Each time that I teach about thoughts I ask my students to answer the question, “What is a thought?” The question is usually met with blank expressions, long pauses and the eventual response of, “Well, it’s whatever you think about.” Take a minute to answer this question for yourself – how would you define thoughts? If you’re coming up short don’t worry, I’ve been studying, thinking and teaching about thoughts for years and I still come to different conclusions – I think. The trouble with thoughts is that we have to use thinking to understand them. The brain is literally the most complex system that mankind has ever discovered, and we’re trying to use it to understand itself. This circular pattern seems to inevitably lead to frustration and mystery, and though we know more about the brain now than any other time in history a professor of mine once described our current knowledge as analogous to transporting a formula-one race car back in time to the stone age. We might be able to poke at it with some sticks, maybe realize that air comes out of the tires if we pop them and fluids might come out of certain places, but ultimately our knowledge is severely limited by the tools at our disposal.
The other trouble with thoughts is that they don’t exist – at least not in any concrete sense. From what we do know they are nothing more than a collection of sodium, potassium, a little bit of glucose and an electrical charge. Somehow the movement of these things creates cognition for us – a memory triggered by a particular scent, a self-berating comment, a hope for the future or a running commentary on what we perceive at any given moment. Despite the benign and abstract nature of thoughts, most of us give an inordinate amount of power to them. We allow our thoughts to dictate our decisions, our moods, our relationships with others and our moment to moment actions. Yet, at any moment we could choose to acknowledge a thought for what it is; not a concrete reality but a product of our own creation, and it would cease to exist, to have power over us. This sort of acceptance is difficult for most people because it challenges a basic assumption we have about our world – that our thoughts reflect reality. In truth, our thoughts are merely a subjective interpretation of an objective world based on years of memories, experiences and biases. The only thing we know for sure that exists, in any objective sense, is our actions. It is what we do, not what we think, that defines our existence.
So why all this esoteric talk on the nature of thoughts and reality? Everything we teach in our lessons is intended to be empowering – to arm kids with the tools necessary to deal with life’s challenges in a productive and healthy way. Without explicitly learning about how thoughts influence our behaviors and emotions, most kids grow to accept that they have little to no control over their thoughts and, therefore, no control over how they feel and act. This disempowered stance leads to stress, depression and typically unhealthy relationships with others. If, on the other hand, our students can develop an understanding of the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviors they are then empowered to make choices about their reality.
They could choose to identify and dispute unhealthy thoughts. When faced with a bully, for instance, our students are now aware of “thinking errors,” and can dispute a black & white thought such as, “No one will ever like me,” with a more productive thought like, “This one person may not like me, but I have plenty of friends and family who care about me.”
They could choose to target their behaviors knowing that it will most likely result in changes in their emotions and thoughts. A student who is feeling down, for instance, might now realize that isolating and spending a lot of time alone in their room would perpetuate their unhappiness and that simply going for a run, calling a friend or doing something they enjoy would produce positive results in their mood and thoughts.
Or, given some practice, they might choose to simply accept thoughts as they come and acknowledge them as fleeting, temporary things that need not dictate their life. They could choose to practice some of the mindfulness techniques we have practiced in class. In a sense, they could do “nothing” about their thoughts, in the most powerful sense of the word. Ultimately they could choose to realize that they are not their thoughts, they are not their emotions and they are not even what others think about them. They are what they repeatedly do. Their relationships with others are tied directly to how they treat others. Their emotions are not a result of circumstance or chance, they are a reflection of personal choices. Their thoughts do not need to own them, rather, they can own their thoughts.