One of the main distinctions we have from all other animals is our advanced thinking capability. We understand the concept of time. We possess the joy of humour. We have developed language with which to communicate. No other creature enjoys any of these gifts. Our intelligence allows us to do and experience great things, but it also has the potential to be immensely destructive. These words are from a talk Sam Harris gave in 2007:
“Our habitual failure to recognize thought as thought, our habitual identification with discursive thought, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.”
This statement is quite powerful. It reminds us that we can be held hostage by our thoughts if we so allow. As a byproduct of our intelligence, our brains generate thoughts continuously, some of which are destructive and/or harmful. It is the habit of enlightened people to allow negative thoughts to drift by without being harmed by them. It is the habit of the sufferer to grab onto negative thoughts and become harmed. In his work, Albert Ellis identifies 12 irrational thoughts/ideas that lead to suffering, specifically the feelings of anxiety and fear.
The relief Harris refers to develops once we realize that our reaction to our thoughts determines how we feel. We do not (and should not) have to ‘own’ every single thought we have. Allowing discursive thoughts to float away from our minds relieves us from the suffering they have the potential to create. The cultivation of this ability/habit is the essence of meditation. To be clear, thoughts ought not to be suppressed; they should be allowed to form. This article is instructive on the meditative process and does an excellent job of illustrating the difference between suppressing and allowing thoughts with the ‘ticket taker’ example.
The mastery of this thought recognition and treatment cleaves off a block of suffering from our lives. Consider improving your ability to recognize the power of thoughts and the importance of how you deal with them.