“Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain”.
~ Eckhart Tolle
For some of us, the idea that we are not our thoughts or emotions, but the one who observes them, is absolutely mind-blowing. We have been raised on the philosophical proposition that “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ postulation has helped us identify ourselves primarily with our minds, our ability to reason. We pride ourselves in our ability to think through problems and find effective solutions, and this isn’t wrong. It is GOOD to have a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex. It is good to be able to use both the left and right sides of our brains. But our thoughts are also limited and can be limiting.
In this present moment, our perceptions are impacted by every experience we have had so far in life. Our emotions are activated by the way we perceive things, and our thoughts, our plans, are carried out based on the whole mix of previous experience, activated emotions, and current experience.
Sometimes those plans work out beautifully… we witness the efficacy of our thoughts put into action, and it builds our confidence and self-esteem. But when those plans don’t work out, or worse, create a terrible mess, the opposite can happen. We can begin to see ourselves as “not good enough” or somehow defective.
When we identify ourselves as our thoughts and emotions, we are tossed around by the ever-changing landscape of our internal life.
This can get particularly tricky when we have experienced trauma. Trauma is a strong undercurrent to our everyday experiences, influencing how we see and make sense of the world, and activating our emotions so that we react to some situations as if we are in danger, instead of opening ourselves to a more thoughtful response.
The good news, whether or not we have experienced trauma, is that we can disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions as our identity. When we do this, we are opened up to a peaceful, expansive stance toward our circumstances as the one who observes our thoughts and feelings about the things that are happening.
We can notice, acknowledge, and wait.
We can open ourselves up to our thoughts… we may think something, but that does not necessarily make it true. And we can experience the freedom of not needing to know. We can notice our thoughts without getting tied up in them, allowing them to flow rather than run circles through our minds that fuel our anxieties.
We can open ourselves up to experiencing our emotions without being overwhelmed by them, because we know they will pass and change, ebb and flow.
Give it a try
A good exercise to help us practice being the observer of our thoughts and feelings is a common mindfulness practice.
While seated, close your eyes and notice your body. Get comfortable… do you need to shift your legs? Your arms? Relax your shoulders, your jaw. Perhaps drop your head, chin to chest, and give a slow, gentle roll, side to side.
Once you are comfortable, imagine you are floating underwater in a river and your thoughts are ships passing overhead. You notice them and let them flow past. Often there will be a thought that captures you, a ship you board. Notice. Then get back into the river, under the water, and let that thought flow away from you without judgement.
At first, you can set a timer for just two minutes and practice observing the flow of your thoughts. With time, you can increase the length to 20 minutes or more.
This is a good practice when we are already calm. For me, first thing in the morning works best. During good moments, we train ourselves, so that in the future we can access this space during more difficult moments. This practice allows us to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, to observe with kindness the things that flow through our minds.
As we practice, we become more and more aware of ourselves as the stillness beneath the mental noise. Our identity is settled more and more in the love and joy beneath the pain.
So much love,