Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of February 25, 2013

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Am I My Thoughts?

(Who Am I?: Part 2)

If we were to ask ourselves this question, am I my thoughts, we would naturally answer no. We might respond that sometimes I think my thoughts and sometimes thoughts just come on their own, but certainly I am not my thoughts. But then we might look again. In particular, two issues stand out. First, what about the thought I? And a second related question: for whom do my thoughts speak?

We think and say I countless times each day. Mostly it just slips by with nothing much behind it. But if we stop and consider it in real time as it is arising in our mind or speech, to what does this word, this thought I, refer? Looking further, we discover that its fungible, that it depends on the context. If we say I will do such and such, we mainly mean that our body will do a certain thing. If we say I hate that, we are communicating a particular emotion that predominates at times. If we say I dont know, we are indicating something about the state of our mind and its contents. But in none of those cases are we focused on the I part of the sentence. We leave the subject I curiously empty so that it can adopt the form of whatever the sentence is about. Instead of I, we have our body, our mind, or our feelings. We become our body, our mind, or our feelings. This is identification, wherein our body, our mind, or our feelings substitute for I; we abdicate our I to become what we are not.

So while its true that I am not my thoughts, the question becomes am I anything at all or just a fill-in-the-blank zero reputed to be a non-zero? Trying to look objectively at our situation, it seems the latter is the case, at least most of the time. We have an unarticulated belief, an assumption, that whenever we say or think I it always refers to the same substantive entity, namely us. But we actually use the word I to refer to this or that thing within us and rarely, if ever, to the real thing, if there is a real thing. Is there a real thing, a real I, who we are?

Setting that aside for the moment, we turn to the other question: for whom do my thoughts speak? Clearly sometimes our thoughts speak for our body, sometimes for our emotions, and sometimes for themselves, but rarely for us. The closest we usually come to having our thoughts speak for us is when we intentionally consider some particular situation by thinking about it, by directing our thoughts and keeping them to that subject. This can be difficult as stray thoughts and perceptions continually intrude, enticing us onto tangents. But we can and do think intentionally, just not as often as we might believe to be the case. The great majority of our thoughts are random, associative, or reactive and do not come from us, from our I. The beauty of recognizing this truth is that it punctures our belief that we are our thoughts.

That is a deeply held conviction for many of us. We have these familiar, complex patterns of thoughts, memories, opinions, ideas, reactions, and attitudes that we feel to be us. If I am not my thoughts, if I am not these patterns that make up my personality, then what, if anything, am I? Who am I? The answer to that is simple and wonderful and even obvious, yet no so easy to discover, because it is obscured by our identification with what we are not, principally with our thoughts, our emotions, and our body. If we can see through those identifications, see that we are not just the sum of all this mind-stuff, we can start to see the truth of who we are, we can start to be more ourselves.

Sitting quietly, inhabiting our body, in contact with our body, we can see our thoughts coming and going more clearly. They arise on their own and pass by on their own. In the quiet it is clear that I am not driving my thoughts, rather, they are driving themselves. In the quiet it is clear that I am not this haphazard, associative, endless stream of thoughts. I sit and watch. The seer is not the seen.

Now I turn to directing my thoughts, say by simply counting from 1 to 10 and then repeating that. I do this intentionally. I count intentionally and slowly. I see that I am driving my thoughts. I see that it is not so different than raising my arm and putting it down. I have some control over my body and I have some control over my thoughts. I am not my body and I am not my thoughts.

My body circulates my blood, digests my food, and breathes the air, all without my participation. It just happens. My thoughts come and go and come and go without my direction. It just happens. I am not my body and I am not my thoughts.

Yet I still believe I am my thoughts. As I go about my day, thoughts come and I believe they speak for me, even when they arise automatically, haphazardly.

For this week, please explore your relationship with your thoughts.


     

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