At our weekly meditation group we are continuing the exploration of self-construction. In the discussion yesterday, one member described how she witnessed her mind constructing a notion of self through believing a series of thoughts and speculations. Another member equated the sense of self with a discernible feeling of stuck-ness. Indeed, we create the “self story” by clinging to our thoughts and interpretations, and then form a fixed idea of who we think that we are.
One important discovery in mindfulness meditation is that a thought is just a thought. A thought is not the thing it represents. It does not matter if the content of our thoughts are accurate or false, we are not the collection of our thoughts. By examining the mind in meditation, we distinguish between the content of thought, and the process of thinking. Recognizing thoughts as thoughts rather than the story that they tell, we free ourselves from the compulsion to believe and identify with them. We will still be able to think, reason, analyze, plan, and remember, but we will not be compelled to fabricate a sense of self through obsessive and unexamined habitual thinking.
In the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (M. 2.7) the Buddha describes how someone might wisely or unwisely think:
“This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?” Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: “Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?”
Do you ever sit quietly and find that your mind is dwelling on what you recently did, how you performed, or how you appeared to others? Or anticipates what may happen in the future, or what you will become? Or narrates what is happening in the present moment, commenting on present experience, or judging what is occurring?
We can observe our habitual thoughts, and reflect if we are constructing a view of self through an unwise relationship engagement in thinking activities. We each have the potential to free the mind through insight. So we each must gain insight into the ways our habitual thoughts might be entangling us in patterns of suffering.
Notice in your meditation practice if your mind dwells in thoughts of past and future, or commentary on the present. Periodically let go of those stories that feed self-concepts. It can be exhausting and anxiety producing to be daydreaming away our lives, so let the mind rest in the present moment experience. Let the mind be still with what is actually happening, without the narration, without the drama, without clinging to fixed concepts of self.
When you are thinking, bring mindfulness to bear on the process, so that you have the important recognition: a thought is just a thought. When you see them as changing momentary conditioned processes, you may not need to believe them.