How to Observe Your Thoughts (2 Ways)

We hear the phrase, “Observe your thoughts,”  but how do we do that? What does it mean? Aren’t we always observing our thoughts? And what the heck are thoughts?!

Normally, we don’t watch our thoughts, we think our thoughts. And we think, “I am the thinker.” In spirituality, we dig down deeper. We recognize thought patterns and we observe how the mind really works. We discover the nature of thoughts and our own mind. We practice being the silent witness of our thoughts so that negative thoughts don’t disturb our peaceful witnessing presence. This can transform our entire lives and I share exactly how to do that in today’s podcast.

***If you prefer reading to listening, here’s the transcript of this podcast***

The Key to Observing Your Thoughts

Most of the time, in our day-to-day lives, we are lost in thought, pondering various ideas without actively observing them. We are not consciously witnessing or listening to our thoughts. If we were to ask ourselves what we were thinking about a minute ago, most of the time, unless we’ve been fixated on something all day, we’d have no idea.

This stems from the illusion that we are our thoughts and that the voice in our head is our true identity. Thus, there seems to be no need to observe them because we identify with them.

It’s as if we all had a voice in the back of our head that we assumed was us, or with which we identified, then we would not feel the need to monitor it because it is us.

However, as soon as we realize that it is simply the egoic thinking part of our brain—a distinct aspect of ourselves, akin to our hand—we can begin to observe it more objectively.

It operates in a very specific way, pulling from our subconscious and unconscious parts of the brain, making it unpredictable and beyond our control. Everything we think stems from our memories, emotional state, and external stimuli that we may not even be consciously aware of.

This unconscious, mysterious aspect of the mind seeps into our conscious awareness through thoughts that we can become aware of.

As we realize that the ego, the thinking mind, is primarily focused on avoiding danger, survival, and resource acquisition, we understand its roots in fear. It obsesses over negative experiences, causing much of the suffering in our lives. In modern, safe society, it doesn’t need to be so hyper-vigilant, constantly searching for danger.

We need to recognize two things:

A. It’s not who we really are, that these are not the thoughts we would think if we were thinking consciously with our greatest intentions, which would be of course to think things that generate feelings of peace and joy, and loving emotions.

B. That these thoughts do cause a great deal of suffering, and actually need to be watched, observed and monitored very closely.

The key to observing our thoughts is dis-identifying with them, and re-identifying with the witness. Because there aren’t two selves inside of us. There isn’t a witness and observer of our thoughts and the thinking mind; the thinking mind is a form that can be perceived by consciousness, our true self. These forms, whether they are sensed objects that we perceive with our fingers, eyes, and ears, are anything we experience as we go about our daily life.

Or, if we turn our attention inward, close our eyes, observe our thoughts, observe our feelings, and sensations within our body.

These are all things that arise within our conscious frame of awareness. Most of the time, while we are going about our day-to-day activities, we are putting all of our focus outside of us. We are focusing primarily on whatever is going on in front of us; our attention is projected outward.

We usually become unaware of our thoughts, unaware of how they are negative, often repetitive, and creating a narrative for whatever is happening around us, which, in fact, makes us unable to see reality as it really is. Because instead of letting whatever happens be, we create a story that what we are seeing is either good or bad.

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Often, we find the negative because that is what these survival machines inside of us, that survival mechanism, has done so that we could survive, so that we would run away from tigers, and not go too close to cliffs, and be wary of any risks and dangers in the natural world.

Naturally, these thinking machines inside of us are going to fixate and obsess over anything negative that they can latch onto.

They will imagine the worst dangers, the most frightening scenarios, oftentimes the worst possible imagined future.

We first have to become aware of the tricks that the mind plays. We have to be aware that we’re not in danger, that these fears are all in our head. Of course, if you’re camping in the woods, or if you’re in a dangerous neighborhood at night, you might need to listen to that inner threat warning.

But most of the time, when we’re relaxing, or we’re at work, or we’re stuck in traffic, that negative voice goes into overdrive, because it doesn’t know the difference between stress from a job and stress from a tiger.

We can easily find ourselves going down these negative downward spirals of just a horrible train of thought that we can’t get ourselves out of because our whole body state is in a stress response fight-or-flight mode.

Oftentimes, when we have prolonged fight-or-flight mode, and we’re not fighting, and we’re not fleeing because there is no actual physical danger, this often turns into depression, which is kind of a third stress response. Prolonged fight-or-flight can turn into this third stress response, which is kind of like when an animal plays dead.

This is the third survival mode instinct that even humans have hardwired into us. This is why when we get depressed, we feel unable to get out of bed and unable to do anything, even though we know we should.

Even though people are trying to get us out of it, nothing can because we are in this natural state of essentially playing dead as a survival tactic.

When fight or flight hasn’t been able to help us because that’s not the correct response. Before I get into what we can do about that.

A lot of people wonder, why are our brains wired like this? Are we defective? Why have we been made so dysfunctionally? And the answer, of course, is we have not. The fact of the matter is when we were evolving, when we became modern humans, and we were still living in the wild. This was an appropriate stress response.

We didn’t have iPads, smartphones, TV, film, radio, card games, board games, and all of these attention industries. No video games, there was nothing to distract us. And so we were able to naturally rest and relax and be witness to our thoughts.

In fact, it’s believed that before modern agriculture, we would hunt, forage, and gather food for only a few hours a day, and we had a lot more leisure time. Then, when civilizations and modern farming practices came about, a lot less people and a lot less food was needed. It grew on its own.

So sitting around leisurely, meditating, was kind of a natural thing back then. We lived in tight-knit communities, there was no crime, we would dance and sing around the fire. If there was a moment of stress, like an elephant nearby or a challenging hunt took place, there was plenty of time to allow the body to rest and recover from that stress response.

Without magazines, books, and iPods, there was no escaping their thoughts and their feelings. So they were their own higher wisdom, and consciousness; they were witnessing presence for their thoughts and feelings.

This allowed them a much greater sense of peace. Because they were fully present, fully relaxed, yet alert was their natural state of being. It is also every animal’s state of being; a deer may have a moment of stress if there is a predator nearby.

But it is always alert, yet relaxed, as its natural baseline state of being. This is our birthright as well. And just because we live in the age of endless entertainment, endless distraction, we can get back to that state. So how do we observe our thoughts?

There are two ways. Really, both are essential to maintaining a sense of peace and happiness, despite whatever our thinking mind is doing.

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It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday. It doesn’t matter what will happen tomorrow. We are not our mistakes, nor are we our successes. We are this one, eternal, priceless moment.

Step 1: How to Observe Our Thoughts

The first step, and the most powerful, is to close your eyes and turn your attention inward for some period of time every day, if you are able to. It can be a few minutes.

It can even be as simple as leaving your phone outside of the bathroom, like so many people are doing now. But any chance you get where you can have a moment of peace, close out distractions. Close your eyes, if that’s possible.

You are able to block out all of the distractions and really turn 100% of your focus inward and simply watch your thoughts. Don’t try to think anything specific. Don’t try to do anything at all. Just allow whatever comes up to come up. If you like, you can focus on your breath while you’re doing this, and any new meditator will not be able to do that for even a full minute.

But you can focus on your breath. As your mind naturally wanders, before turning your attention back to your breath, just make a little note of what you were thinking about. If you can remember, make a note of what distracted you and what your train of thought was.

See if you can remember and figure out how you got onto what you’re thinking about now. Maybe you heard a noise like a bell, and it reminded you of the microwave, and you started thinking about what you’re going to eat next. Maybe you were just thinking, “This is so boring, I can’t wait until I’m doing the next thing.”

It can even be something as simple as noticing how much you hate meditation. That is totally fine. Whatever comes up, allow it to be. We don’t judge it; we simply make note. Because the thinking mind wants to judge and label everything, and awareness simply observes, with neutrality.

So that it can see reality. As soon as a judgment is placed on a thought, or on any experience, we get further away from that experience. And while it’s natural for the mind to judge, our greater wisdom knows that there is good and bad in everything.

All you have to do is watch any debate, and know that people can talk for hours about completely opposite points of view. And so it’s not about what is true, what is right or wrong. It’s simply about recognizing, which goes beyond the thinking mind.

Recognizing that everything contains everything, that anything can be said about just about anything. Many newscasters on those 24-hour news channels know all about this; they can have almost no information about an event that just happened. They will talk 24/7 because that’s their job. That is like the nature of the mind; it will think it is a thinking machine.

The more we just watch it, the more we create a distance between the witness who we truly are, consciousness itself, and the thinking mind, the one-word-at-a-time train of thought in our heads.

Consciousness is able to perceive so much information at one time: the complexity of music, or all of the visual sights that we’re seeing, billions of pixels, such intricate sounds and smells and tastes all at once. But the mind can only think one thought at a time. It’s very limited, and we have a higher wisdom. That wisdom is the witness that observes those thoughts and is able to choose which thoughts to act on and which thoughts to ignore. That is what I mean by our highest consciousness and our highest wisdom.

The more distance we create between the witness, our true selves, and the thinker, the quieter those thoughts become, and the more peaceful our life becomes.

When we identify as the thinker, and there is no distance between us and the thoughts, it is like a screaming person in our head, and we become much more impulsive. We are much more likely to act on every desire and every impulse that pops into our head.

The more distance we create, simply from observation and time spent witnessing, without judgment, the wiser we become and the greater our understanding. All scientific inquiry is about observation, to gather knowledge, and so what we are doing is witnessing and observing our mind to gain understanding and wisdom.

The more time we spend with our eyes closed in meditation, and the more time we spend observing our thoughts, that distance grows and grows, and that voice gets quieter and quieter.

We become present witnesses, just like how a child who’s being watched is on their best behavior. The more we watch our thoughts, and the more we make that a habit, the more it will stop acting out unconsciously and unintentionally.

The quieter it becomes, the more peaceful it becomes. The more because of our conscious intention, it will generate peace and joy. Think more positively, for ourselves.

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Step 2) How to Observe Our Thoughts

The second thing we have to do to observe our thoughts, beyond closing our eyes and turning our attention inward, is to incorporate that into our daily practice, making it part of our everyday life. This becomes a habit even when we’re not closing our eyes.

The way we do that is whenever we’re doing anything, specifically chores and laborious tasks, but really anytime, we do a mindfulness mental checkup.

This simply involves putting our attention on our thoughts, emotions, and our physical body as well. Are our faces scrunched up and we’re looking really mad while we do the dishes or cooking food? Or are we relaxed, joyful, and peaceful on our face? We don’t need a mirror to recognize this; we can just see if we’re keeping tension in our face, if our shoulders are hunched over and contracted, or if we’re open and relaxed.

This is so important because much of our mental state reflects in our physical body. This is where the mind-body connection comes in. Our thoughts can create physical problems like chronic pain in our back, neck, shoulders, and joints.

Alternatively, we can give ourselves frown lines and wrinkles in the middle of our eyebrows from not enjoying the chores we have to do. As we check our physical body and our emotional state, we also check our thoughts. What are our thoughts doing? This is especially true when we are on social media or watching films and television because much of the media is negative.

Sometimes, watching a horror movie can put our body in a stress response the whole time, which can be enjoyable, but we might also want to relax to avoid giving ourselves any back pain.

It’s crucial to devote as much of our attention to our internal state as to our external engagement. Striving for a 50-50 split, where we navigate social media or other activities while remaining attentive and engaged, allows us to allocate 50% of our focus to our own thoughts, reactions, and bodily responses.

This balance is not only essential for maintaining conscious awareness of our thoughts and emotions throughout the day, but it’s also how we can lead mindful lives without isolating ourselves from the world. We can actively participate in the world’s joys and pains without needing to retreat to a cave or forest.

By reflecting on our inner being while engaging with the external world, we unlock the key to enlightenment: living in a state of present-moment awareness. In this state, we can savor the pleasures of the world without being consumed by them. Instead, we approach them with mindfulness, allowing us to fully enjoy everything life has to offer.

We can enjoy the pleasures when they come. We can even enjoy them as they leave. Things change, and even difficult, painful things arise. We remain mindful during those times too. So it’s vitally important that we both close our eyes and turn inward and give our 100% attention to the way these crazy things called brains work. Also, throughout the day, maintain that mindful present moment awareness.