There is an old song in German that goes like this:
“Our thoughts are free, no one can guess them,
Flying by like shadows in the night,
No one can know them, no hunter can shoot them
It stays like that: thoughts are free”
Is That True?
At the beginning of my meditation training I was nearly positive that it was not possible to influence my thoughts. They felt so real, solid—just given by nature. Over the years I’ve learned that there are many ways to notice my thoughts, to modify them, and to make conscious choices concerning my inner orientation and feeling tone.
As a little girl I liked to be with my mother when she sang the song quoted above. I liked the idea that there is freedom in what and how we are thinking and I really wanted to know more about that. Still now four decades later I can sometimes feel the naive delight of my mind as a child, but I also notice the powerful influence of my own thoughts. Yes, nobody can “see” what we are thinking, but we can notice quite a bit about what’s going on in ourselves and others. Our thoughts are very powerful forces in our lives.
Now I feel that freedom is more related to our ability to not identify with what we are thinking and to not become fixated on our thoughts. It’s liberating to notice that at any moment we can freshly choose the freedom of the present moment. We can drop a thought, even leave a train of thoughts and consciously shift our focus. But this kind of freedom is not necessarily built into our biology.
From an evolutionary perspective, those humans survived who were very good at successfully reacting to dangerous and difficult situations, and keeping them in mind. So today our memory is five times better and stronger with regard to dangerous or negative situations as compared to positive and beautiful moments! Maybe it still serves our survival, but it also makes it more difficult to interact in easy and positive ways and to really be content with what is.
It’s not very satisfying to notice that our thoughts and emotions are constantly circling around the one big problem of our current life and less around all the beautiful and relaxing aspects next to it. In the morning we might wake up with this one thought in mind and so it doesn’t come easy to us to start the day with good energy and optimism.
We were born into a fully-formed world, with myriad habits and behaviors that we had to learn from our parents and society, otherwise we couldn’t have survived. A main player in this game are our thoughts. They are in some way our inner communication and management system that keeps us doing the “right” behaviors and avoiding the “wrong” behaviors. Information comes in from the different senses and our nervous system processes them more or less unconsciously. But if there are decisions to make or we find ourselves in more complex situations, thought processes are needed. Also these are often not conscious. In the midst of daily life most of our thoughts and thought chains are below the level of being noticed. Nevertheless they are the main coloring and control agent in our way of experiencing.
We all have more than 50,000 thoughts a day and each thought only stays a very short time before the next thought is there. Also, about 98% of our thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday. If it wasn’t this way, we would change so radically from day to day that we could scarcely be recognized. So thoughts influence our relationships, our daily experiences, and our future in powerful ways. In some sense, the entire organism is biased to keep thoughts stable.
Where thoughts go, energy goes! Waking up with heavy thoughts, we can easily see how they can pull us down. Approaching a certain person in our life with a negative mindset, we can notice how this bias keeps us and the situation bound in a challenging energy. We might constantly think about how we really don’t like this person and find proof for our opinion all over the place.
If we can notice that this is happening inside of our own mind and observe its patterns, then we can allow our awareness to open and look for different aspects about this person or the situation. According to the Buddha, our suffering is directly related to how heavy and real we take things to be. A little space might change our stuckness and even our situation one thought at a time.
Noticing a little freedom, a little decrease in suffering, a new, constructive dynamic can begin, one that can influence our mind, our days, and our interactions. This again can change our outlook and our thoughts. We might say that the new dynamic is an orientation towards the mental space in which this is happening rather than towards thoughts. The thoughts are still coming, but a bright new player has entered the game.
A little thought might arise in our mind. Its nature is to proliferate, so it can grow as similar thoughts, then emotions, wishes. A little worldview arises with good things to have and bad things to reject. The more this happens we might start to talk about it and finally act something out. This is a classic chain. Thoughts are often on the subtle side of those chains, but they play powerful roles all the way through. If we decide not to continue and follow thought patterns we notice as being negative, we might find ourselves after some time in a totally different mindset. But usually it’s not easy to leave challenging trains of thought. And as I said, there are evolutionary (and therefore biological) and other reasons for that.
Our Choice and Possibility
In our modern world, where sabretooth tigers do not lurk behind the next corner, we have more options to choose from than we had in our distant past. This might feel like having freedom, freedom to eat this or that, to take a hot or a cold shower, to drive this way or another one… But for me a special freedom is when I can choose a positive inner orientation and contentment over a negative one. This is a liberating freedom beyond the freedom of nice thoughts or beautiful drives.
Still, especially when I’m tired or overwhelmed, I find myself in habitual patterns that feel very unfree. In those moments it helps me to notice what’s going on, to stay calm and to give myself love and inner space until it changes inevitably again.
– Thoughts and Relationships:
– Your Thoughts Create Your World:
– Rick Hanson: Hardwiring Happiness
Have a great week!