What is a thought?
You’re having one right now, probably a fleeting set of ‘words’ in your head that are combining to make sense of, or interpret what you are reading. You’re having another right now, and again, and again. We have around 70,000 thoughts a day: the majority are the very same thoughts we have every day, humans like order and repetition, or at least we think we do... training our brain to ‘switch off’ or become absent of thought is clearly an act that doesn’t come easily to us, after all, our thoughts are there, on the whole, to serve and protect us. And there lies the key to why we have thoughts that make us feel anxious, worried, have sleepless nights and forget to enjoy the moment we live in. You may have heard the phrase ‘fight or flight’ it’s a common term psychologists and counsellors use to explain the historical basis of thought. At the very basic level we think to survive, we try to make sense of situations that ultimately are guiding us away from trouble or helping us to plan a safe path. Even thinking ‘what’s for dinner’ is rooted in survival, we need food to replenish us, to keep us alive.
Our brains are wonderful things, incredibly wild and vivid, able to create outcomes or dramatise situations with little or no reality. unconsciously turning us into ambitious playwrights, creative producers of stories, situations and outcomes. Taking learned knowledge from what we have experienced, what we have read, what our friends and family have told us, mixed with visuals and stories from film and TV, books and plays. We are brilliant at telling ourselves what might happen in a given situation, writing a dramatic theatrical production in our head, getting more and more clear, founded and more real the more effort we give to it. We dramatise and catastrophize, convincing ourselves it’s the truth, when in reality it’s simply in an effort to protect ourselves.
Our thoughts are pre programmed based on what we have been told or what we think we know about something. Take the weather, on the whole, the majority of people see blue skies and sun as a ‘good day’ and rain and clouds as a ‘bad day’. Is this actually what it is? It’s certainly the case that for some of us a sunny day promotes happiness, excitement of being able to take a walk in the outdoors, maybe a drive out to the beach and an ice cream in the garden. But is that more to do with the limited amount of times we get to experience that situation? If you lived in the deep Sahara, would a sunny day have the same effect?
The feelings we experience when we say we are anxious or stressed are based on our interpretation of the thoughts running through our heads, again, based on pre packaged outcomes we have written for ourselves. Is a 6 month old baby scared of flying on a plane? Would it stay awake all night worried it may have some life threatening illness? No, it would however stay awake crying if it was hungry, because, at a base level the baby's instinct knows it needs to survive. That is the only reality and the only real fear. When we experience a situation that may threaten our existence we plan ways out of it, or worry ourself into a life limiting corner that is hard to get out of. As someone who suffered from health anxiety for many years I know how powerful the feelings are when I found a simple pimple on my leg which I was convinced was the start of something sinister, that i need to book doctors when I was scared of them, plan for the future because it’s all going to change and also, plan for my ultimate and untimely death. Looking back now, I see how unhelpful this was to my health and my wellbeing, that I was a prisoner to my thoughts, and that I had written a perfect, yet irrational, theatrical production of my demise. Guess what, the doctors prescribed me an anti depressant, trying to ‘fix’ what I had, like it was a dose of measles. What I really needed, was to free myself from my thoughts, to understand why my mind was making stories up. We live in a state of repetitive analysis, every day, doing the same things at the same time, watching the same programs, reading the same stories. We’re living in a cycle of pre-existing thoughts and drama.
This ‘story maker’ that hijacks our thoughts has been studied for thousands of years and referenced by many spiritual and religious people through time. The Buddha wrote ‘“What you think, you become. What you feel, you attract. What you imagine, you create’ the bible writes ‘Above all, be careful what you think because your thoughts control your life’.
And ‘Don’t bend the truth or say things that you know are not right’.
Modern day psychologists such as professor Steve Peters (Elite sports psychologist who turned British Cycling around) calls it the ‘inner chimp’ that voice in your head that tries its best to protect you when at the same time, stopping you from enjoying life. He uses a wonderful analogy of an actual chimp, running reckless and creating dramatic thoughts around reality with the ultimate goal of self preservation. He suggests ‘locking the chimp away’ when it’s becoming non helpful.
If you simply treat a thought for what it is, simply a thought with no form, a part of a play we have written for ourself then you may find it easier to manage. You are not your mind, you are not your thoughts. The further away from your involuntary internal dialogue you shift, the more peaceful your mind becomes. Thoughts are like clouds in the sky, some big, some small, some light and fluffy, some dark, grey and angry. But, over time, they disappear, just like your thoughts will.
Now we’re not saying you shouldn’t think. That wouldn’t be practical or possible, but rather we want you to think better, to be able to rise above your thoughts and see them and understand them for what they are. Once you start seeing your thoughts in this way, your mind starts to clear, becoming more peaceful and present. After all, by not dramatising, catastrophizing, worrying and planning, your mind will become open, released and free.