Okay, let’s start by trying to recall a specific date in your past. Close your eyes, and think back to your experiences from Tuesday, January 20, 1998 to Sunday, February 8, 1998. For those 20 days in 1998, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you would have experienced a range of thoughts, leading to emotions such as joy, frustration, anxiousness, happiness, etc.
What I want you to do now is, recall specifically some of the thoughts you thought during those 20 days in 1998. I pose this thought experiment to many of the people that I counsel, and most will remember absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say you would have most definitely experienced, even if for only for a few minutes – thoughts leading to emotional states such as anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. My question is this: what happened to those thoughts? Well, for starters, those thoughts have dissipated into an oblivion. Like morning fog rolling through the terrain, so too those thoughts have dissipated into space.
The importance of my thought experiment is to highlight how fleeting thoughts are. The problem, however, is that despite our transient thoughts, we often get tangled up in our thoughts and spiral into emotional anguish. Mental suffering occurs when a thought arises, then we attach harmful judgments to those thoughts, thus allowing a strong emotional charge to take over our mind.
If thoughts just simply arise in consciousness only to eventually fade away, then why are so many people tormented by their thoughts? I’m sure that I spent at least three minutes in psychological distress during those 20 days in 1998, only to have those thoughts fade away. But why sabotage myself, even for three minutes of mental anguish, when the initial thought will soon evaporate into the ether?
A healthy way to deal with thoughts is to observe the thought rather than judging or analyzing. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe your reaction. For example, your boss criticizes you for a mistake you made on a project. Rather than identifying with the thought (thought: I can’t do anything right, emotion: self-loathing or sadness), you simply observe the thoughts arise, without critique. Then you choose the appropriate response that is within your control. You may respond my saying, “Okay, now I know better for next time,” or “I need to shift some things around in my life so I can be more effective at work.” But even if emotions of anger or sadness (naturally) creep in, simply observe them.
Why should you avoid judging and analyzing thoughts? Because that’s how emotions get charged. When we attach labels to our thoughts, we pour gasoline on the fire. Before you know it, a thought has turned into ruminating dark thoughts leading to charged emotions.. At this point, you have completely identified with your thoughts. Rather than watching the thought, you have become the thought. Self-sabotage as begun.
Thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. Like large waves that crash and run up onto shore, then recede back into sea. Why fight the waves? Let them come and go. Watch them. You had over a million thoughts fly through your head in the aforementioned 20 days in 1998, and they floated away. You will have a million more thoughts float in your head in the next 20 days, let them come and go.