release your grasping
be nourished by emptiness
rebirth from the void
Who would you be without your thoughts?
This question is an adaptation from a core question of The Work, a process created by Byron Katie for unraveling judgments.
Her process has been recycled and adapted by many other practitioners.
If you’ve ever done any work to unpack your limiting beliefs and thoughts, either in the context of therapy, coaching, or mindfulness practice, it’s likely you’ve encountered it.
This question always stumps me. I don’t know how to answer it.
I can answer it. I can extrapolate. I can hear other people speak about who they are and infer that I might be the same. I can project who I would like to be. Who I hope to be.
But that’s all wild speculation.
If I’m being honest, I have no idea who I’d be without my thoughts and beliefs — the limiting ones or the expanding ones.
In fact, sometimes I think that the “positive” beliefs can be just as damaging. If I believe myself to be skilled in a certain area, that might prevent me from seeing what I don’t know and learning more.
Certain thoughts are so embedded within me that they seem to be part of my identity. I’ve held them for as long as I can remember.
They feel as much a part of me as my name.
Apparently this is common. According to Byron Katie,
For many people, life without their story is literally unimaginable. They have no reference for it. So “I don’t know” is a common answer to this question.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
The idea that “you are not your thoughts” is often offered by meditation teachers, spiritual advisors, and therapists.
The idea is that thoughts are like passing clouds. They don’t define you because they are not permanent.
There’s a part of me that gets this and a part of me that has some skeptical questions:
If you consistently think the same thoughts, doesn’t that, in some way, define who you are? Because it shapes how you view the world.
What if you consider yourself a “thought leader”? Doesn’t that, by its nature, define you by your thoughts?
What happens when you’ve had the same thoughts for years — even decades? How do you disentangle yourself from these thoughts?
This is the challenge I have with the question from Byron Katie:
Who would I be without this thought?
What’s Left When Thoughts Disappear?
If my mind was zapped clear of all thoughts, who would I be? What would remain?
For my whole life I’ve been taught to value my mind above all else. My thoughts are my creativity, my unique ideas, my views and perspective.
If you took that away from me, what would be left?
It’s like a black hole, the ultimate mystery.
I’m not sure there’s any way to know before giving up the thought. And I suspect that’s why I cling to certain thoughts — because of the fear of not knowing who I am if I let it go.
I suppose that’s also the promise. Who could I be? What could emerge if I let go of all my thoughts, if I cleared out all the ideas?
What might emerge? What new personality or gifts might rise to the surface? What’s underneath all the thoughts? What life is waiting to be lived through me?
If you’re reading this hoping for an answer or a resolution, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
This is the mystery.
It can only be discovered by letting go of the thoughts and walking into the emptiness, and from there, re-emerging.