You Are Not Your Thoughts

Brain
I’ve been reflecting a bit today on my seminary experience, which culminated in an M.A. in Religion. My five-year graduate school journey began at George Fox Evangelical Seminary (now Portland Seminary) and ended at the Earlham School of Religion. It was a challenging but wonderful experience.
 
I went into seminary with the narrowly focused goal of going deep into the study of Quakerism. But, as often happens in an educational setting, one gets exposed to new ideas, and all kinds of rich avenues of inquiry open up. New worlds appear. It really is true that the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. It’s humbling. It’s thrilling.
 
For all the book-reading and paper-writing and group-discussing and thesis-papering and theologizing, I can say without hesitation that the most profound, world-rocking, paradigm-shifting, life-altering thing I learned while in seminary was something very, very simple:
 
You are not your thoughts.
 
I first encountered this statement in a book by a Benedictine nun named Sister Mary Margaret Funk. But then I encountered it again and again, expressed in various ways, by everyone from Christian mystics to Buddhist monks. From Jesus to Buddha. From the apostle Paul in the first century to Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams in the twenty-first century. From Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century to Thich Nhat Hanh in the twentieth century. From John Cassian to Pema Chodron. From the venerable abbas and ammas of the Egyptian desert to medieval Catholic saints to early Quakers to Zen masters to Hindus to Taoists to Sufis. This idea kept coming up.
 
You are not your thoughts.
 
Recently, I heard this slightly unappetizing analogy: Just as the liver and gall bladder produce bile, so the brain secretes thoughts. This occurs without any conscious effort on your part–it just happens naturally. It’s the way the organ functions. But just as you are not your bile, you are not your thoughts. Bile is necessary, thoughts are necessary–but they aren’t who you are.
 
This idea, when grasped experientially (through tried-and-true practices such as Christian contemplation and/or Buddhist meditation), brings about a radical shift. You can step back and observe your thoughts. They aren’t you; they are ephemeral mental events that appear, exist for a moment, and then dissipate. You can choose whether or not to engage a thought when it arises; whether to energize and embody it; or whether to just allow it to slip on by and disappear.
 
There is within you what Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault calls “a mysterious chooser” which is separate from your thoughts and deeper at the core of your being. When you realize that this is so, it opens up a gap–a space–between you and your thoughts. And this gap allows you to decide how you will react (or not react) as you observe the stream of thoughts constantly flowing by. The ancient Christian desert monastics called this practice nepsis–“watchfulness of thoughts.” Once you realize you can do this, you can’t unrealize it.
 
You are not your thoughts.
 
By developing this detached and watchful attitude to one’s thoughts, one is no longer controlled by them; no longer tossed to and fro; no longer reacting and then wondering what the hell happened. One begins to notice increasing levels of patience, perspective, simplicity, equanimity, compassion, morality, transformation, and freedom. Of course, mastering this skill is a life-long process.
 
So there you go… You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to get the most valuable lesson I learned in seminary. You’re welcome.
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