Your thoughts aren’t what make you who you are

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The question

Last week, while everyone was enjoying the spring weather, I was in a really bad mood. Everything was bugging me — my noisy neighbors, my kids’ complaining, my allergies, my mounting bills and my endless to-do list. I felt like I should have been happy, but I was drowning in negativity. Is there something wrong with me?

 

Seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes is famously quoted as saying “I think, therefore I am.” But the latest psychological research suggests otherwise – that we are not our thoughts nor our feelings. In fact, the research points more to what Buddhists and meditators have known for years — that our minds effortlessly produce an endless stream of both positive and negative thoughts and emotions that are pretty much beyond our control.

Sad, mad, glad, bad (feeling guilt or disgust) and afraid are the primary colors of human emotions. We can expect to cycle through variations of these feelings several times on any given day, week or month. Just as our thoughts trigger feelings (believing something is wrong with us makes us feel bad), our feelings conversely trigger thoughts (a feeling of sadness may prompt us to find an explanation).

In her book “Radical Acceptance,” psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Tara Brach talks about the “trance of unworthiness” that comes about when people criticize themselves for experiencing undesirable but perfectly natural emotions. Drawing from Buddhist wisdom, she notes that emotions are nothing but body sensations, which are, by nature, fleeting. Instead of recognizing them for what they are, we make ourselves feel worse when we react to them and give them power to define us, believing that our negative thoughts make us a bad person.

What’s more, Brach notes the more we resist our sensations through distractions, the more they persist. Instead, she suggests welcoming the full range of human experience by assuming a practice of “saying yes,” to whatever thought and feeling sensations arise in the moment – yes, to the noisy neighbors, yes to complaining kids, yes to dread about mounting bills, and even yes to allergies.

Noticing and welcoming our experiences doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of how our bills piled up, or why our children are complaining. But eliminating the layer of resistance allows us to soften into a gentler way of being so that we are less reactive and have more energy to face life as messy and wonderful as we find it.



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