Like most people, I spend a lot of time thinking. I also spend a lot of time thinking about thinking.
Yoga considers thought to be a transient action. It argues that the ego is a smoke screen of sorts, blinding us to our own True Nature.
In yoga we are less about “I think therefore I am” and more “I am and I have thoughts”.
In fact…experiencing the true nature of existence beyond thought is central to yoga philosophy.
“I am that I am” (Tat Tvam Asi / तत् त्वम असि) is what is known as a Maha Vakhyas, a Great Statement of the Upanishads. This statement instructs us that thought is ancillary to existence, that we are that we are irrespective of what we think.
A question often posed is - if you are your thoughts then what happens when you are in a deep dreamless (ie thoughtless) sleep? Do you simply cease to exist?
Obviously the answer to that is no. When you are in deep dreamless sleep you do not miss you thoughts, you do not cease to exist, you simply wake feeling rested. Deeply rested because you had a break from the exhausting business of thinking.
Thoughts are impermanent. They come and go. Rather annoyingly, the ones that seem to be a little bit more sticky are the negative ones. We are far more likely to spend the hours of 3-4am chewing over the previous day when we snapped at our loved one and said something unkind that we are to relive a gentle moment.
In Vedanta (the philosophical school which has the Upanishads as one of its central texts) the True Self (that which exists at all times irrespective of thought) is called Atman. The thinking mind is broken down into various parts but for the sake of this post I will just refer to the Ahamkara, the ego.
Often the repetitive thoughts that bother us are the ones that describe how we are feeling about certain circumstances in our lives - they might be long the lines of “I am stressed” “I am scared” “I am anxious” “I am dreading…”. And if we break it down there are two parts to these uncomfortable thoughts - one is “I am…” and the other is the state of being/feeling ie; “…stressed”, “…anxious” etc.
The “I am…” part of the statement represents the Atman. The True Self that exists no matter what.
The second part of the statement, the feeling, the human experience, is a manifestation of Ahamkara, the Ego.
Yoga teaches us that we suffer when we mistake the Ego for the True Self - in other words….when we think we are the second part of the statement instead of realising that it is merely a transient state.
One of the techniques that I use when my thoughts go into this kind of negative spiral is to actively break the statement up. I notice the condition, the feeling, the fear…then I remind myself that those things come and go and that I am.
In that way “I am so tired” becomes simply “I am.” and “I am so stressed” becomes just “I am.”.