You could make the argument that we spend more time thinking than doing anything else, and you’d probably be right.
But despite all this time we spend thinking—the average person has over 50,000 thoughts a day1—how often do we question or examine the way we relate to our thoughts?
For example, where do your thoughts come from?
Do you believe everything that pops into your head?
Do your thoughts represent who you are as a person?
Are you the voice behind your thoughts?
We’re conditioned to believe that we are the voice behind our thoughts.
At first glance, this seems to make sense. After all, is there anything more personal than our thoughts? Thoughts obviously occur in our minds alone, and we are the only one who will ever experience them. So what could represent our “true self” more than the internal dialogue that seemingly narrates and interprets every moment of our life experience?
To answer this question, we must first ask: where do thoughts come from?
There are two major perspectives on where thoughts come from. I’m sure there are more formal names for each, but for the purposes of this article, let’s call them the self-created theory and the mind-created theory.
THE SELF-CREATED THEORY OF THOUGHT
The “self-created” theory argues that you are the voice behind your thoughts. According to the self-created theory, your thoughts are a direct extension of your identity—your character, personality, and true desires.
Every thought supposedly happens for a reason because your identity is connected to everything you think—so if you were to have what some religions consider to be “impure” thoughts, you would be considered an impure person or a sinner by those guidelines.
The self-created theory argues that you are the voice behind your thoughts,
and that thoughts are an extension of self.
“Self-created” is the way most of us grow up relating to our thoughts, especially if we were raised in religious households. People who subscribe to this theory are particularly vulnerable to feelings of shame and inadequacy, because they feel personally responsible for the content of each and every thought that arises, even those that contradict their deepest moral convictions.
The self-created theory also argues that there is no randomness in the thoughts you experience — if you have grotesque thoughts, then there is supposedly something grotesque with you and your true character, beliefs, and desires. In other words, every thought is an agent on your behalf.
If you believe that thoughts are self-created, you might find yourself occasionally reacting to negative thoughts with questions and statements like these:
“Is that who I really am?”
“Is that what I truly believe?
“Only a sick person would think something like that.”
“I’ve thought it so many times that it must be true or have some significance.”
Among other things, the main problem with the self-created theory is that you assume responsibility for thoughts you don’t actually produce (more on that in a second). The self-created theory also gives negative thoughts more attention than they deserve — thoughts carry infinite shock value when you assume they stem from the core of your self.
If you believe in the self-created theory, a particularly shocking thought might tempt you to scrounge up evidence to prove it wrong and distance it from your character. You might recoil at the thoughts circling around in your brain and feel both responsible and ashamed for their contents, even though the majority of what you experience is extremely common — similar if not identical flavors of thought are experienced by both your peers and the billions that came before you.
Eventually, if you become repulsed enough by your thoughts, you might begin to question your sanity. “Am I the only one who thinks this way? What if my friends could live a day in my brain?”
Of course, the self-created theory is an exhausting and terrifying way to think, because you can constantly be ambushed by your own mind and deduce shameful misunderstandings about your own character.
It’s important to note that, by default, most of us come to believe we’re the voice behind our thoughts, though this is often less of a choice and more a coming-to-age misunderstanding about the nature of how things are — “thoughts occur in my mind, therefore I created them and they are extensions of my identity.”
It’s an easy and understandable assumption to make, but it’s also fatal. As long as you assume responsibility for the creation of your thoughts, your well-being is at risk.
THE MIND-CREATED THEORY OF THOUGHT
The second theory is that thoughts are “mind-created”—instead of being the creator of your thoughts, you are a witness to them as they occur. According to the mind-created theory, thoughts are random, involuntary suggestions more-so than actual definitive truths, less symbolic of “you” and your identity in particular and more representative of the tendencies, workings, and reactions of the human mind.
The mind-created theory argues that thoughts are byproducts of the brain, not the self.
Just as the main function of the respiratory system is to help you breathe, the mind’s main function is to produce thought. Thoughts are not personal. Even though you experience a thought-monologue nearly all the time, thoughts aren’t byproducts of your character or true self.
As Alan Watts put it, “The mind grows thoughts as the field grows grass.” Thoughts are just what the mind does.
If you’ve lived your whole life thinking yourself to be the voice behind your thoughts, you probably won’t agree with the mind-created theory. You might argue that you feel as though you’re controlling your thoughts and have been for your entire life. Maybe it seems even seem cold and deterministic to just consider the notion that you aren’t in control of what you think.
An attendee at a recent nonduality conference mentioned this resistance to the author and teacher Rupert Spira. Here was his response:
“In retrospect, we look at the succession of thoughts and a thought—which is just thought number ten—looks back and imagines that there is a chooser in the system between each thought. That chooser is just thought number ten. It’s not actually there in between each of the thoughts.
The chooser itself is not there in between each thought, choosing each time between a range of possibilities and saying “I’ll have this thought next” and then “I’ll have this thought.”
The notion of a chooser is simply itself a thought, which as you say appears retrospectively. The thought that says “I was there in-between each thought choosing it” — it’s the clown that takes the bow. It wasn’t actually present, but it claims responsibility afterwards.” 2
As Spira suggests, the notion of a chooser, or a creator, is simply another thought. It does not exist independently. There is no chooser behind the thoughts we experience, and the perceived experience of choosing is only another thought we misattribute to the story of self. Sam Harris suggests a similar view:
“We are not authoring our thoughts. We can’t choose them before we think them, that would require that we think them before we think them.” 3
The mind-created theory primarily suggests that instead of creating thought, we simply experience it. We don’t decide which thoughts rise to the surface and which stay half-baked at the bottom of the tank.
Since we’re ultimately unable to choose our thoughts, David Cain suggests that it’s helpful to consider thoughts as a sense:
“Almost all of our thoughts are involuntary, just like how we can’t help but hear sounds that happen near us, or see whatever objects appear in front of us as we move through the world. Thought is like any other sense in this way, and it’s helpful to think of it as one. Thoughts simply emerge into your present moment without any invitation from you. If we include thought as a sense, then it’s the most prominent one of all. We’re having thoughts nearly all the time, and they easily take over our attention and trigger emotions in us, whether we want them to or not.” 4
Of course, subscribing to the mind-created theory requires the humility to acknowledge that we are less in control of our thoughts than we often like to believe. While this might seem an uncomfortable truth at first, it can potentially save a lot of pain and suffering in the long run.
ARE YOUR THOUGHTS TRUE?
Obviously the origin of thought is not as black-and-white as the presentation of these two theories might suggest.
But the main question these theories are trying to answer is — which has a greater influence on the thoughts we experience — the mind or the self?
Another way of looking at it: the self-created theory argues that the mind is contained within the self, while the mind-created theory argues that the self is contained within the mind.
If thoughts originate firmly within the self, then they might best be taken literally, seriously, and factually. But if thoughts are simply another byproduct of the mind—an external agent separate from the self—then they lose a sense of authority, urgency, and permanence. They lose the fascist ability to fully dictate what we think of ourselves and the world around us.
I don’t intend to slander thought, only to emphasize that all thoughts are not true or meaningful simply because they’ve arrived in our consciousness. Thoughts do not wholly represent us, our virtues, morals, or character. Some might, some won’t. Most don’t.
The longtime Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein recommends meditation as a way to build a healthier relationship with the thoughts we experience:
“This is one of the great gifts of mindfulness meditation… we begin to develop a bit of discernment with regard to the truth value of our thoughts, and we realize just the fact that we’re thinking something doesn’t make it true, contrary to our usual mode of relating to our thoughts, where we believe everything our thoughts are saying. Mindfulness opens up a tremendous space of discernment, and we see that a good many of our thoughts—particularly those that are self-assessing—most of those thoughts are not true, and we begin to see that. And then we can have them arise, see them for what they are, and let them go, and they don’t influence our mental environment.” 5
YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS
“You are not the one who speaks your thoughts, you are the one that hears them.” 6 — Anonymous
When we believe that we are the source of our thoughts, when our identity is mixed into everything we think, we suffer. We’re suddenly prone to overly emotional reactions and take everything exponentially more seriously.
Because we can’t control what we think, the self-created theory puts our quality of life at the mercy of an unreliable driver, and we spend more time lost in the fray of our minds than in reality.
But when we acknowledge that thoughts randomly emerge into our consciousness—and that we did not create the thoughts we experience—we free ourselves from their burden.
Suddenly we don’t have to “catch” thoughts, interrogate them, try to trace back how they relate to our identity, or feel ashamed for their contents. We don’t have to exhaustingly engage with every thought that arises. They are not ours to catch. We can simply acknowledge their presence and let them fall to the floor or drift away untouched.
If you strongly identify with your thoughts, as most do, the mind-created theory might leave a big gap in your identity. If you aren’t the source of your thoughts, then what are you?
Buddhism and the Advaitan tradition argue that instead of being the creator of your thoughts, you are the observer of them. When you start to identify as the observer of your thoughts, you identify less with the thought-content and more with the overall practice of non-judgmentally experiencing thoughts for what they are — thought-sized byproducts of the human mind.
This perspective of the observer is liberating, because you don’t absorb the responsibility for determining whether or not a certain thought is true, whether it’s really what you think, or what it might say about your character. A thought does not become “yours” simply because it occurred in your mind.
Instead of getting up caught up in the storm, you can see the waves for what they are: just another natural cycle repeating itself, over and over again, as it has for millions of years. This time is no different, and it’s not an emergency. It’s just what the mind does.
As Gary Weber puts it: “If you don’t think up your thoughts, then why are you so worried about them?”7
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- 50,000 thoughts is the number suggested by The National Science Foundation. Other researchers have that number as high as 70,000.
- Spira, Rupert. YouTube: Do you choose your thoughts? The quoted section begins at 5:12.
- Harris, Sam. YouTube: Do you choose your thoughts? This video is an excerpt from Sam Harris’ talk on Free Will at the 2012 Dangerous Ideas Festival. The quoted section begins at 1:31.
- Cain, David. You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living In The Present. Page 97 (2015).
- The original video interview featuring this quote has been removed from YouTube, but a full transcript of the interview can be found here.
- Yudkowsky, Eliezer. Lesswrong.com. “Zombies! Zombies?“
- Weber, Gary. YouTube: The Default Mode Network & End of Suffering. The quote appears at 13:37.