Cogito, ego sum, is a Latin phrase attributed to French philosopher, mathematician and scientist, Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650). The English translation of this phrase is: “I think, therefore I am”. Most simply, Descartes was saying that the fact that he has the capacity to question his own existence, someone or something must be doing that thinking, therefore that proves he exists. I know, it kind of makes your head hurt, mine too. But for the purposes of taking a closer look at the root cause of much of our psychological and, for that matter, day-to-day challenges let’s spend a few minutes looking at the concept of “mind” and thought.
Understanding Our Emotional Responses
In my practice, clients often come in with the problem that they cannot stop thinking about something that has happened for which they are feeling great regret, shame and/or even anger, or they can’t stop worrying about something that may happen which is causing them to feel a great deal of anxiety, fear and even dread. Looking at the first scenario, in which the client can’t stop thinking about something that has happened, I will often ask the client to recount the specifics of the event, for example, where they were, who they were with and what was said. It might go something like this; “My friend Emma missed calling me for my birthday, and I always remember her birthday, and I thought we were really, really good friends. Not only did she forget, even a week later, she didn’t even wish me a happy belated birthday. I was very upset and angry, and I told her she was a lousy friend and not worth my time and I didn’t want to have anything to do with her for as long as I live.” I think we can all relate to a situation in which our feelings were hurt and we reacted in a defensive and/or aggressive manner.
I might then ask the client if they can get in touch with the thoughts and feelings they were having as all this was transpiring. Their response might be, “I was angry and hurt. I felt she didn’t care about me. I felt I deserved better.” In this example, the client was reacting to her thoughts of not being cared for or valued, reacted with anger and hurtful speech, and now feels shame and regret.
At this juncture, I might ask the client what thoughts they were having related to their feelings of shame and regret. One of many probable responses might be, “I feel I acted out in anger, and I was unkind. I hurt Emma, and that is not what I meant to do. I feel stupid. I think I am a lousy, selfish individual and not worthy of Emma’s friendship.” With thoughts like these, one can certainly understand how someone might experience emotions of sadness, embarrassment, and even self-hate.
As you can see, there is a lot going on here. There was an event, there were thoughts during and after the event, and there were emotions related to these thoughts. It’s clear that, in the heat of the moment, the client’s thoughts were coming fast and furious with little awareness of the connection between her thoughts, emotions, and outward behavior. It’s easy to see how her emotions of feeling hurt were associated with the thought that her friend did not care enough to remember her birthday. Interestingly, noticing the thoughts behind her feelings was clearly easier to do when there was time for calm reflection. So my question is, if the client can have a thought, notice they are having that thought, and then reflect on the thought and its relationship to her feelings of shame and regret, who is having the thought and who is doing the noticing and reflecting? Now try to wrap your head around that one!
Uniquely Human: The Ability to Think About Our Thinking
Humans are the only earthly species that can think about our thinking. Not only can we reflect on our thoughts, we also have the ability to observe our thoughts as they arise. In Western psychology as well as Eastern philosophy and theology, the part of us that can observe our minds’ thoughts has been termed “the observing self.” Most of us identify with our thoughts. We believe our thoughts are the essence of who we are. But as I observed in my “Caveman Mind” blog (April 18, 2023), our brains are but one of many organs, having evolved over many hundreds of thousands of years, that give us the capacity to live and survive. While being the main control center responsible for keeping our other organs functioning and working in unison (homeostasis), the brain has the unique job of looking out for danger, problem solving and generally allowing us to successfully navigate our way around our environment. It does this by generating thought, after thought, after thought, between thirty and sixty thousand thoughts per day. Comparatively, our hearts beat some one hundred thousand times a day, but as it has only one job, to circulate our blood to our organs, we pay little attention to its functioning. Given our thoughts give rise to emotions, and our emotions in turn influence our actions, and our actions directly influence the effectiveness and outcome of everything we do, I suggest that learning how to maximize our capacity to notice and think about our thoughts, honing our “observing self,” is crucial if we are to live life on purpose, with intention, and ultimately manifesting the life we want for ourselves and our fellow earthbound beings. You might ask how is this accomplished? Through the practice of mindfulness!
Please keep an eye out for future blogs regarding how we can develop and nurture our “observing selves,” through the practice of mindfulness.