If You Are Not Your Thoughts Then Who Are You?

by Leroy on June 4th, 2024.

Over the past year I've gotten a few questions about You Are Not Your Thoughts and they all revolve around the question, "If I'm not my thoughts then who am I?" I attempted to answer this question in some short articles that missed the mark for most readers. The main problem is that the answer to the question "Who am I?" cannot be properly given to you by others. It is a question you have to answer for yourself. This means an article designed for widespread readership cannot be as simple and direct as both the readers and myself want.

The fundamental problem of answering the question "If I'm not my thoughts then who am I?" is with the thoughts. You are not your thoughts, but many have a hard time truly integrating this in their life. In our culture the belief that thoughts are the foundation of identity can be a mental trap from which is tough to break free. I've experienced this first hand in my life and I wrestled with the idea that I'm not my thoughts for a long time. What I found is that I had hangups about my thoughts, my body, and my general self that I needed answered before I could truly integrate the fact that I am not my thoughts. Breaking the original question down into smaller yet more concrete questions with definite answers will allow us to make that journey together.

Before we begin, I want to set some structure and boundaries around this article. First, this truly is the work of saints. The act of being your true self is difficult and never ends. Second, this article is a short guide. It is non-exhaustive. There won't be any grand epiphanies about you lying in wait at the end of this article, but there can be epiphanies after you read this if you begin to observe yourself in your interactions and see how the world affects you. Finally, because the English language is so difficult I'm going to refer to you with italics and you without italics. The italicized you is the individual agent whereas the unitalicized you is addressing the general readership. When asking the question, "who are you?", we are entirely focused on the inner core of someone's identity, their spirit, their soul, and all of its animating properties. When discussing "your body", or "your mind", or "the thoughts you have", we are talking about the general population and everyday observations.

If your body affects your thoughts then how can they be you?

I want you to think of your body. You are probably aware that your body communicates with you all the time. Every time your body is damaged, it signals pain. When you are satiated, your stomach feels full. When your body needs fuel, your stomach starts its pangs. If you've overexerted some part of your body, that area can feel sore. Your body, the house of you, communicates with you constantly, incessantly.

This communication we often take for granted. We were born in these bodies of ours and grew up alongside pain, soreness, pleasure, aches, satiety, thirst, hunger, and much else. This kind of bodily communication is simply automatic for us. When I get hungry I'm not thinking, "Wow, this biological communication of my body is extremely fascinating," I'm instead thinking about my next meal. Similarly, when I accidentally splash hot oil on myself when cooking dinner I don't stop to appreciate the pain.

Have you ever stopped to consider why you have mistaken thirst for hunger or vice-versa? Or perhaps you have mistaken soreness and pain? Some of us have even mistaken pain for pleasure. Part of the human condition is realizing we were born into these bodies without any instruction manual. Another part of the human condition is understanding that all communication is fallible -- from organizational efforts to individual conversations and all the way down to your mind and your body, communication is never perfect.

We all know that our brains, our thought producers, are functions of our body. If we understand that our bodies are fallible communicators, why are we so hesitant to bring this understanding to our thoughts as well? You may still be on the fence about this idea but have you observed your thoughts changing throughout the day? Have you observed your thoughts in the morning after a good night's rest versus a night where you've gotten only three hours of sleep? What about your attitude when you are hungry? Not only does your body communicate to you, your body influences your thoughts as well and your body changes much throughout the day.

Take the effort and time to consciously observe your thoughts and bodily communications. You will see patterns unique to yourself and this is one of the cornerstones of what it means to know yourself. I know that I become irritable when hungry and try to temper myself accordingly. When I don't get my full night's sleep, I know I will be hazy and uninvolved in the morning. This kind of understanding of ourselves -- that our body influences our thoughts -- metamorphizes the underlying question of this article into "If your body affects your thoughts then how can they be you?"

Your thoughts are of course a part of yourself, but they aren't you. Just like your hair is a part of yourself but still not you. Thoughts are communicating to you, just as the body does, about needs and desires of the body. All the thoughts about worries and stresses, reminders of what should be done, replays of conversations earlier, what to eat for lunch -- these thoughts simply arise similarly to how the body signals it is being damaged or needs food. Because this internal communication is so intimate it is easy to conflate you with your thoughts. Your thoughts even speak in your voice. But answer this: how can your thoughts be you when they can even be influenced by other people?

Everything is communication in this world of ours. Just like how the body communicates with you, people communicate with you too. When someone speaks to you, it is actually your body hearing those words first and then relaying them to you. Most likely we've all experienced being praised about doing a good job and then we feel good physically and mentally -- our thoughts change. But this reaction can be negative too. Have you ever been embarrassed publically and gotten suddenly hot and flushed, maybe even sweaty? Maybe someone even commented out loud, "You're stupid", and you internalized that comment and had the thought, "I'm stupid."

If your thoughts can be influenced by factors outside of your internal self, like social situations, then how can they be you? If your thoughts can be affected by the weather, by how much sleep you did or didn't get, by hunger or satiety, or even by someone breaking or fullfiling a promise, how can those thoughts be you? You are a living principle of action and exist outside of thoughts. Your thoughts are merely a tool that can be used by you.

If you can act without your thoughts then how can they be you?

Thoughts are one of the most powerful tools humans possess. We can use our thoughts to think through problems, reflect on recent situations to adjust for situations later, and to remain fully conscious of our actions throughout our days. What we often don't realize is that however powerful our thoughts as a tool can be, thoughts exist outside of the moral spectrum of good and bad. Most tools exist outside of this spectrum of morality and are amoral and it is something that we don't think about much. Do we really think about the amoral implications of fire? Fire simply exists and we utilize it and are plagued by it in our society.

Your thoughts really and truly are not you. They are the quintessential tool for you to utilize but they can plague you too. When I say thoughts are amoral I say that in exactly the same way I say fire is amoral -- both fires and thoughts can exist as natural phenomena without the intention of helping or causing harm. (I emphasize the word "can" here because thoughts are a tool and you can summon evil thoughts intentionally.) Recognizing that thoughts can exist without a moral impetus is useful to internalize as there are many who struggle with simple "bad" thoughts. I don't just mean the kinds of thoughts you might have about the slow cashier at the checkout line while you're in a desperate rush. I also don't just mean the kinds of tempting impulses you might have to look at some depraved incident or a car crash. These kinds of thoughts can cause moral confusion -- "If I'm a good person why do I have bad thoughts?" -- but realize these kinds of thoughts only become reality if you act on them. If you simply observe them they remain an inert thought.

But thoughts are such a powerful tool that there are kinds of thoughts that simply cause a reaction without you overtly realizing. These are the kinds of thoughts which can create a negative effect on your overall health and wellbeing if you identify yourself as your thoughts.

I'm sure you've noticed that without being hungry if you start looking at food or thinking about food that your body will start signaling hunger. This is your thoughts causing a fairly harmless bodily reaction. Now think about the example we used earlier of being embarrassed in public. In that case your thoughts caused bodily reactions too. When you were embarrassed publically your peers may have initiated the cause but didn't force your reaction. It was your own thoughts of fear and humiliation which created the bodily reaction of being flushed in the face. Perhaps you even closed your body by bringing your arms across your chest and curving your shoulders. This kind of bodily reaction caused by thoughts can even be entirely internal. I'm sure all of us can think of an embarrassing moment that happened years ago and still somewhat physically cringe or notice our heart rate increase slightly . Thoughts are even so powerful that for some people a specific phrase of thought can cause a panic attack.

I don't think that any of us would like to self-identify with being embarrassed or having panic attacks. We surely understand how thoughts are a useful tool for reflection but rumination is the opposite of problem solving. Negative feedback loops between your thoughts and your body can happen subtly. If you aren't aware that you exist outside of your thoughts then self-identification with these negative reactions can definitely occur.

But the good news is that you can act without your thoughts. Thoughts in words aren't required for you to act. The mind is most certainly being used, but do you really have an internal monologue when getting in the car that says to you, "Walk left, right, left, right. Now, open the door. Sit down and put the keys into the ignition and turn them. Put the car into reverse..." I certainly don't. Now I can't say with 100% certainty that you, reader, think the same way, but I have a hunch that we're not too different -- both of us are human after all.

Thoughts aren't required for you to act because they are a tool of reflection. There's no need to reflect when doing something difficult or intensive. I'm not pondering when I'm on the soccer field or playing other sports. Often, however, we're doing something mundane or rote enough that we aren't fully engaged and our thoughts spin and spin. On my runs and especially my walks, my mind races with all sorts of thoughts because my route isn't especially interesting anymore and my body is used to the movement. Most people have experienced this ability to do automatically -- even when driving cars. When the mind isn't occupied when doing some task, like your morning routine, what are your thoughts doing instead? They are reflecting or problem solving or ruminating or day dreaming or any number of things that most likely aren't related to the current activity.

If you can act without your thoughts then how can your thoughts be you? Your thoughts are simply springing forth just like water from a fountain. They simply occur. Given some time and effort they can be focused but for many thoughts come and go based on the body and environment of the day. Sunny and a good night's rest, sunny but stressed with little sleep, anxious about a deadline on a frigid winter morning -- all of these things can give a background to the thoughts of the day. If you can act without your thoughts and your thoughts appear and run off like rain drops on your windshield, how can they be you?

Taking the time to observe your thoughts, put them into place, and quiet the mind to observe and communicate with life is the cornerstone of mindfulness. Doing daily tasks automatically with words, words, words constantly talking inside your mind is analagous to being glued to the television screen while someone is trying to speak with you. Through all of the those constantly obsessive, negative, and noisy thoughts you are there capable of ignoring them and acting on something else entirely. You are independent from your thoughts because you literally control them.

The goal isn't to have no thoughts. Thoughts are extremely useful but we understand their raw power to control us if we give in to them or identify too heavily with them. Instead, the goal is to have your thoughts united to what you are doing in the moment. The goal is to consciously summon them when needed and to put them away when not. This is what those confusing Buddhists were trying to say when they said, "Be mindful even when you drink your coffee." Instead of being distracted by constant, racing thoughts that can potentially be harmful, imagine putting them aside and hearing the chirping of the birds, your lips smacking against your coffee mug, and the warm liquid flowing from down your throat and into your stomach. Being aware might even show you the effect caffeine has on your body. Imagine being aware, seeing rather than simple looking, with a quiet mind ready to receive what is happening around you. If your thoughts are literally blinding your ability to see -- and I mean this literally -- then you cannot be receptive enough to be aware.

If you are your actions then are you what people can observe?

You being aware of yourself, your body, and your surroundings requires you to be receptive to all the little things communicating to you and around you. This awareness is good as it can awaken your spirit to stop living inside your head by using your eyes as a television screen to passively watch as life happens to you. Many people don't believe in agency, in free-will, because they have never done anything they haven't seen themselves doing. Have you ever purposefully done anything different on any given "mundane" day? Awareness can lead you down paths never before open to you simply because you weren't receptive to them. You missed the details.

As one develops general awareness there is a realization that action is all one truly possesses in this world. Thoughts and feelings come and go. Happiness is fleeting but contentedness is a constant practice of doing now so that things are in place later. The act of doing is the act of creating reality and creating life. No, I don't mean the act of literal physical manifestation of objects, I mean creation from transformation. Our large public projects like buildings, roads, and utility infrastructure were made by us from materials on Earth. Our wealth of knowledge and wisdom was written in an uncountable number of books received from first-hand encounters with the unknown. Even our culture of people creating beautiful music, wondrous paintings, and powerful stories was scuplted by us from by our collective and personal experiences.

It is true that everyone is a sum of their actions whether consciously chosen or not. The actions we choose to do determine how we are. This isn't as simple as job titles. When people are asked who they are they will inevitably list their occupation or superficial qualities, "I'm a quirky blonde." You are how you act in the morning, you are how you raise your arms when speaking, you are the words you chose to speak, and you are how you act when going to bed. A job, a career, is also a task that people do but how do you do it? No one does "Specialist Career Marketing" or "Human Resources Management" -- these are titles with zero description of the real action that occurs.

This kind of awareness of you and how you do is hard to grasp. No one is a sum of simple descriptions compounded together. Every one of us is to be seen in time and over time. No one can know another person without having spent time with them to be able to see how they act, to see who they are. Now, having said this the underlying question of this article becomes, "If you are your actions then are you what people can observe?"

I want to first answer this question using some examples. Awareness of the self in this context -- to be seen other others -- inevitably leads people to do, do, do. There are those of us that have a compulsion to act, reflect, and then reorient to such a degree that it becomes pathological. This is the awareness of the articulation of your arms and your body, the clothes you wear, and all the way down to how you enunciate particular words. Awareness of this kind is beneficial in sports, public speeches, and much else because wearing the correct clothes, making the correct movements, and timing everything just right requires acute awareness of the body. Constant awareness of the self like this can even be good because it might be something you are doing consciously. One example is trying to improve your body language and another is learning how to not use to so many curse words. But left unchecked this kind of awareness can lead to a debilitating mindset where this reflection and reorientation is done outside of the self.

If you have placed your identity outside of yourself and into the hands of others then you have no control over your identity. You are never totally what other people can observe but if you believe that you are then you place your identity outside of yourself. Doing this you will be condemned to the thoughts of others, their subtle messages, and of their reflection of you. This means your relationship with your self is first filtered through the communication of others. This is exactly the same formula as believing you are your thoughts and behaving angrily because your body happens to be hungry. You will find yourself doing to appease others instead of yourself, acting certain ways to get little nuggets of approval from specific people, and acting entirely how others want you to act without consulting how you want to act.

This was a first answer to the question "If you are your actions then are you what people can observe?" You are not simply what people can observe because if that's all you are then you might as well be the thoughts of others. But there is a second answer to this question. You are not what other other people can observe because you are always in the process of becoming. I alluded to this earlier but you exist in time. I know that I am not the same as I was a week ago, a year ago, and most definitely a decade ago. We are all in the process of becoming, changing, whether we are consciously guiding this process or not. What this means is that you are not a snapshot in time. You are not what someone observed because not only could that person be lacking context or be lying to themselves or others, you could have changed since then.

What if you you were trying to use fewer curse words and went up to a person, "Damn, this is a fine today isn't it?" What if you marked that "Damn" consciously in your mind and moved on. You are a sum of your actions but you have the ability to act within yourself. You have the ability to restrain yourself from acting and this too is an action. No, we are not simply what others can observe because so much is hidden from others either in our mind or simply because we happen to be alone.

Who are you?

What a question to answer. It's a question which takes a lifetime to answer. It's also a question that cannot be answered in words. The answer can only be observed by you using your mind's eye. You are life. You are an embodiment of will and experience in this time of ours.

Attempting to answer the question of "Who are you" with a paragraph like "I'm a marketing agent who specializes..." or "I am a parent who loves..." or "I'm a cycling enthusiast who competes..." is missing the point. Who you are isn't something that can be expressed in English, it is something that can only be seen by others and yourself when you utilize your agency and do. You aren't labels that are static in time. You aren't your thoughts, words in a paragraph, or titles earned. English words cannot act by themselves nor stand in as an example of your presence because it lacks the ability to capture all of the nuance of any individual person.

You are in a constant state of becoming toward our final destination. Why not become what you want? Disregard the thoughts which hold you and become starting today.