The early American psychologist William James used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to refer to the spontaneous flow of thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions that constantly assail us throughout the day. It is a kind of inner monologue–the chatter and twittering of the mind. Most of the time we are not really aware of our stream of consciousness, but it is always there: on the way to work, in the background of our favourite show, or when we are trying to sleep. It is a kind of inner narrative that helps us make sense of the world. We wander from one topic to the next so automatically that we are not even aware that we are thinking. It’s a kind of ‘default setting’ within us that comes to the fore if we are not careful.
Because our minds are constantly thinking and generating thoughts, we are subjected to a constant bombardment of thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Our stream of consciousness is not a direct or accurate reflection of ‘reality’, rather it is a reflection of our mindsets, our beliefs, and our assumptions. The stream of consciousness is a kind of chirping and ever-changing background noise that can be limiting and distracting. When negative, the stream of consciousness can pull us down and prevent us from achieving our goals and living a healthy and balanced life.
Our negative thoughts become a kind of feedback loop and we get stuck in a kind of loop of negativity. We get caught in a cycle where we notice that we are thinking about negative things, and these negative thoughts create negative feelings, which in turn cause us to have more negative thoughts. To overcome this we need to be able to steer the stream of consciousness in a more positive direction. We must recognise that have a choice to respond to the information of our stream of consciousness positively, negatively, or not at all.
One of the most important insights about the stream of consciousness is that it is not ‘me’. We tend to identify with the stream of consciousness and think of it as a kind of ‘I’, because ‘I’ am the character who seems to be having these thoughts. But the stream of consciousness is not really an ‘I’ or ‘me’, but rather a stream of mental activity that we tend to equate with ‘me’. But the stream of consciousness is not a representation of ‘me’, it is only a representation of the mind that is part of ‘me’. It is not your pure, deep, and pristine centre of consciousness.
Realising that the stream of consciousness is not ‘you’ is the first step to being able to better control and shape your thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and emotions.
If the stream of consciousness is not ‘you’, then what is it? We can think of it kind of like an holographic self: a collection of thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions, but also a collection of habitual beliefs, assumptions, thought processes and ways of thinking. It is the part of us that seems to be able to experience and act on the world. Ask yourself, “If the voice of my stream of consciousness was another person, would I want to spend my time with them?”. The answer is usually a resounding ‘no’, because our stream of consciousness is usually incredibly boring, repetitive and negative.
We can learn to tame the stream of consciousness by seeing it as an “other” – as one of many voices within us. If we are able to become aware of the stream of consciousness, we can learn to change its tone and texture. We can begin to become aware of when we are having negative, unhelpful and unproductive thoughts and we can choose to let go of these thoughts or engage with them. We can learn to reframe our thoughts so that they are less negative, less self-limiting and less stressful. Instead of being stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, we can choose to take control of the stream of consciousness and direct it in a positive direction.
Since our stream of consciousness has a tendency to be incredibly repetitive and return to the same thoughts and feelings over and over again, one of the best ways to break the stream of consciousness is to have new thoughts, try new things, and break out of our comfort zone. When we have new and positive experiences, we can realise that our stream of consciousness is not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality, but can instead be a reflection of our mindset and our own limiting beliefs and assumptions. When we have new and positive experiences, we can allow ourselves to be more present and aware of the present moment.
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