We tend to think of ourselves as stable, at least relatively so. You are something called you, and I am something called me.
We would recognise ourselves in the mirror and we’d recognise other people we know if we met them by chance on the street. It is difficult to imagine living with a different way of seeing ourselves and others.
Yet this is what both modern neuroscience and the insights of ancient eastern traditions tell us. Neuroscience has confirmed that we – or to be more precise the brain inside us which creates the thoughts, reactions, emotions and sensations we call the mind – is constantly added to, strengthened, weakened, or edited by every experience we have, from noticing a tree to a major event like getting married or the loss of someone we love. Another trait of the brain is its production of a near-constant stream of mental states, thoughts, ideas, memories, projections, and sometimes moments of respite from this stream of thoughts. These are not the things or feelings we deliberately produce; rather they are being produced automatically, mostly without us even being aware that they are arising. Yet the affect us and the decisions we make in our lives.
When the Buddha tried out for the first time what he then coined “mindfulness” (“sati” in his own ancient language, Pali) he discovered many of these qualities of the mind which neuroscience has since confirmed. The way he put it was quite poetic.
“it is just like a mountain river, flowing far and swift, taking everything along with it; there is no moment, no instant, no second when it stops flowing, and it goes on flowing.”
This is our mind he is describing. One of his followers a thousand years later described it even more starkly:
“Suffering occurs but there is no sufferer;
Our actions happen, but there is no doer.”
In other words, both science and ancient insights tell us that we are not a “thing” that has thoughts and feelings. We are the thoughts and feelings, and there is no separate, solid thing sitting inside us that is experiencing all these thoughts and feelings. Like the Buddha said we are the flow of changing thoughts; we’re not on the river bank watching the river flow.
Why does this matter? Because we always think that there’s a part of us that is separate from these mental experiences, and that sort of makes it all OK. But we’re not. All we are are these experiences, and when we really grasp that deeply, we see more clearly that practicing mindfulness can change not only how we think or react in a moment, but by doing so regular we change the entire stream of thoughts and feelings that we think of as “me”.
This might be a bit confusing to take in, but please feel free to re-read it, and see if that helps you understand it better.
All mindfulness is, therefore, is one part of our brain noticing the stream of thoughts and feelings, and when it perceives one to be unhealthy or potentially harmful – such as stress, anger, anxiety, worry, irritation – we change the flow of thought deliberately to a new thought, or even just the quiet, peaceful absence of any thought or feeling, just for long enough to allow the initial negative thought to dissipate and disappear.
This changes the entire future flow of the river of thoughts that you are; and each time you do it, you move the river of thoughts from its haphazard and volatile ways to a more streamlined, positive and nurturing one. Maybe a nice analogy could be that you can in the long run divert the river that you are from being one that is constantly pouring over a waterfall with all the crashes, noise and violence that this creates, to a new direction that flows gently and continuously until it finally opens up into the vastness of the beautiful ocean.