4. Thoughts can be 'Selected'

November 28, 2023

The notion that 'I' is an illusion, and the attempts to fight against thoughts always culminate in failure, can leave us feeling hopeless. If thoughts are not fabricated by our will, and we are told not to fight the negative thoughts that emerge within different situations, then what exactly are we supposed to do? Should we just accept as they arise? Does this mean that life is inherently difficult, so we should just resign and bear it?

There's a very important fact to remember. You have now understood the concept that 'thoughts are merely psychological events that arise within the mind.' A significant shift occurs from this understanding. If you can comprehend and internalize the fact that 'thoughts are simply psychological events that arise within the mind', you then have the ability to chose how to respond to any thought. We do not need to react to every thought that arises in our mind. Systematic training based on cognitive science may be required, but we have the 'choice' in responding to a particular thought.

The illusion of 'I' reveals we have no freedom. However, paradoxically, by truly understanding this, we gain freedom. If a thought is merely a psychological event, we don't need to identify our self with it. Can you remember how you reacted when you found negative thoughts and emotions surfacing in your mind? We always either succumb, overcompensate, or avoid it. No matter the method, none were effective. But, what if at that moment, a thought like this could come to mind: "Right now, such a thought is arising within me. It's just a psychological event."

There lies a significant difference between the thoughts "Damn, I feel like I'm going to die from anxiety," and "I'm having a thought that I'm anxious." While the former strongly identifies with the thought, receiving a potent influence from the psychological event in mind, the latter separates oneself from the thought, creating a space while observing it as a mere psychological event. By creating this space, we can insert different choices. These choices will be entirely directed towards our values, that is, towards living the life we desire.

Figure 1. "Damn, I feel like I'm going to die from anxiety" (On the right side is popcorn, that is, thoughts)

Figure 2. "I am having thoughts of anxiety right now"

"Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice." This quote by Siddhartha Gautama aligns precisely with discoveries in modern cognitive science. We cannot prevent painful thoughts from appearing in our minds. We all experience pain. Is it not plausible that one in three of us face severe mental health issues in our lifetime? We all feel frustration. Sometimes we suffer from childhood memories we wish to erase. We experience humiliation at work and feelings of despair when efforts we had high hopes for and poured energy into, collapse. We part with loved ones, or see parents and children pass away before us. Can we prevent negative thoughts and emotions from surfacing in our minds throughout these experiences? We cannot.

However, we don't need to indulge in the illusion that these painful thoughts are 'us' and resign, or overcompensate, or avoid them, thereby wasting away the majority of our lives. We don't need to gnaw at ourselves, suffering incessantly in constant pain. If we can view thoughts as mere psychological events and not react to them, we won't need to. In other words, while we cannot prevent painful thoughts and emotions from surfacing in our lives, whether we react to them and suffer as a result is our choice.

This statement accurately represents the primary theories of modern cognitive therapy. However, understanding and embodying this is no easy task. Knowing this as mere knowledge and being able to act upon it are entirely different matters. Embodying this requires much effort. Of course, not everyone in modern society needs to reach this realization via spiritual practice like Siddhartha Gautama, as systematic and scientific methodologies have been well developed. The important factor is our mind. The cause for depression and anxiety is not external events or memories, not even hormones, but our mind that observes these. This is the solitary realization discovered by practitioners through thousands of years of history, the dominant theory of modern cognitive science, the common backbone of psychological therapy, and the only secret that spiritual leaders like Steve Jobs have firmly believed in and followed.

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