Thoughts are gripping. Like a good movie in which you lose all awareness of your surroundings and yourself, thoughts do the same thing to you – only the consequences are much more powerful. Like a good movie takes you on an emotional roller coaster, thoughts do the same thing, but you take them as more real, and so the emotions are even more piercing. Thoughts stimulate emotion, which can be very taxing physically because of the physical sensations associated with fear, stress, anger, and other painful emotions. These types of emotions not only make your experience physically uncomfortable, they can cause you to react poorly, make harmful decisions, and harm relationships.
Additionally thoughts can keep you from experiencing reality as it is. They can keep you from fully experiencing the presence of your awareness and the beauty and fullness of experience itself.
This is not to say that thoughts shouldn’t exist. They are very useful for many things, but when they negatively impact emotion they become useless and possibly harmful. There is a good chance that a lot, if not most, of your thoughts are in this latter category.
Given this, it would be nice to minimize the painful and harmful thoughts, or at least minimize their impact. To do this it can help to explore the nature of thought itself.
Where Do Thoughts Come From?
Where does a thought come from? The easy answer is from the biological processes of your brain, and while that scientifically seems to be true, there may be more to the story.
Right now observe your experience of a thought. Try just thinking the words “I am having this thought.” Start saying it over and over in your head as a thought. First notice that you can’t actually see, hear, taste, smell or touch this thought. There seems to be no physical substance to it, right? However, the thought is still somehow sensed. It is sensed by your awareness, just as your awareness experiences all phenomena that comes through your senses. Only thought is not coming through your senses.
So where is thought coming from? Again, you probably say it’s coming from your brain. Ok, so if we go ahead and assume that, where exactly in your brain is the thought coming from? If you know a minimum about brain function you’ll say it’s coming from neurons and neurotransmitters, organized by associations of memories of definitions, concepts, and past sensory input.
Let’s assume all of the above science is true. What fired the neurons? Was there a little person or “you” in your brain that told each of the billions of neurons to fire instantly to make that thought? What grew the tissue of the brain that supports the firing? Was there a little “you” that created, organized and managed all of the cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles to create that tissue, the neurons and neurotransmitters? Did that little “you” create the memory bank in your brain that stores your memory and did it deliberately make record of the memories stored there, like a records keeper at a museum?
There’s plenty more to explore here, but the big point is that there is no little “you” there doing it. It’s all happening automatically. The end result is the thought that is arising. The thought arises within your awareness. It is happening, and you aren’t doing it because there is no “you” in your brain making all of these things happen. If you didn’t know about the minimum of brain science you wouldn’t even know that biological process was happening, let alone have control over it.
Can You Control Your Thoughts?
Even if you fully realize the above, you may still have the feeling of control over your thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you will quickly see that that is not the case. Thoughts are very hard to control. However, you can try a quick little experiment right now.
Set a timer and see how long you can think the thought “I am controlling this thought” over and over again. See how long you can do that without the mind wandering to some other thought. After you fail at this, you might say “Well, I could still control it for a little while”. But were you actually controlling it? Wasn’t it my writing that made you think the thought? Didn’t my writing initiate those automatic brain processes we talked about a moment ago? You might say that you could have denied what my writing requested. You could have, but that decision still would have been initiated because of the request, and it was still an automatic brain process that carried out the choice.
This is what is actually happening with your thoughts. Outside stimuli that you don’t control initiates automatic processes of memory and associations carried out by neurons and neurotransmitters. When a thought doesn’t originate there, it originates from another thought or chain of thoughts that ultimately originated from outside stimuli.
What about thoughts that arise spontaneously? If it is spontaneous, you certainly didn’t have control over it arising, right? And still, the thought is without a doubt related to some external stimuli in the moment or brought back up from memory, all processes happening automatically, or through the intelligence of nature.
Another way to look at thoughts is as if they are ghosts that come and go. They have no physical substance in your sensory experience. A thought fades in, peaks with some level of intensity, and then it fades away.
There is plenty more that can be explored here to make the same point. Just dig into it yourself and you will see.
Let’s look at thought from another perspective. What happens when you dream while you are asleep? Isn’t a dream a bunch of thoughts? Your brain is making it. There’s no light or sound or anything to taste, smell or touch.
A bad dream seems so real, but when you wake up you are so relieved to discover that is wasn’t real. The thoughts that created the dream all came from an automatic brain process and induced useless emotion in you. It was useless emotion because nothing was real about it. There was no need to feel the emotion.
When you’re not sleeping, your thoughts do the same thing, but the difference is that you think that you’re making the thoughts, and somehow that gives them more reality than the dream. Yet it is still the same substance as the dream, and it still comes from an automatic brain process.
This is all important to realize in your actual experience because it limits your experience. When you are absorbed in useless, harmful thought, you are confining yourself to the associated painful emotions and physical sensations. When you do that, you cloud your conscious presence and you miss the fulfillment of your pure, present experience without the useless pain.
How To Get Rid Of Unwanted Thoughts
So what are you to do with this realization? You can’t control your thoughts, so you can’t stop thinking useless thoughts deliberately. However, what you can do is start to loosen their grip, which can lead to fewer and less impactful negative thoughts.
Exploring the nature of your thoughts like we have just done is the first step. On an ongoing basis, you can also explore the validity of the content of your thoughts. You can explore the beliefs and assumptions on which your thoughts are based. When you feel a negative emotion, that is a signal that a thought needs to be explored. When you explore it and see that it is based on false information, it will be less likely to arise again and eventually won’t arise.
When you see the true nature of thought itself and the falseness in the content of your thoughts, thoughts will start to lose their grip on you. Continuing with the movie analogy, you can now watch the movie and decide not to be gripped by it. You can sit back and see that the movie is just a bunch of lights projecting a bunch of actors that each have completely different real life experiences separate from what the movie is communicating. In the case of the movie, you can willingly decide to jump back in and let it grip you. You can let it scare you if you want to be scared. You can let it make you sad if you want to be sad. You can also watch it in appreciation for what it would be doing to your emotions if you allowed it to grip you, and as an appreciation of the art form.
With thoughts, you can let them arise automatically, like the movie is automatic. You can start to see that the ones that would usually cause you useless harm don’t anymore. Like the movie situation, you can decide to let them cause you harm, but for what reason?
If the external circumstances of your life are generally negative, it is common that the dominant thoughts will be negative and fearful. For example, if you feel there is a threat to your job or health, your thoughts will orient toward fears around these situations and trying to find a way out. If the external circumstances are positive, positive and loving thoughts will dominate. For example, if you have an upcoming vacation to somewhere you love, your thoughts may orient around fantasizing about what it will be like, what you will do, and the freedom and relief you will feel.
When you see this in your experience, see that you don’t have to get hung up on the negative, fearful, or stressful thoughts. See that these types of thoughts don’t help the cause. See that a fearful or stressful thought is not more effective than a relaxed thought. See that you can let thinking arise without trying. See that relevant and useful thoughts will arise when they need to, and they may even surprise you with their creativity in how to handle the situation. Observe all of this from the seat of your awareness where all of these thoughts come and go.
This is the process of letting your awareness become the “you” that you so desperately want to define experientially through the act of thinking and simultaneously thinking that “you” are in control.
What’s ironic is that your useful thoughts can even help enable the process of loosening the grip of your thoughts and orienting your experience toward awareness. Your thoughts that help you see the falseness in your harmful thoughts help you let go of those harmful thoughts and make them weaker and less frequent. Your thoughts can also convince yourself of everything that you just read in this article, and therefore your thoughts can start to surrender to the awareness that never goes away in your experience.
Notice this. Experience this. You might be able to stop your thoughts for a moment. In that split second of stoppage, your thoughts didn’t exist, but you were still experiencing existence. That was your awareness. That was you. You didn’t go away when your thoughts stopped. Your thoughts had nothing to do with your existence. The presence of your awareness was still there, completely whole and patient as the next thought arose, and so on. Your thoughts can seem so truly you. You can be totally absorbed and lost in them, so much so that you don’t notice anything else about your immediate experience. But when you look at your thoughts sincerely you see that they aren’t truly you, and that is a relief, just like waking up from a bad dream.
Can you let go of believing that your thoughts are you, and that you are thinking them? Can you let the unwanted thoughts arise and pass without them harming and confining you? You can, but you must ultimately feel and directly experience the true core of yourself, the awareness that is always in your experience, in order for your thoughts to be willing to surrender to it. This awareness is never harmed by thoughts.