It often seems so obvious, but yet it is so easy to forget. Just like we forget where we put our car keys or our wallets- it seems as easy to forget that the self we identify so strongly with is not even really there.
It seems to happen to me more often when I do not meditate. Without a method in place that allows me to step back and just watch how my thoughts are a continual process of coming and going, it becomes much easier for me to believe that there is actually a separate self who is living in my head, thinking these thoughts. When we fail to recognize thoughts as just thoughts, as appearances in our consciousness, we all fall victim to the same illusion.
The habitual identification with thought is without a doubt the primary source of human suffering. As a psychotherapist, I would probably be out of business if individuals were able to not identify with the plethora of thoughts that are continually appearing and disappearing from their consciousness (there would also be much less violence, war, greed, fear and hurt in the world).
Thinking is indispensable to us. It is the foundation for our social relationships, academics, science and cultural institutions. Constructive, engaged and focused thinking is indeed a wonderful thing that I recommend everyone engage in more. But it is the constant and unconscious identification with habitual, ruminative, negative (worry, judgment, remorse) thinking and the failure to be able to notice these thoughts as just thoughts (not realities), that is the culprit of so much, if not all, of our suffering (unhappiness).
To our own detriment we define who we are, we identify our self as being this continual mental chatter that is going on in our heads. Sam Harris, the author of the indispensable book on mindfulness called Wake Up, describes the self as: “The illusory, albeit reliable, source of so much suffering and confusion- is the feeling that there is an inner subject, behind our eyes, thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experience.” Most of us actually believe that our self is this separate and unique person that lives in our heads! Most sane neurobiologists will tell you that if your were able to look into your head you would find that no such person is actually there!
An illusion is defined as a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses. It is a deceptive appearance or impression. We continually wrongly perceive and interpret our continual stream of thoughts and emotions as coming from a unique and separate self who we believe actually lives somewhere behind our eyes and is the one thinking these thoughts and feeling these emotions! But if you spend more time really looking closely at what is really going on here what you will notice is that the self, ego or what we often refer to as ‘I” is not really there at all. Instead there is just just a continual stream of thoughts and emotions without any tangible self.
The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi said, “The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is a thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.” The moment that you just stop and observe your thoughts, without habitually identifying with them, what you will notice is that the person who you normally believe lives somewhere behind your eyes, your self, will vanish. All of the negative thoughts and emotions that you identify so strongly with, will go with it.
When we live our lives identified with an illusion, the end result can only be a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. Henry David Thoreau said: “Most men lead quiet lives of desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau believed that within all of us there is something much greater that is always waiting to escape. In order to set it free, first we must stop identifying with the very thing that is holding it hostage- the illusion of our self.
Don’t take my word for it. Try it now. Stop thinking so much for just thirty seconds. Focus your attention on your breathing. Notice your feet touching the ground. What does that feel like?Become aware of the sounds that you are hearing. Can you smell anything? Become aware of sensations in your body like tension, pressure, pain, heat, cold and pulsations. Become aware of your thoughts but keep your attention on your present moment experience. Stay here. Notice how your thoughts are just like images moving across a movie screen. They come and go. Same with emotions. Even if just for a brief moment, what you may notice is that the illusory self that you identify so intensely with, drops away (and so much unnecessary pain and suffering goes with it).
As a result, notice how something much greater starts to come out.