We have all heard the term stream of thought. If we take this metaphor verbatim this stream of thought represents our capacity to think. Our brain ‘emits’ thought constantly and just as a stream of water flows whether we pay attention to it or not, our brain thinks, whether we pay attention or not.
If the stream is ‘all thought’, what floats in the stream are individual thoughts. As we bring our awareness to the stream, we notice a variety of things drifting down this constant river: big fish, little fish, grey fish, colourful fish, old tins, plastic bags, leaves, abandoned tires, broken toys and driftwood and other flotsam.
When we were a child we were most likely equally fascinated by any and all of these objects; a dirty old sock was as fascinating as a colourful fish, a piece of wood as mesmerizing as an old tire. Our childlike attention was held captive by one object until another, more interesting, thing floated by. Growing older, we observed and eventually began to emulate the judgemental behaviours and attitudes of our parents (and other important care-figures) towards these objects in the stream. We quickly learned that some fish are apparently better than others, that old tins and socks are bad, but that leaves are okay, that driftwood and old tires are dangerous, and that the occasional flower drifting past is precious and worth collecting.
The more we began ourselves to judge the things drifting past and to dissect them into ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the more stressful being in the stream became; we now needed to navigate constantly in order to get closer to the good things and keep our distance from the bad ones. In essence, we learned to distinguish between ‘good thoughts’ (which are positive, happy, confident, pro-active, loving, or creative) and ‘bad thoughts’ (which are unhappy, insecure, angry, sad, vengeful, scared, jealous, lonely, and disappointed).
By the time we are grown up, labelling, judging, and avoiding flotsam occupies most of our waking day, and life in the stream is proving to be a joyless and at times a terrifying struggle; the bad stuff seems to be everywhere! We are less and less able to freely shift our attention from one thing floating by to the next because we have become increasingly occupied with what it means and how to control it. Without our awareness, judging, managing or manipulating our thoughts has turned into a full-time job.
But there is hope: our childlike ability to experience thoughts without having to assign a deeper meaning to them isn’t lost. We can return to a state of mind where a thought is just a thought, not the truth or a call to action, not our destiny or a statement about our character.
When we free ourselves from the obligation to take our thoughts quite so personal we enjoy life much more.
Thoughts are like driftwood, they come, they go, and sometimes they get stuck — but the power of the stream will eventually pull them free and make room for new things to appear.
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