When I tell my clients that “thoughts are fleeting, transient events that come and go” and that “there’s never been a thought that didn’t go away,” they initially really like the idea, but they invariably ask: “If these thoughts are so impermanent, then why do I keep thinking some of them?  Why, for example, do I keep having same thoughts about myself?”

Let’s see if I can explain.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of having a song stuck in your head. “There it is,” you think to yourself, noting the intrusion into your consciousness.  Author David Harp’s concept of “recycled” consciousness can help make sense of these repetitive thought patterns (1996). 

Let’s say you grew up in a hypercritical environment.  As you matured, this cacophony of criticism taught you a jingle of self-deprecation.  You’ve internalized the toxic noise of constant criticism, and these messages have become part of your own mind.  While any of these thoughts of self-loathing are, indeed, impermanent, their recurrence creates a perception of permanence.  In reality, however, they are nothing more than recycled consciousness on a feedback loop.

Mind is associative.  Somebody criticizes you, and this triggers a train of thought, a chain of associations: before you know it you’ve got the jingle of self-loathing on playback.  But then the thought passes, as all thoughts do.  Internal associations may stir up this cognitive debris as well.

So, what should you do about this junk in your head?  Well, there is nothing that really needs to be done.  By disputing this information directly, you are taking it seriously, giving it more playback time, so to speak.  Do what you do when you notice a catchy tune in your mind: accept it for what it is—recognize that it’s just a catchy jingle that doesn’t mean anything. 

Let’s practice this attitude.  Fill a glass with water.  Get a tea bag and tear it open. Dump the loose tea into the glass.  Stir it up.  Watch the tea swirl.  Accept that this process takes time.  Notice the water itself as the last particle of the tea burns its kinetic energy before it touches down on the bottom of the glass.

Realize that your associative rumination is just like that.  Recognize that you are not the informational debris that’s swirling around your mind, that you are that medium of consciousness in which this rumination is happening.

Notice the swirl of information in your mind and dis-identify from it.

Conclude: I am not my informational contents.  I am not my rumination.  I am not my mental associations.

Adapted from Lotus Effect

[graphics/picture credit: free mandala coloring]