I've heard and read it said many times about realising or having insight that mind states, thoughts, emotions etc "are not you because they arise and pass". Its always said as if its some kind of profound understanding but idk isn't it obvious they aren't you? They are happening to a sense of you. Noone actually thinks they are their thoughts. They think they are a brain having thoughts. What am I missing here?

9 Answers 9


Three little comments:

  1. People through history have tried to answer, "what is the self?", and arrived at many answers -- that it's the body (or, as you say, the "brain"), the thoughts, the name, the possessions, the social reputation, the immortal soul, the accumulation of deeds -- Buddhism more-or-less denies any or all of these, including that "it's the thoughts".
  2. I'm not sure it's true to say that, "Noone actually thinks they are their thoughts" -- for example Descarte's motto, "I think, therefore I am", is very famous.
  3. People do identify with or as a result of their thoughts -- "That is a sad thought, therefore I am sad"; "That is an evil thought, therefore I am evil (for thinking it)"; "That is an evil thought, therefore I will be evil (by enacting it)" -- so it's perhaps useful, "The arising of a thought doesn't mean you have to do that, doesn't mean you have to be that way."

If I ask you to describe yourself, you may say "I am James, 35-year old Irish man and lawyer, staying in London, with my wife and dog".

But that's not you. That's a mental idea, a mental identity, a mental formation, that you associate with your self.

When someone looks at you and says, "you are looking thinner". You reply, "Thank you. I've been watching my diet." Again, that's associating the form with your self.

When you're deeply engrossed in associating your self with form, feeling (sensation), perception (memory), consciousness and mental formations, you will not be able to see the obvious truth that those things aren't your self.

Of course, when you read about anatta (not-self), it would definitely sound logical and obvious to you as a concept. But it's not obvious when you're deeply entrenched in it.

The entrenchment can run so deep, that you could be very emotionally invested in the mental ideas about your self.

  • 1
    +1 The entrenchment can run so deep and sometimes we only realized how deep the attachment is when we lose everything e.g. what if James lost his wife and dog in a disaster. That is when thoughts that should just arise and fade away, suddenly, engulfed each moment awake....then, the thoughts become us.
    – Desmon
    Commented May 8 at 13:05

I somewhat disagree with the premise. Since this is the Buddhism (in general) thread, I want to first reflect on the dominant strands of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana paths; the world majority is Theravada, and does not necessarily promote this kind of introspection in the same way that Catholicism promotes ritualistic prayer over meditation. I'd further say that most people DO identify their "Self" with their thoughts as those constructs often lead to midlife crises, addictions, obsession with "status" and social comparisons. When you say: "No one actually thinks they are their thoughts", even that is just a narrative you've constructed about other people's minds, which is completely outside of your purview.

The biggest issue at the center of this question, for me, is the part of the mind that gets shattered when confronted with a reality beyond its comprehension. For example, PTSD in veterans: they feel closely connected with "who they think they are", then are thrust into the terror and mayhem of war, and can't reconstruct their sense of Self as they are fractured by their memory of who they were before wartime, and the animal they had to become in order to survive war.

In a second example, many folks who pursue the Vajrayana path explore mental states that are not commensurate with reality... sometimes through drugs, sex, or trance-level states of meditation. These psychonauts are often confronted with a deconstruction of their own ego, and the ego will manifest narratives that prevent the mind from transcendence. When I had a 3-day ayahuasca experience, my ego's narrative on the first night was a messiah complex... the drug had enabled my self-importance and "I'm so connected to everything" narrative to outshine the dissolution that should've been taking place. On the second night, I had to nearly have a death experience to understand my vulnerability and fragility against the awesomeness of the Creation all around me.

I guess, I'm trying to share that this is not as simple as it seems, especially when actively pursuing "WHO YOU ARE". It's kind of like a "strange loop" as described by Hofstadter in Godel Escher Bach. Yes, it's self-referential and seems stupid, but after a few layers of:

Who do I think I am? Is that just something I was told? What brought
me to this conclusion? How do I know this is true? What is truth or does it 
even exist? Etc...

Well, they wouldn't call these methods as "paths of self discovery" if they were so simple and straightforward as you might presume.


Unless you are enlightened, you identify with mind and body aggregates. So, you pay attention with mindfulness and you see that it's obvious that you aren't a thought. Unless you're enlightened, you will forget that you identify with mind and body aggregates as they happen, moment by moment.


I think the important trick is to see the process of self-making especially when we are upset, annoyed, delighted, proud, disappointed, frustrated, anguished and so on. Who is the one that is happy or sad, proud or ashamed, delighted or frustrated?

These are the times when we carefully and quietly watched the flustered and excited mind; trying to catch the self that is having all these emotions and feelings. Don’t judge, just try watching until these feelings/emotions start to fade away then try reliving the memories and seeing how the memories again stirred up those same feelings/emotions all over again. Do these a couple of times, seeing how actions always elicit responses. Sometimes, a sense of detachment and dismay follows. Perhaps, we are like Pavlov’s dog upon hearing a bell ring, wags its tail and start salivating. Does the dog know what it is doing habitually? Perhaps, the process of I making is like that too.

There are those who wag their tails because there is food. Then there are many who stop wagging when there is no food. Rarely are those who stop wagging because they caught themselves wagging for nothing....yet again.


When Buddhists say that something is "not you" they are trying to convey the idea that we should not be attached to the thing. So yes, it's fairly obvious that a thought is 'not you' in any literal sense. But it's also fairly obvious that even the smallest thoughts can cause strife, consternation, and misery. For an obvious example, the simple thought "Make America Great Again" — which is superficially just a pleasant affirmation — is currently liable to aggravate almost everyone in the US (depending on how it's used). Or think about the simple thought: "That girl/boy is prettier/handsomer than my girlfriend/boyfriend", which might be objectively true but which has all the relationship virtues of a land mine.

The problem with thoughts is that thinking is (almost) invariably problem oriented: complaining, worrying, seeking solutions or improvements… And in fact, one of the problems the mind has is boredom, and it often solves the boredom problem by inventing new problems to work on. But problems are always conflictive and divisive; they lead to un-ease and discontentment. The phrase "your thoughts are not you" is meant to cut the binds of attachments, so that if you happen to have the thought "That girl/boy is prettier/handsomer than my girlfriend/boyfriend", you won't spend hours being mad that your SO isn't better looking, or worrying whether you're settling, or that you're a bad boy/girlfriend for thinking that. The thought isn't reflective of you in any metaphysical sense, it's just a thing that happened. You can let it go.

  • also we are trained to be constantly doing something, thinkking is a mental activity that fits, just like other bad habits
    – blue_ego
    Commented May 13 at 17:07
  • i mean they both fit, but not the same....it's an unfortunate happening, but necessary...one way or another u have to solve your problems, that seems obviousenough, to say, 'having problems is a problem' is true, but i'm just lazy
    – blue_ego
    Commented May 14 at 13:24
  • just right effort - between bored and lazy, btw i'm just typing to mindful self
    – blue_ego
    Commented May 14 at 13:49
  • The brain does its job b/c it has to solve the problem. so yes, in a way you associate with the problem solver not the problem. but once the problem is solved then what? Now you are empty. Is that ok? We are conditioned to not be ok with that.
    – blue_ego
    Commented May 14 at 14:09
  • 1
    @blue_ego: Or there's the story about a monk (whose name I can't remember off hand)… Someone asked him how Buddhists deal with problems, and the monk answered (with a smile): "No self, no problem". I think the reverse is true, too: no problem, no self. Commented May 14 at 14:31

Many years ago I studied Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a kind of modern, scientific form of Buddhism, and which emphasizes the same thing: we are not our thoughts. At the time I found the concept helpful, and it definitely improved my overall stress levels.

But as I read more and more Buddhist texts (primarily Zen) which discussed this, I made the realization that this basic understanding is the very pinnacle of Buddhist thought, a kind of apex of how to transcend suffering.

There is economic freedom and freedom from material concerns, but the fact of the matter is that as living beings we always have problems, and no matter what our life situation is if we are controlled by our own mind we cannot be free. If we are constantly swayed by our own mind we cannot be free. True freedom is freedom from our own mind, from what's bothering us, the recognition that we don't have to attend to the problem of the day.


Noone actually thinks they are their thoughts. They think they are a brain having thoughts.

Maybe that's true. But some as you pointed out think that "I have thoughts or thoughts are mine". We normally believe that we have some control over the thoughts that arise. But if you examine it carefully you will find it false. Thoughts arise dependent on conditions(i.e watching news) and they cease when conditions cease. However you try you can't keep a thought without changes. Since they arise and cease due to conditions and you can't control them - why do you think they are your thoughts?


Generally, thoughts & particularly "emotions" are "you" because these thoughts & emotions arise from self-view. A mind with self-view cannot discern not-self.

The scriptures generally say (apart from the fake MN 10) that the five hindrances (five emotions) are to be cleansed before real insight can occur. The suttas literally say the five hindrances weaken the development of wisdom. Therefore, the idea a meditator will attain realization observing the arising & passing of the five emotional hindrances sounds like nonsense; because it is nonsense.

  • No I heard it from monks and books written by monks.
    – Sati
    Commented May 8 at 5:08

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