What sound does a pen make? If I told you that it says, “swoosh”, you’re likely thinking right about now that I am in need of a long nap and a week off work.
Let’s suppose for the time being that a pen does say, “swoosh”. If I asked you to repeat this a few times then asked you in a month’s time what a pen says, do you think you could recall the answer? How about in six months’ time?
If I were to do this exercise with you, we might spend about 20 to 30 seconds going over that same line, “A pen says ‘swoosh’”. In just half a minute, your mind would learn something new that it would be able to recollect half a year from now.
By this point, you might be wondering, “What’s so great about that?” In one short, half-minute exercise, our mind has processed something that a pen says. Regardless of the facts or the silliness of the statement, the mind nevertheless takes it in and stores it away in our memory bank.
Now let’s imagine the effect on our minds when we tell ourselves things which, regardless of their accuracy, become deeply imprinted after repeating the same unhelpful messages.
For example, how many of us tell ourselves, “I’m no good”, or “I’m useless”, or, “No matter how much I try, it’s never enough”? If you’re someone who relates to these thoughts, there’s a good chance you’ve spent much longer than 30 seconds telling yourselves these things. Perhaps you’ve been repeating them for years to the point where you’ve started to feel like you embody these messages.
When we internalise unhelpful ideas about ourselves, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate who we are from the thoughts we believe. We become “fused” with our thoughts – so much so that whenever someone praises us, we find it impossible to accept their kind words.
In mindfulness practice, there’s a focus on two “selves”: the thinking self and the observing self. The thinking self is the one that gets caught up in all our mental stories; it’s that part of us that reminds us of the time we scored a B when our parents expected an A. It’s that part of us that reminds us of all our past mistakes, the part that that is often on hand with a criticism or two.
The observing self takes a different approach. It simply watches our thoughts, neither identifying with nor dismissing them. It looks on as though our thoughts are being played out on a stage and watches the performance. When our observer self wants to, it can engage with the thoughts if they’re useful; otherwise, it just carries on watching the performance.
So how do we develop more of the observing self? We all have it within us already – the fact that you can notice them shows that you’re not your thoughts. There’s no need to identify with or get hooked by them.
If I may indulge in some more silliness, an effective way to cultivate our observing self is to give the thinking self a name. For example, you might call your thinking self “Steve”, or “Mastura”, or “Spartacus” – whatever you like. Please don’t worry, this exercise won’t create a split personality – it’s effective, but it’s not that powerful!
The idea is that our thinking self, “Steve” in this case, becomes our friend. Steve can be mischievous sometimes, a little pesky, but he’s usually well-intentioned. So we accept Steve for who he is, although we don’t take everything he says seriously.
In developing our observing self, we have a quick word with Steve whenever he suggests something unhelpful. Be sure to use your thinking voice in these interactions, otherwise you might get some funny looks as you walk around the shopping mall.
When Steve says, “I’m no good, I’ll never get through this presentation,” we reply, “Thanks for your opinion, Steve. You said that the last time, and the time before that, and everything was fine. You’ll forgive me if I don’t ask you to predict the lottery numbers.”
Each time Steve – or whatever you call your thinking mind – tells you something that is negative, unhelpful and overly-cautious, you can choose to reply in a way that gently ridicules whatever thoughts arise. Of course, sometimes Steve will say something worth listening to, and so the observer self (that’s you) can choose to follow his advice if it’s helpful to do so.
By cultivating our observing self, we separate ourselves from our thoughts so that we no longer become fused with them and we stop identifying with them. It takes time and effort and will feel silly at first but give it a try if you feel like you’re continually having to deal with unhelpful thoughts. In time, you’ll start to see your self-worth and confidence grow, and you’ll also get to enjoy the added bonus of some inner peace as Steve becomes much quieter.