Your Stream of Consciousness – Part 1: The Power to Choose

You can think of the mind like a stream.

The water, and what’s carried in it, represents your thoughts.

All day long, the stream of thoughts keeps flowing. Every second of every day, new thoughts (+ feelings and sensations) keep appearing in your mind. Hence, we get the metaphor “stream of consciousness.”

But here’s the thing about streams: You don’t control the fact that water keeps flowing in them. It’s the nature of streams to have flowing water.

The same is true with your mind. You don’t control the fact that thoughts continue appearing in your mind. It’s the nature of the mind to have new thoughts appearing.

This can be an unsettling insight at first encounter. (“What do you mean I’m not actually thinking my thoughts?!”)

But it need not be a bad thing. Quit the opposite, in fact. It’s a powerful and liberating insight when seen properly.

  • If you’re the one creating your thoughts, and your thoughts are negative/sad/depressed…then it feels like you’re responsible for that. Which can give rise to blame, shame, and negative spirals.
  • But if you’re merely experiencing your thoughts, and aren’t directly responsible for creating them, you aren’t to blame. You can direct your attention to something more constructive: “What do I want to do now?”

Two Frames of Reference (One Powerful, the Other Powerless)

As a matter of experience, you can have two frames of reference with your stream of consciousness.

1 – Unaware: From this place, you don’t realize that you are not your thoughts. It’s like you’re standing neck-deep in the stream itself, getting carried away by your stream of thoughts.

2 – Mindful (Aware): From this place, it’s like you’re standing on firm ground beside the stream. Simply noticing what comes through the stream. As a mindful observer of your thoughts, you can see them clearly for what they are: temporary appearances in consciousness.

When you’re operating from an unaware perspective, you lose your agency. You become swept up in your thinking, merely reacting to what arises.

But when you’re mindful, everything changes. You still can’t control the fact that thoughts are arising. But in a certain sense, you can control how you respond to them.

This power of this insight can’t be overstated.

It’s what Viktor Frankl referred to in Man’s Search for Meaning.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The mindful person notices when thoughts appear. And they choose how they want to respond to it.

While the unaware person simply reacts to whatever appears.

This is the fundamental opportunity of mindfulness. You can transform the relationship you have with your mind. And as a result, you can live a more intentional, peaceful, and clear-seeing life filled with better choices and less suffering.

The Superpower of Choice

This ability–to experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and mindfully choose your response to them–is like a superpower.

It’s the heart of Self-Mastery. And it’s the foundational skill behind developing yourself in any way, whether building new habits, growing into new opportunities, or simply enjoying the ride more in life.

Without awareness, you have no opportunities to change your behavior. And without the agency to choose your response, you won’t actually take action in a new way.

Seen this way, Self-Mastery = Awareness + Agency.

Let’s examine a couple ways this shows up in life—across health, work, and relationships.

4 Steps to Maintain Self-Mastery, Make Healthier Choices, and Stay out of the Stream

To make a healthier choice, you need awareness of the potential suboptimal choice + awareness of an alternative + the agency to act on the alternative.

  1. Notice an impulse to exercise an unhealthy behavior arise in your stream of consciousness.
  2. Pause to observe the thought/feeling/sensation. Keep your feet firmly planted on the bank of the stream.
  3. Notice how you don’t need to react to the thought/feeling/sensation. You can simply notice it and watch how it changes.
  4. Choose how you want to respond. Order the sugar-laden dessert? Or choose not to?

Staying Focused at Work

To stay focused at work, you need awareness of what you want to focus on + awareness of distractions + the agency to re-center after getting distracted.

  1. Notice that you’ve become distracted. Or that you feel an impulse to divert from your task to do something else.
  2. Pause to observe the thought/feeling/sensation. Keep your feet firmly planted on the bank of the stream.
  3. Notice how you don’t need to continue acting on the distraction. Or you don’t need to follow the impulse.
  4. Choose how you want to respond. Return to the task at hand? Or divert into distractionville?

Improving Communication in Relationships

To improve your communication, you need awareness of your potential suboptimal action + awareness of an alternative + the agency to act on the alternative.

  1. Notice that you’re about to snap at someone, or communicate in a reactive way.
  2. Pause to observe the thought/feelings/sensations that are arising. Keep your feet firmly planted on the bank of the stream.
  3. Notice how you don’t need to follow that urge to react.
  4. Choose how you want to respond. Connect with your higher self and respond with love, optimism, and understanding? Or lash out with negativity?

It Happens in a Flash (+ Compounding Gains)

At first glance, this might seem like a lot of work. (“Four different steps just to make a better choice?”)

But the steps of this process happen in a flash.

A flash of awareness + a split-second of re-centering + a moment’s consideration —> A new action.

In isolation, one of these choices won’t transform your health, career, or relationships. But over time, these tiny wins do more than just add up. They compound!

This is what creates life-altering change. Moment-to-moment choices, aggregated and compounded over time.

Don’t Delay, Start Today

So…What’s the #1 thing you’re most excited about growing into in your life?

You know, that challenge or opportunity you know would make a big difference if you leaned into it?

Use this insight into your stream of consciousness as a tool to make better decisions. And as a result, continue closing the gap between who you’re capable of being and who you’re actually being.

One choice at a time.

PS: With that as backdrop, there’s another, deeper reason for sharing this article. An additional insight that gives you even greater levels of influence over the quality of your life. I’ll share more soon in Part II.