How to Observe Your Thoughts

Observing the sunset with Time-Peace
“You only have control over three things in your life:
the thoughts you think, the images you visualize,
and the actions you take.”
-- Jack Canfield

We can sometimes dismiss our thoughts as being unimportant. We figure it doesn’t really matter if we spend all day ruminating about how someone in our past treated us poorly. Maybe we wallow in fears about the future. We might allow our doubts to stop us from pursuing our dreams.

It turns out that thoughts have immense power. Perhaps we could become a wonderful artist, if we could simply find a way to put the discouraging words of our grammar-school teachers out of our head. I know a person who became a talented singer in his fifties. Until then, he’d always assumed he was awful because of a few off-hand comments his mother had made when he was young. Those thoughts had held him back from serene joy and contentment. 

How do you wrangle in unhelpful thoughts when they are so solidly rooted in your mind?


Become Aware of Your Thoughts

The first step is to become aware that these thought cycles are even going on. It can be extremely easy to fall into a rut where the negative thoughts are second nature. Maybe every time we look at the kitchen we think, “I’m an awful cook – I won’t even try.” Maybe when we think about attending a party we replay in our mind every single time someone sent a cruel glance or look our way. There are so many ways we self-sabotage that we might not even recognize it’s going on. We think it’s natural and normal that we refuse to work on a memoir, or explore watercolor painting, or sample healthier foods. 

Try keeping a journal.

Keep track of when negative thoughts tend to slip into your mind. There’s no reason to be upset with yourself when it happens. Avoid judgment or reprimanding yourself. You are simply taking notes right now. You are simply understanding the current state of your environment.

It could be that negative interruptions are happening fewer times than you think, and it’s just that it stands out each time those less-than-useful thoughts flow through. It could also be, though, that the stream of restrictive thoughts comes far more often than you realize. It could be that your daily life has this undercurrent impacting everything you do.

Once you get a handle on what is happening, it’s time to start forging new habits.


Practice Observing Your Thoughts

Now that you’ve given some time to considering the types of thoughts you’re having, it’s the moment to observe them. That means that you watch them drift in as if they were simply a passing cloud.

Thoughts have no weight. They have no agency. They are not coming from any external source. They are merely hiccups in your mind. Maybe they’re echoes of a long-distant past. Maybe they’re loops created by someone in your current life. Wherever they came from, they are simply little electrical signals that happened to fire.

It could be habit that sent another one into motion. It could be a reflexive action like reaching to scratch an itch.

When a negative thought comes into view, notice it as if it were a weather pattern. A fluffy cumulus. A drifting autumn leaf. A spinning whirl in a stream. Think about which sort of imagery works well for you. Maybe try different visions on different days to see how they work. Whichever you explore, the idea is not to give this object much import. It is simply a thought which came into being as it tends to do, because of habits. It is here, it is going to drift by, and then you can renew your focus back on the task at hand.

This thought does not have consciousness of its own. It is just a blink of electrons. It can drift away.

Sometimes thoughts circle back, especially if a habit has been built up over many years. Observing thoughts isn’t generally a one-and-done type of activity. It’s more a training practice, like lifting weights or practicing guitar. At first the road might feel rocky and a struggle. Then, as you get better at it, the process becomes easier and smoother. New habits are formed. A new lifestyle is forged.

Breathe. Let the thoughts drift.

As with most things in life, it becomes easier to manage your thoughts when you get ample sleep. When you eat healthier foods. When you find ways to reduce stress. The better your overall health is, the better able you are to deal with challenges.

Still, do not wait until the perfect opportunity to begin this process. The perfect time to begin is now. The perfect moment to being your observations is the one you are in right now.

Consider what thoughts come through your mind. Observe them. Accept them. And then let them drift on.

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