“Don’t believe everything you think!”
That’s a favorite quote of mine that I always share in a program I present called “Happiness is an Inside Job,” and these words are usually greeted by laughter and recognition.
“But don’t stop thinking,” I always add. “As if you could!”
As most of us know, especially those who meditate, it’s not easy or possible to stop thinking for very long. Our minds are usually very busy, which is why, if you are trying to do mindfulness meditation, the job is to come back to the breath and not get hijacked by the mind.
A deeper look into the injunction against believing what we think reveals a cluster of reasons to avoid attaching beliefs to thoughts.
First, we can recognize that thinking isn’t separate from the rest of our body. As recent discoveries in neuroscience and positive psychology show, what we think shapes our minds and creates neural connections. The axiom “what’s wired together, fires together” refers to the strengthening of networks created by what we think.
Going deeper, thoughts link to feelings, which link to body chemistry, which create the truth that our minds and bodies are truly not separate. When someone tells you that something is “just in your head,” they ignore how your head actually is in your body. They are inseparable. The saying “children believe what they see, and adults see what they believe” reminds us how subjective our sense of “truth” can be. Most of us have an internal emotional and intellectual landscape where “my truth” resides.
Of course, we think all the time and much of what we think is neutral in effect. Our normal lives engage us in planning, creating, discussing, and learning. But thinking in certain kinds of absolutes, with words like “always,” “never,” and “forever,” can trigger a range of emotions that may, as Buddhists might note, create suffering. And, when what we think creates a cascade of uncomfortable feelings such as grief, longing, anger, resentment, guilt, blame, or sadness, then it’s worth reminding ourselves that we generated those feelings through whatever thoughts our minds produced.
We need to develop strategies that will train us to identify what the feeling is, acknowledge it, and then substitute something more positive. In the same way we distract a whining child from something it wants with an offer of something else, we can do the same for our minds. Reliable substitutes for misery are gratitude, love, blessings, and generosity. Kindness—to ourselves and to others—provides an antidote to vindictive and judgmental thinking.
We need to remember that thoughts are tools, not truths. As Stephen Levine, a highly-regarded teacher and author whose books on meditation and death and dying are classics in their field, used to say: “The mind is a wonderful tool and a terrible master.”
Don’t let your mind turn you into its slave. Declare your freedom…you really don’t have to believe every single thing you think.
Rebecca Crichton is executive director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and she is a certified coach.