I t is widely acknowledged that the average person has between 60,000-80,000 thoughts a day. That’s around one thought every second.
I think therefore I am
In 1637, the French philosopher René Descartes put forward the proposition Cogito ergo sum, translated into English as, “I think therefore I am.” As Descartes explained, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt….”. He used this concept to assert that the very act of doubting one’s own existence was proof that one’s mind – the self, the thought – must exist.
According to Ekhart Tolle, in his book,The Power of Now, Descartes had in fact given expression to the most basic error: equating “thinking with Being and identity with thinking”.
If you think about it, thoughts emerge into consciousness and then slip away again as easily as they appeared.
As Sigmund Freud said, “Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” .
Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?
You may not be who you think you are
If you consciously listen to your thinking, you’ll notice that most of your thoughts are in the sound of your own voice. These thoughts are constantly analysing, fretting, planning, commentating, reviewing, judging, agreeing, arguing, praising, worrying, appreciating, doubting, rehearsing… and a lot of this is happening involuntarily and unconsciously.
In fact, psychologists say that 95% of your thinking occurs at the level of the subconscious, leaving just 5% that you are actually aware of.
So associating who you are with the thoughts running through your head is unhelpful and means that you perhaps have an inaccurate view of yourself and the world around you.
You are not your thoughts
For example, imagine you are walking down the street and see a man coming around the corner in a van. Your awareness registers what you see through your nervous system, yet your mind is compelled to add a dialogue:
“Wow he came around that corner quickly”, your mind says, or, “I’ll never be able to un-see that – he really ought to wear a t-shirt”. Observing what you are seeing is not enough and so the mind adds a dialogue.
And this is where we have a problem.
We find it almost impossible to simply observe, our minds throw in thoughts, without us consciously thinking of those thoughts.
As well as this, humans tend to dwell on the negative, so the dialogue is mostly negative.
The reason for the negative bias is evolutionary: negative experiences are platforms for learning and was crucial to our survival for millions of years. For example, if you were the one who imagined the worst possible scenario and was alert and looking out for the lion on the savannah, you were more likely to survive. Thag, on the other hand, who had wandered off oblivious to the possibility of being eaten… Well he was unlikely to have reproduced.
This incessant and mostly negative mental noise of the inner dialogue, the ruminating over the past and fretting about the future, prevents us from finding that realm of inner stillness and peace.
It stops us from getting to know who we really are underneath all the mental chatter.
We find it almost impossible to simply observe, without also creating mental dialogue
How do we calm the thoughts?
So how do we stop dwelling in the past or the future and calm the constant thoughts running through our minds?
- Realise that you are not your thoughts. Don’t judge yourself on the thoughts that may run through your head. The brain is merely doing what it is meant to do: and that is to think. A bunch of neurons fire together in the brain and a thought appears in our consciousness. It is not who you are.
- As much as possible become conscious of the thoughts that run through your mind. Acknowledge the thought but avoid getting wrapped up in it.
- When you realise you are getting drawn into rumination or fretting, bring yourself to the present moment, perhaps the feel of the breeze on your arms, or the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Bringing your mind back to your body and any physical sensations helps to create “space” in the mind.
- Mindfulness and meditation is a huge help with this. It helps you to be the witnesser of the thoughts in your mind, rather than being the thought. Check out our meditation library.