I am not my thoughts. It might sound dramatic, but this simple combination of words might have saved my life.
There is a voice that speaks to each of us from within our own minds. This voice speaks with authority and certainty, often building superficial edifices atop the foundations of our lived experience. These stories that the voice crafts can take on a variety of tenors, but for many of us, they tend toward rumination on our inadequacies and mistakes. This is the voice of our inner critic, and for most of my life I have believed that this voice was me.
Early in my life I was taught to neatly divide the world into dualistic categories. Things were either right or wrong; righteous or sinful. I first noticed my inner critic as the voice that would let me know what a worthless sinner I was. “Man, you are a horrible person,” the voice would tell me. “I can’t believe you are thinking about that.” My inner critic extended beyond my moral failings, however. The voice would churn over whether something I had said had caused someone to dislike me. It would criticize me for my appearance, and for not being “cool” enough. It even paralyzed me from taking certain positive actions, because I would craft some long chain of events that my action could set into motion.
There have been a couple of times in my life when my relationship with this voice has taken me into a dark place. Once, in my early 20s, I was struggling with loneliness and some really difficult circumstances, including a brief period of homelessness. Into the void in which I felt trapped came the voice, telling me that I was a fuck up who had ruined his life, and that I would never escape from this hole. It told me that all of my friends had left me because they couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I believed every word that the voice spoke to me. Thankfully, things did get better, and I came out of the experience without harming myself too much.
A couple of years ago, when I first started having real problems in my marriage, the voice took me to a dark place again. I had built so much of my identity on this relationship, that I began to lose myself when things began to crumble. The voice began to tell me that I was going to live the rest of my life alone. It told me that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. I heard the phrase, “I hate myself,” repeated on a nearly constant loop. This time, I began to think that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. Again, I believed every word that this voice spoke to me.
This was my state of mind when I first discovered meditation. I want to be clear from the beginning, I don’t believe that meditation is a panacea that will solve all your problems. The truth is that I should have pursued help during this period of my life. I wallowed in this state for nearly a year, when I probably could have eased some of my suffering by going into therapy, or at very least opening up to some of the people around me. That being said, one of the first things that I learned as I began to meditate did completely change my life. In fact, given the trajectory that I was on, it might very well have saved my life.
When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I felt like I had come into shelter from standing in the middle of a tornado. I broke down in tears. The realization that this voice that had plagued me my entire life was just a thought, and that I could just acknowledge its presence and watch the words fade away without accepting them as truth, was liberating in a way that I had never experienced. I didn’t create these thoughts, they just sort of happened to me. Why did I take ownership of them? Why did I believe these thoughts?
I began to practice noticing when the voice started to speak to me. I worked on not trying to fight the voice, but just to notice it, watching it live out its half-life and slowly fade away. By not pushing it away or latching onto it, I noticed that the voice seemed to lose a lot of its power over time. The thoughts didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t feel owned by them as often.
Whenever people ask me about how meditation has benefitted me, it can be hard to know what changes to attribute to my practice. My life has changed in a lot of positive ways over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I can specifically pinpoint what things have caused my growth in different areas. I have read a number of really great books from a variety of perspectives that have informed my thoughts recently. I’m also just a little older and have benefited from lessons that experience has taught me. The one thing that I can definitely attribute to meditation, however, is the relationship that I have with my inner critic. The ability to less frequently attach to this voice has helped me be more compassionate with myself. I don’t really catch myself descending the downward spiral like I used to. When I do start to listen to that voice berating me, I tend to catch myself before I get too far along the path of self-judgement and recrimination.
I am not an expert on meditation, so this is just me sharing what my personal experience has been. This is the basic practice that helped me initially. I’m happy to discuss this further with anyone, so please feel free to comment below, email or tweet me if you have questions or comments.
I have found that having a regular meditation practice is a key component to strengthening the ability to notice the thoughts as they arise. The basic concentration practice that I used was simply to focus on the feeling of the breath going in an out. I start of with a soft mental note of “in” on the in breath, and “out” on the out breath. Eventually (sometimes within a single breath, sometimes longer), you will become distracted by a thought popping into your head. This might take the form of thinking about a situation at work, fantasizing about that person you have been thinking about asking out, or thinking about how uncomfortable you are on your cushion; it can be any of the countless thoughts that come into our minds throughout the day. When you notice that the thought has arisen, note it softly as, “thinking.” Then return your focus to the feeling of your breath. Repeat as often as necessary. No need to judge yourself or get frustrated. This is how meditation works for all of us, so no reason to beat yourself up, no matter how often you get distracted.
After establishing this practice, I started to apply the same technique off of the cushion. Throughout the day I might notice that my inner critic has made an appearance. When I noticed that old voice chiming in again, I just noted that I was “thinking,” took a beat to watch the thoughts play out and disappear, and then moved on with my life.
My hope is that my experience can help someone else who might be experiencing the same thing I did. May you have peace and live with ease!