Have you ever noticed, really noticed, how identified you are with your thoughts? Maybe you don’t even know what that means. It means there is nothing between you and your thoughts. You are your thoughts. Most of us live this way, not knowing there is an alternative. We think a thought, and totally believe it. It starts from the moment we wake up until we sleep. The train of thought never stops and we are absorbed and believe each one. “I didn’t sleep well,” “Wow, the traffic today,” “He pissed me off,” “I’m always late,” “I need to lose weight,” – all of these are opinions the mind creates in response to the external world.
Thoughts are like clouds – constantly changing with the atmosphere. One day, you love your job, the next, the mind tells you to quit. You don’t question any of it, accepting every thought as true- even if the opposite was thought the day, hour, or minute before. The mind just wants to lure us in, tantalize us with its next new idea, or old idea we’ve thought a million times. It wants to get us charged up about it, identified with it, accepting of it, and then keep the hypnosis going with the next shiny bauble and the next.
This keeps us from noticing what’s really going on around us: life. The curtain of thoughts stands between us and the present moment, a filter on top of reality. Reality is that I am a woman sitting in a room on a computer typing words. Mind-identified reality is that as I am writing my knee hurts, I want to stop, I need to check my messages, my writing sucks, I’m hungry, I can’t wait for the weekend, why am I even trying?
The mind thinks it knows it all and is always trying to stay one step ahead of everything as a form of protection. And then it makes a worst-case scenario of any issue to try and help us prepare for it. “Your knee hurts- you know you probably tore something, better get an MRI,” “Your boss didn’t reply to your email, you’re going to get fired.” Then a week later the knee is better, and the boss writes back, and then the mind has to make up something else, some other problem.
The know-it-all mind also pigeonholes people in all of our relationships into boxes based on past experience, therefore not allowing room for the person to be any different. Then we react to them based on the past, so they react like they always have, and on and on. We are rarely present enough to experience others without these filters pasted onto them.
Think of the sense organs: the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. We receive information about our environment from these organs. The mind can also be compared to a sense organ. Just as the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind thinks. That is its function. We don’t take it personally when we hear sounds, or see things. The eyes and nose are simply receiving neutral information. But we take thoughts very personally, when in reality, the mind is just thinking, as the eyes are seeing.
A life lived totally identified with thought is not peaceful or fulfilling. It’s like trying to build a house in the desert. Strong desert winds whip the sand around, constantly shifting the contours of the land. It’s difficult to build anything because the ground is soft and in perpetual change. There is no foundation or stability because there’s no firm rock to build on. When we base our happiness on believing everything we think, we get tossed around. When we learn to find another anchor of focus – the present moment – we find peace.
How do we begin to change these habits? How do we put a stick in the spokes of the wheels of habitual thoughts to create space for new patterns, and space for just, space?
There are many methods. One of these is using a mantra. A mantra is simply a set of words that you repeat that help still the mind and disengage from the chatter. One of the most powerful mantras to stop the mind in its tracks is “I Don’t Know.” Try it the next time you notice you’re absorbed in thinking. Say the mantra in response to the thoughts, and then bring yourself into presence by taking a conscious breath, focusing on your surroundings and what you are doing in the moment. Bring yourself out of the mind and into the body. Out of the mind and into sensations and locations. This practice creates space, and relief. When applied consistently, you will experience peace. A peaceful mind is a peace-filled life.
For me, this mantra is most valuable when I am presented with new information, judge someone, or start to go down an everything-is-wrong spiral. I think “I don’t know” and then follow it with the context of the thought:
I don’t know if my boss really hates me. I don’t know why she didn’t answer my email. I don’t know if my knee hurts because I tore a ligament. I don’t know if he did that on purpose. I don’t know much about that. I also like “I don’t know anything about that thought.” Then I let it go, and it becomes easier to let the next thought go, and the next.
This mantra works well with The Work of Byron Katie. This is another form of questioning our thoughts, so as to dis-identify with them. The Work is four questions to contemplate regarding a thought or judgment. They are:
Is the thought true?
Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
How do I feel when I believe the thought?
Who am I without the thought?
Practicing The Work as well as repeating the I Don’t Know mantra helps us to be able to step back from identifying with and believing all of our thoughts. I invite you to start to break this subtle undercurrent of suffering in your life. Each time you question a thought’s validity or truth, space is created where the light of awareness can shine in, and you wake up to the beauty of life lived in deeper presence, inner stillness, and peace.