automatic our thinking is, how sticky and enticing some thoughts are (we don’t want to let go of those thoughts!) while other thoughts we wish we could banish immediately. With regular practice, we can notice how we have no control over our thoughts arising, nor do we have control over whether the thoughts are true or based in reality. We learn to see that many thoughts are not true. And yet, because we are human and this is what our minds do, we tend to latch onto all thoughts, true or not, and react as if they were true.
Just like how our hearts are organs that pump blood, our automatic or more primitive “reptilian” brains (which include the limbic system) are organs that pump out thoughts and feelings all day long. Fifty to seventy thousand thoughts a day. Normally, we never stop to evaluate those thoughts. We just go along with them. Imagine your automatic mind as being like a train station, and thoughts are like trains coming in and out of the station all day long. Normally, a thought train arrives, the doors open, we get on, and whoosh, away we go on that thought train. Some of these trains take us to places that make us happy, some take us to places that are neutral, and others take us to scary neighborhoods that can make us suffer.
Interestingly, our reptilian or limbic brains are roughly the same size as that of other mammals. Fortunately for us, around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, our ancestors began to evolve and develop the neocortex, the most recent part of the brain to evolve. And this was the birth of the thinking or observing mind. It’s the part of our brains that receives all of our sensory input, and makes sense of them. It attaches feelings to memories, it connects the visual cortex to vestibular input, it allowed Proust to have his moment with the madeleine cookie, and to experience the flood of memories, thoughts, feelings and words brought on by one visual cue. But most importantly (for the purposes of this blog) it allows us to observe our outer and inner worlds. Our neocortex allows us to observe, to notice our thoughts as they arise. It allows us to slow down a process that used to be automatic, and allows us to step out of autopilot and be less reactive. Slowing down the automatic process just a little allows us time to choose more skillful responses to our thoughts. Now, we can observe the thought train pull into the station, reflect on where it has taken us in the past, and choose to board the train or let it go. This is incredibly liberating, and allows us to have a healthy skepticism about our automatic thoughts and feelings. We become far less reactive, more thoughtful. Most importantly, I think, is that we begin to unwrap the mummy-wrapping of our stories and let go of them. Slowly, we get closer to our true selves, and regain a sense of ourselves as essentially good and worthy of love.