Are thoughts really real though? Can you hear them? Are they at all tangible? Think a phrase, like, “I am thinking these words,” and listen to see if they are audible. Turn up the volume by thinking, “I AM YELLING IN MY HEAD!!!” Do you hear anything? Just listen to the silence that remains after the thoughts subside. As you mentally yell, talk, daydream, etc., there is still only silence, before, during and after all thoughts. Thoughts are like ghosts from the past, only we think they’re real and true. No one else knows what we’re thinking, so we’re all living in our own little dream world covered up by invisible, inaudible words that govern how we live our lives.
It’s probably safe to say that thoughts are the number one cause of pain, suffering and death in the world. Stressful thoughts lead to all forms of dis-ease. Beliefs, which are simply organized bundles of thoughts, are what fuel wars between nations, and create great strife among people. People don’t kill people. Thoughts kill people. This quote from Eckhart Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now,” sums it up nicely. “The human mind is a complex tool that can be used to solve all manner of problems, but it is also the source of all problems.”
Earlier today I heard my wife say, “Just thinking about it stresses me out.” That pretty much sums up the source of stress in this world. “It” doesn’t cause the stress, but “thinking about it” does. The goings on are not necessarily stressful without negative thinking to accompany them. Everyday events are just happenings before judgments (thoughts) enter the picture.
Let’s see what happens when we impose thoughts on the play of life. Think of something stressful, whether it be something that has actually happened or just a hypothetical situation. It could be anything from an argument or an embarrassing situation you once encountered, or to what you would like to say to someone who frustrates you, or even how you would feel if you lost someone near to you. Take a moment to feel what happens in your body when you think about that situation... Does your body tighten up? Dig into that sensation that the thoughts trigger and feel that feeling in your body... Do you feel emotional? Don’t tell a story about how you feel, just see what it feels like to think that thought.
Now, ask yourself, “What’s really real, the thoughts in my head, or what’s here, now?” Look around at your immediate surroundings. Don’t label anything, just take it all in. Is there anything to stress about when you don’t go mentally looking for a problem? Fictitious scenarios in your head can seem real enough to cause bodily harm, whether it’s in the form of stress, tension, or emotional upset. These symptoms can not exist without the help of thoughts, which we’ve already determined to be less true than your direct experience of the present moment.
Unfortunately, thinking is largely incessant, repetitive, involuntary and counter productive to living a fulfilling life. However, the challenge here is not to stop thinking. That would be as maddening as being stuck in compulsive thinking. For example, when I get a song stuck in my head that won’t go away, it gets frustrating when I try to make it go away simply because I’ve made having it stuck there into a problem. The mind’s job is to generate thoughts, so they will keep on coming.
However, we spend a great deal of time each day not thinking, and touching base with those countless gaps between thoughts is very beneficial. Those are the short-lived moments of peace that get overlooked. “What peace? I haven’t experienced any peace lately,” you might say if you have been stuck in compulsive thinking a lot lately. But the peaceful gaps are there, and you can find them once you know what to look for. Then, it’s just a matter of looking as often as you can remember.
How to Step out of Compulsive Thinking
There are a myriad of teachings that can be used to “get into the gap” between thoughts, many of them involve a formal meditation practice, which turns some people off. I don’t have a formal meditation practice myself, though there are definitely benefits to having one. Instead, my methods of becoming mentally quiet involve simply directing of attention away from thoughts (the self imposed labels I have ascribed to the world around me) to what lies underneath, and becoming fully present.
It seems that asking questions of oneself works quite well at directing attention, which is why asking questions like, “Who am I really?” or, “What is looking through these eyes?” are popular methods of seeing what lies below/behind/before thoughts. In addition to self inquiry, there are a few other questions I’ve found helpful lately. One is, “Am I thinking now?” Ask the question of yourself, then look at where your thoughts would ordinarily be. Are there thoughts present now? Look around in the mind with the mind’s eye (so to speak) to see if you can find a thought....
Most likely you will find only silence when you go looking for thoughts, but if you find thoughts are present bring you’re full attention to them and recognize them as just thoughts. When you become aware of your thoughts, you assume the position of the witnessing presence that you truly are and thoughts tend to dissipate when that happens, leaving behind that gap of “no mind” as it is sometimes called. Once thoughts can be witnessed impartially, they lose their addictive quality and can be more easily let go. Remember not to make getting sucked back into compulsive thinking into a problem, because it’s not until you make it into one.
Eckhart Tolle suggests a very similar approach to silencing the mind, wherein you ask yourself, “I wonder what I am going to think next?” Then, “Watch the mind like a cat watches a mouse hole,” as he says. When thought occurs, simply ignore it and return to watching. This puts you in a state of alert attentiveness that is very conducive for meditation, or simply getting out of your head.
In addition to looking for thoughts, which ironically tends to quiet the mind, there is another little pointer that has worked for me. Ask yourself, “What is the sound of sunshine?” Listen closely for it. Surely it makes a sound, even if it’s so quiet no one hears it. Direct all of your attention toward hearing the sound of sunshine....
That question points toward the underlying silence that is always here. That silence is the only real constant in our lives, and it is the peace we’ve been searching for. It’s always here, right under our noses, before thoughts and ideas start to muddy the waters. As Byron Katie likes to ask, “Who would you be without your story?” The simple answer is alert, aware, ever present stillness (a.k.a Peace-Love-Bliss).