One of the most powerful realizations I have ever experienced is that I am not my thoughts, I am not my feelings but that I am the observer of my thoughts and my feelings.
Marianne Williamson uses the example of a lamp in a home to illustrate this. She says most people are on under the assumption that they are the lamp (their body and mind) or that they are the light that is created by the lamp (our thoughts, daily emotions, actions and impact). She says we are the electricity, the energy that powers and produces the light, with the help of the lamp. I love that analogy.
People speak of the moment they understand that this is true, and usually it is moments of a “breaking open.” There false ideas of what makes them themselves (like a breakup, or a job loss, or an illness or death) helps them to realize they weren’t the “lamps” they thought they were and it forces them to try to understand themselves as the electricity that runs through the lamp. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroscientist discovered it after she had a stroke and for an extended time, lived completely out of her right brain, completely free from thought, identity and ego chatter. She experienced pure consciousness. She writes about this in her book, “My Stroke of Insight.”
I understood it in a dream. I was in an elevator with a bunch of panicked people. We were escaping a street full of mayhem, shooters and building crumbling. The elevator began to drop as the building crumbled, and we began to tumble onto one another like a washing machine churning. I realized I was going to die and would likely experience pain but I also realized that I wasn’t ending, and the voice that would continue on was comforting my physical self. I realized I was the voice. Sometimes I understand things in dreams I don’t really “get” in my waking hours. I finally understood myself as the energy, not as my mind or my body.
For the longest time, I was living in complete reactivity to my thoughts. The thought was there so of course it must be true! I believed my truest self was speaking through my thoughts and my feelings until I realized, that if that was true, my truest self must be a raving lunatic. On some days, she felt great, and the world was a beautiful abundant place. On other days, everything and everyone was out to get her. Listening and attaching to my thoughts was an emotional roller coaster.
I started slowly waking up to the fact that I couldn’t rely on my thoughts to separate fact from fiction, truth from fairy tale. Living in my thoughts and following them to their winding and often dark emotional destinations was leaving me stressed, distracted, burnt out and feeling the urge to numb or quiet the thoughts with food, technology, and booze. They left me constantly in a state of fear, victim-hood and living completely in the past and future instead of the present moment.
So, how do we stop over-thinking?
The truth is we can’t stop overthinking any more than we can stop our bodies from digesting food. Our brain is an organ just like our stomach is and the left brain’s whole job is to think, to ask “why” something is happening, to engage in constant commentary of the present moment, to forecast what is going to happen next, to spew judgments about ourselves and others, to compare us to others. It is its very nature to spin a narrative and look for confirming data over and over again.
And our emotional bodies react to those thoughts. As we attach to each new thought being true, we will notice our body emotionally expanding or contracting.
The mind’s job, at the very root of it all is to keep us emotionally and physically safe and because of that, it is negativity bias. It is always looking for what is not working or what could go wrong and it uses our past experiences as a road map for avoiding potential physical or emotional land mines. It is constantly trying to figure out how to avoid painful or uncomfortable situations by projecting them onto the future.
It’s not possible to shut our minds off, or telling our thoughts to shut up and sit down. They are just doing their job. The more you think about how your thoughts are wrong or try to resist them, the more entrapped you are in the realm of thoughts. It is rather about understanding their role and inquiring into their actual truth.
Thoughts can be incredible tools to build a house or to tear down a house. We just have to choose them consciously.
In the moments we notice our thoughts spinning, we need to practice feeding the observer more and more; the meta-computer that recognizes the software. This breaks the chain of thoughts.
There are many words people use for the observer from a spiritual perspective; soul, source energy, spirit, awakened presence, but even if those words or ideas don’t resonate, we can still recognize this presence within us, the electric energy. We can most easily recognize it when time stops are we are pure experience. Some people feel it on the top of a mountain or in a yoga class. Others feel it onstage. Others experience it when they are playing sports. Others yet experience while performing surgery or in church. The common denominator? We are relying on deep personal knowing rather than thoughts.
So, how can we connect and feed this part of ourselves, so that our thoughts don’t have as much power.
When you are experiencing stressful thought, one of the most powerful hacks you can use in the moment to shift awareness from your mind to your body is to breathe consciously. An emotion only lives in our body for 90 seconds if we let it run its course. However, if we refuel the story and narrative, it will trigger the sensation again. Take 10 sleep and slow breaths, focusing only on the inflow and outflow of your breath for a minute and a half. Count them in and out to amplify focus. Put your hand on your chest and allow yourself to feel whatever is going on fully until it starts to diminish. If you are re-triggered by another stressful thought, breathe again.
2. Notice your common offender stressful thought patterns/ and behaviors.
After allowing yourself to breath and feel, you can analyze what is going on. Feeling stressed or burnt out is a really good sign that you are trapped in a cycle of over-thinking. Your body is reacting to each thing that could go wrong, each self-judgment as if it is truth, and having a crazy internal experience when everything in the present moment is actually the same. Start tracking the common offender thoughts and you will start to see some patterns. Your stress typically leads you down the path to your deeper fears.
What behaviors tend to spark these stressful thoughts?
It could be something like checking social media or weighing ourselves every day. If it is fuel for your obsessive thinking and stressful, it may be best to create boundaries around them.
3. Reality check your stressful thoughts.
Ask yourself if the thought is unequivocally true. Do you have enough data to freak out? Is it absolutely true that “x, y, z” is going to happen? How do you interact with the world when I think that is going to happen? Are there examples where the opposite is true? Is the thought helping you or hurting you? It can help to journal this out and get the obsessive thoughts out of your mind and on paper. A great resource for this is “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie.
4. Notice the activities in your life where you consistently experience pure presence.
Undoubtedly, we all have activities in our lives where we are free from cluttering and obsessive thinking, where we are in the “zone” of pure experience, where we are operating mostly from our right brain. For some, this is yoga, others meditation. For some it is listening to music or taking soul strolls in the mountains, swimming or dancing. Start to pay attention and track the activities that feed you in this way, and therefore start to train yourself to operate from this place more and more.
5. Create daily self-care rituals around these activities.
Choose 1-2 activities that you can start to create ritual and habitual practices around what feeds the deeper self in your daily life. It could look like 20 minutes of meditation a day and a couple of hikes a week. Plus, there tend to be added bonuses to these practices for your body and mind (fitness, lower stress levels, more efficient problem solving). Start small and then add practices on.
In order to stop over-thinking, we must first have the awareness that we are not our thoughts, they aren’t necessarily true, they are often springing from trying to avoid past pain and that they are just doing their job. Our job is then to feed “the beast” of the observer, the electricity and of present moment consciousness more and more.
Rock On & Be Well,