When I lead meditations, I will often pose the question: do you believe you are the thoughts in your mind right now? What if “you”—the essence of who you are—are not these thoughts?
For some, this feels obvious. Yes, I feel I am something deeper than just the thoughts, whether I can put my finger on it or not. For others, thoughts have become their entire identity. And because all life experience gets filtered through thoughts, it’s quite easy to become identified with them: “I am who these thoughts tell me I am.”
There’s a narrative running right now in your mind. Even as you read these words, that narrative continues. Like a radio left on night and day, it speaks continuously, sometimes even multiple narratives at once. The narrative likes to change voices—sometimes it’s your own voice, sometimes it’s the voice of a critical parent or teacher. Like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going.
How much of your energy does this narrative take? How much attention? How much importance do you give it? Do you believe it?
Do you believe it when it says you aren’t good enough, thin enough, lovable enough, smart enough, young enough, old enough, cool enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough to live the life you truly want to live? When you take time to listen, you’ll notice that the narrative of thoughts will say anything, ANYTHING, to keep you distracted from the truth of who you are.
And yet, thoughts are necessary and natural. They are how we navigate in the physical world. They can help design incredible life experiences and lead to the expansion of human ingenuity. The narrative, however—those incessant thoughts—is background noise with immense yet subtle power. When we are unconscious to the effects of the narrative, it assumes the position of CEO, CFO, Fixer, Dictator, even Tyrant! You can almost imagine the sneakiness of the narrative: looking around, taking a little control, then a little more, and when it doesn’t get called out, it takes a little more, until it’s running the whole show, completely disproportionate to its original function.
As we age and take on experience, the narrative grows too. The incessant narrative feeds on drama, and judgment toward others, ourselves, and even inanimate objects! That judgment wraps us in loops of stories and soon enough it’s hard to tell what’s up or down, what’s truth and what is false. Judgment clouds our natural ability to simply observe, listen, and be available to the present moment.
When we wake up to what is going on, we also empower choice. Instead of being led by the incessant drumming of narrative, we can choose what thoughts we empower and which thoughts we question and let go entirely. We notice thoughts that are total garbage, and ones that are a little more sticky and believable. We begin to notice how the narrative, being clever but lazy, will put thoughts on repeat, like the late night DJ at a college radio station. We can become hypnotized by the repetition and ultimately forget that life is calling us to wake up, assume our full stature, and live lives anchored in peace, joy, and connection.
When we learn that it is in our power to change the narrative, space begins to form between thoughts, without forcing anything. We start to remember our natural wisdom and love. By changing the mind, so to speak, we are empowering the most powerful tool we have, which is truly capable of changing everything!
The Power of Observation
The Yogis teach a simple principle around how we handle thoughts. Thoughts are described as the “mind-stuff,” and underneath this “mind-stuff” is a pure “undisturbed calmness” that is our true essence and is always there. This concept is helpful to teach us to regard thoughts as impermanent, like a cloudy sky temporarily obscuring the sun. Given a little awareness and space, thoughts move on and we can see the expansive sky once again.
Willingness and curiosity to get to know the mind from top to bottom is a potent place to start. To do so requires a stepping back of sorts and an awareness that is not fueled by more thoughts, but by simply observing.
To observe is to learn. Observation is a gift we are given at birth and carry with us through life. It is such a basic gift that most of us, as we get older, overlook it for more sophisticated and complicated techniques. The simplicity of observing means to suspend judgment and just witness objectively what is here, right now. To understand the mind, it is absolutely necessary to be willing to just observe, to be the witness, and bring your whole self to the present moment. This is how we learn, not through yet another layer of thoughts, but through direct connection to life experience. And it is how we access peace, joy, connection, and freedom, which is the “undisturbed calmness,” our True Nature. And it’s always here.
Practice Observing Sound
Using an anchor, such as sound, as a practice tool helps to create space between you—the observer—and the thoughts that are produced while you are observing.
Exactly where you are, close your eyes and open your ears. For the next 1-2 minutes, just listen.
Whatever sounds meet your ears, bring your whole awareness to listen to these sounds.
Notice the quality of sound, observe sounds far away, sounds that are close to you.
Observe sounds just in your right ear, and then just your left ear.
Notice the pitch and tenor and vibration of sound. Observe the details.
Notice the enticement of thoughts to spin stories around the sounds you might hear: ”Plane—I wonder where it’s going? When was I on a plane last? Oh that’s right, that trip to Las Vegas. Wow that was quite a trip….” And so on and so on. Ahh, the clever narrative.
Notice the way the narrative may try to stir up emotions: “I’m annoyed that I can’t have quiet when I’m trying to listen!”
Notice the story, and then simply relax back into observing the sounds as they change. Be willing to even strip away the identity of sound (plane, air conditioner, barking dog) and witness the raw vibration and pulse of sound.
Observe sound as impersonal phenomena. It’s not happening to you; it’s just happening.
There’s nothing to do here but listen. Observe.
Changing the Mind = Changing the Perception of Reality
Observation is a simple and powerful way to change your relationship with the mind, thoughts, and inner narrative, and in doing so, effect change in any area of life.
Observation helps to illuminate the space that already exists everywhere. This is the space we find in a fully observed moment, in a fully inhabited breath, in a fully embodied body. Space is critical to seeing clearly what is actually here in the present moment, instead of being consumed by the inner narrative’s relentless stories and judgments, which operate only in the past or the future. Space allows you to activate a wider and higher perspective, and in doing so, it will affect your perception of reality. Instead of believing thoughts without question, you have empowered your natural ability to step back and objectively view thoughts from a very different vantage point—a point with a clean lens and an unburdened, present mind.
Without checks and balances like simply observing, we can all easily fall into the unconscious habit of believing the inner narrative, believing the viewpoint it produces is always right, isolating ourselves from actual reality, and skewing our relationship with life itself. Unchecked, thoughts can deceive us into believing they are real and true, even when they are not.
Any relationship we have to life is filtered through the mind, and when we intentionally maintain the natural space in the mind, we connect to a deeper wisdom, the “undisturbed calmness” that is always available. It means the decisions we make are anchored, not in a murky version of reality, but in the clear, true nature of reality. It means we can let life circumstances move through us, teaching, cleansing, and healing as they do, allowing us to live with an open heart and an open mind, fully inhabiting our True Nature, that place of peace, joy and connection.
It can be jarring and uncomfortable to question the relationship we’ve built with thoughts and the inner narrative, especially if you are just beginning to explore this concept. And yet, there is real freedom that comes when we lean into that discomfort, when we have the courage to observe thoughts, objectively question their validity, and bring our whole selves into the present moment so that we can enter the flow of life unburdened and available. This becomes our new vantage point, so that whatever life brings, be it pleasure or calamity, we can respond from the deepest, wisest part of our being.