What are thoughts? They can be pleasant, joyful, scary, destructive, angry… They can be treasured or forgotten, hung on to or masked, numbed. They can be distracting or focusing.
I recently discovered the difference between conscious and un/subconscious thought. Now, at 43, I was kinda gobsmacked that I hadn’t fully understood it before. I had always believed that a conscious thought was one that you were aware of and that a subconscious thought was invisible to the mind. For example, if I thought “that trees leaves are green”, that was a conscious thought. A subconscious thought was me putting one foot in front of the other to walk, or opening my hand to pick something up. Those thoughts that seem to bubble up from nowhere I believed to be conscious thoughts because i was conscious of them, no matter how mundane or bizarre they were. Anything from “why is nicotine addictive?” to “what would actually happen if I shot someone?”. From imaginings of a summer meadow to those of concentration camps.
The problem with this outlook, the one believing that all thoughts I was aware of are conscious, is that I also believed that people are responsible for their conscious thoughts. This, to me, was “thinking”, and thinking was something one is in control of. So no matter what popped into my head, no matter how obscure, tasteless, despicable, was my responsibility. They were “my thoughts”, because I was conscious of them (aware of them) they were conscious thoughts (as opposed to subconscious thoughts).
Whenever I had a thought, I owned it. No matter what it was, I had created it. Now, for those who do understand the difference between a conscious and subconscious thought, just think. Taking responsibility for every thought you have, no matter if its a flight of fancy or whether you COULD rob a till at a petrol station. If I had a thought, there would have to be a reason why I had THAT thought. It would be a reflection of my ‘self’. Therefore, if I sat in a park, and thought about a pigeon shitting on someone, it was a reflection on my moral standing that I would even think such a thing. I SHOULDN’T think about that. I had conjured it up, therefore it was my fault. And as it was my fault I had a duty to find out why I had had that thought. I would dig deep, ruminate, proliferate reasons upon reasons, lose myself, hike up my anxiety, beat myself up. And if I couldn’t find an answer to where this thought had come from, then the buck stopped with me, I was intrinsically bad because I’d imagined a pigeon shitting on someone. Exhausted? Tell me about it!
As you can imagine, this kind of constant rumination, guilt, blame, worry has, I think, placed a huge amount of unwanted, and unneeded stress on me. I have suffered from anxiety, depression and paranoia for a lot of my life. I’ve tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Humanist Counselling, Psycho-Therapy and a cocktail of medication to try and quell my constant internal dialogue. Unfortunately, I found that booze worked really well. I used it to quieten my negative and distressing thoughts. But booze was like Napalm on a battlefield: it wiped out all my thinking.
I can’t remember when the penny actually dropped. I’m sure I was listening to a Buddhist dharma talk, but by who, I can’t say. But I had the realization. Its still something I have trouble explaining now, like trying to hold onto a slippery eel. Not every thought that goes through my mind is constructed deliberately by me. There is a difference between thinking and thoughts. Active thinking (problem solving, planning,) is conscious. Spontaneous thinking (daydreaming, thoughts that bubble up, fantasy) are subconscious. Conscious thoughts are not conscious because I am conscious OF them. Conscious thoughts are conscious because I consciously create them. (Breath) Subconscious thoughts are not subconscious because I am NOT conscious OF them. Subconscious thoughts are subconscious thoughts because they are created without my conscious. (Another breath and an espresso).
Now, to some this seems blatantly obvious. To others, its nonsensical. Others, I know, couldn’t care a jot. But to me, this realization was, and still continues to be, rather a turning point. I had always looked on others who seemed not worry about their thoughts (not their thinking) as selfish, callus, somehow immoral because they could brush them to the side as “just thoughts”, as if they had no responsibility to them. I would tie myself up in knots, doing the ‘responsible’ thing: discovering why I had these thoughts so I could do something about it and make myself a better person. Now I see that these people understood what I didn’t. I can’t control my thoughts, anymore than I can control someone else’s. Thoughts bubble up in my mind just as sights pass my eyes and sounds resonate in my ears. So taking responsibility for them is like taking responsibility for a bus passing through my field of vision or a bird chirping its song. What I am responsible for is selecting which of these random thoughts I choose to act on, somehow attach myself to or to give any meaning or value to. If I choose not to attach any specific value to them, I can let them go.
Now, again, this may seem small beer to most. But imagine, if you will, the weight of every seemingly random negative thought you’ve had on your shoulders. Everytime you’ve wished someone ill, everytime you’ve imagined a train crash or a ship sink. Every mental punch you’d wished you’d thrown. Every extra-marital affair you’ve thought of having. Now imagine that you believed each of those thoughts to be your fault, your doing, your responsibility. This has been going on for the majority of my adult life causing my internal monologue to become vicious, judgemental, self-destructive and unforgiving.
Now I’m not going to blame this conscious/subconscious misunderstanding for all the ills of my life. My conscious, thinking, planning mind has been responsible for many of the unhelpful actions in my life, and has caused suffering to others. But knowing that a lot of what goes on inside my head has nothing to do with me is amazingly liberating. Its going to take many years of releasing false attachments to, what I now know to be, subconscious thinking and it often feels physically vertiginous to let go of such long held beliefs, but I’m hoping it will make my internal monologue more gentle and quieter.