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I noticed this conversation on Reddit recently. Someone observed: “We think angry thoughts when angry, worried thoughts when anxious, and sad thoughts when sad.” Kinda obvious but worth a second look.
What we talk about when we talk about our thoughts
To be clear – this post is not about the sort of thoughts which lead to solving a logical problem, perfecting a guitar solo or writing code.
It’s about the thinkingness that go on when we’re driving or walking or mumbling to ourself in the shower: An ongoing stream of thoughts that plays out like a perpetual radio.
Sometimes this is pleasant—revisiting memories, forgotten smells, moments spent with lovers or friends, favourite tunes, etc. But not always.
If you’re like me, ‘thought-surfing’ can sometimes spiral into an unpleasant loop triggered by an unexpected comment, a reaction, or just suppressed or repressed feelings that come up.
This ever happen to you? An unpleasant reaction scratches at something unhealed which begins as an irritation and ends up with a full-blown upset?
If the answer is yes—as in, a thought loop can send you skimming the surface of unease, and eventually dipping into a hot unpleasantness… then I hope this post will help you 🙏
What keeps us hooked on thinkingness
The specialness of ‘my’ thoughts
Many teachers say that without meditation it is nearly impossible to ‘understand’ that thoughts are impersonal. Taking credit for them is like taking credit for the water flowing down a stream.
Ironically entire social media complex is built on the notion of ‘my thoughts’
The irresistible emotional payoff they bring
Like the feeling each time our tweet gets a few dozen likes. There is a constant payoff with thoughts - of pleasure, discomfort, envy, judgement, anger…
Another interesting scientific fact is that thoughts and memories are organized according to their associated feeling tones (Gray-LaViolette, 1981).
“Thoughts are filed in the memory bank according to the various shades of feelings associated with those thoughts.
Therefore, when we relinquish or let go of a feeling, we are freeing ourselves from all of the associated thoughts.”
– Letting Go, Dr David R Hawkins
This is why, in a state of anger only memories related to anger keep showing up.
Like opening a folder labelled anger, and then going through all the files in it. What are we going to find in there? Only more anger. That’s the payoff.
This is evident in domestic squabbles or frictions with housemates: we suddenly find ourselves repeating every trivial complaint.
Thoughts are ongoing loops fuelled by underlying feelings.
Like a wave, they rise to our conscious awareness (of their own accord), then ebb away to reveal the next wave. We can't really control them. Most of the time we’re not even entirely aware that we’re surfing.
Some meditation advice suggests that we ought to control them, but I find that this imperative only adds to guilt. It’s easier to realize that thinkingness is pretty autonomous and continuous
The key is to examine the energy behind the thoughts, and to become aware of their underlying feelings.
Did you ever feel a tiny pebble stuck in your shoe that you were too lazy to remove?
Perhaps you walked for a long time, feeling the constant discomfort with each step, but resisted doing anything about it?
Ultimately, got so fed up that you had to stop and shake off that tiny offender.
Then felt good and wondered, why didn’t I do that sooner?
Letting go of underlying painful feelings is just like that. Unexamined, they give rise to entire archipelagos of painful thought.
Fortunately, one of my favourite books (Letting Go: the Pathway to Surrender, David R Hawkins) is a practical manual on the subject.
“Letting go is like the sudden cessation of an inner pressure or the dropping of a weight. It is accompanied by a sudden feeling of relief and lightness, with an increased happiness and freedom.
It is an actual mechanism of the mind, and everyone has experienced it on occasion. A good example is the following.
You are in the midst of an intense argument; you are angry and upset, when suddenly the whole thing strikes you as absurd and ridiculous. You start to laugh. The pressure is relieved. You come up from anger, fear, and feeling attacked to feeling suddenly free and happy.”
— David R Hawkins Letting Go (p. 8). Hay House..
Thoughts aren’t facts. They’re how we feel about facts
The antidote to identifying with our thoughts is simple but not always an easy one. Here’s a little summary:
We realize that that we are not the content of these thoughts.
We realize that we are merely witnessing thoughts.
These thoughts are not 'ours' - they are impersonal (can be a tough one).
Realizing that each thought arises with a little ball of energy - an emotional payoff, or a little ‘reward,’ if you will. It can be positive or negative.
With practice, we can learn to refuse it
As the thought arises, the energy peaks and then diffuses like a note of music.
If we engage or resist it, it grows.
If we disidentify with it, and simply allow it to be there, it will slowly run out
It’s better to recognize this before they are fully formed. That takes a bit of practice.
Mostly, we are fully engaged and identified with the thoughts before we realize it. That's when we get stuck in the loop.
To get out of the loop, we utilize the 'letting go technique' (mentioned in an earlier post).
Mentalization and labels aside, every thought, feeling or emotion is an actual sensation experienced in the body
Observing the sensation and ignoring the labelling is the first step
💆 Mentalization (or the label) to be ignored: I’m feeling fear or anxiety
👉 We focus on the actual sensation: Discomfort in the stomach, dryness of mouth
If you’re struggling with something today
Here’s what letting go looks like in practice.
If you’re not breathing deeply, let’s fix that first.
Close your eyes and slowly inhale until your lungs are full.
Then slowly release it.
Repeat this a few times until you feel calmer.
Now, take a moment to do this:
Focus on sensations, not on thoughts
Take note of every sensation arising
and coming into awareness in the body.
Not in the mind or in thoughts,
just focus on sensations like curled toes,
clenched teeth, dry mouth, pain in the back…
(continue to breathe gently and deeply)
Allow the sensations to prevail
without labelling or calling them anything
(like, ‘it’s my ulcer’)
This is important
Ignore mental pictures.
Ignore all inner dialogue,
and related thoughts that arise.
This may take a few attempts
Welcome the sensation(s) without resisting.
Do this by breathing into the sensations
- let go trying to stop them, or alter them.
If you’re do this right (see #2 to #4),
you will notice that the sensations
are running out.
They are becoming more diffused.
The ball of energy is slowly dissipating.
If not - we gently go back to #1.
The crucial part is not resisting it.
Avoid the thoughts, imagery, labelling,
pushing away the feeling of discomfort.
The end of the year can be an emotional roller-coaster. Not all rides are pleasant, however :) I hope the letting go technique will help you stay off it - if you so choose.
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Wishing you happy holidays or Merry Christmas, whichever you prefer :)
Amogh (see you on Twitter)