The Prison of Thinking
Since I began this blog, I have written 57 posts, which I’m finding now adequately service most of the questions I receive. So from now on, I’ll be speaking more generally, around the subject of meditation, rather than referring to specific problems or methods in this blog – unless, of course, I receive a question that elicits new thoughts.
So please feel free to comment, argue or add input as you wish.
We humans have a very profound problem with our mental environment – a problem that has crept up on us so slowly over thousands of years that we never noticed it, and most of us still do not notice it. Our problem is that, rather than being the masters of our mental environment as most other creatures are, our mental environment has become the master of us.
As such, our conflicted internal worlds rule us in what amounts to a chaos of the spirit that is only barely restrained by our complex laws, and all the drugs, comfort and television that keep us pacified.
This predicament is entirely understandable considering that over our evolution we have specialised in thinking and ‘idea making’. We need it to survive. Like the speed of the panther, the colour shifting of the chameleon, or the agility of a chimp, thinking has become our ace up the sleeve in the card game of survival. On a practical level our habits of concept-making help us to create working models of reality in our heads, so that we can figure out ways of dealing with it – and then further thinking helps us to communicate our solutions to one another.
But it’s got to the point now where we spend so much time in this ‘concept world’ we forget it’s only a working model – a fabrication. Our mind and body treat the notions our imaginative mind fabricates as reality.
For example, take our habit of worrying. In the turmoil of the worrying mind we have the ability to be electrified with fear over some anticipated challenge in the future, while sitting safely and comfortably in the present – and the tension between the two is often excruciating, because though we know our worrying is pointless, most of us cannot stop it when it happens. The habits of conceptualizing and visualizing that caused the worry are too vivid, and too well developed.
Our training in concept-making begins at a very early age, when our parents begin encouraging us to attach words to our immediate experience. For example, when a new-born baby first experiences a cat, it has no name for it. It simply experiences color form, and texture – the softness and warmth of a furry body, and the sound of purring. To the baby, the cat is always a new and exciting experience. But the baby learns from its parents that this experience is called “A CAT”, and as it maps its memory out with words, gradually the word replaces the experience. And so it is with everything else in the child’s life as well.
As this process of conceptualization continues and compounds, the child becomes progressively more focused on the concepts of things, rather than its experiences. Events in the child’s life become more about what the child thinks about them, than what it is actually experiencing in each moment.
With this constant and persistent training, most of us subsequently lose the ability to experience the fullness of each moment without diverting most of our mental energy into thinking about it. Where as children we had the ability to be fascinated by our sensual responses to living -the feeling of water flowing over our skin, or the rich red of a rose, – as adults we usually only pay attention to our idea’s of what is happening, while constantly forgetting our immediate experience. In this forgetting, it is as if our life is merely a series of triggers evoking new conceptual nuances in our head, rather than an ongoing journey of experience.
And the older we get, the more we sink into this conceptualization of our life experience. It forms a dangerous kind of parallel reality in our mind, with no real substance as reality other than the thoughts, ideas, memories, fantasies and emotional reactions it is made from.
But as I said, this is our training. We need the skill of concept making to be able to survive in the world we have created. Having been taught this skill, we all take our place in the grooves of our cultural milieu. And though we have learnt what amounts to a form of madness, we don’t notice because everybody around us is doing the same thing – the illusion is complete.
We speak to our world with concepts, and our world speaks back to us with concepts. All around us, we are constantly being invited back into this parallel reality of concepts – radios, televisions, advertising, signs and other people continually exhorting us in different ways to ‘think about it!’ – whatever ‘it’ is. The ideas and thoughts that our world fires at us are so intensely evocative and all encompassing that we become mentally consumed each day, needing to think constantly just to be able to survive.
And because our mind has learnt that its awareness of immediate experience is not as valuable as the thoughts it makes from that experience, it prioritizes what it pays attention to accordingly – it gives most of its energy to making more thoughts. It learns to extrapolate endlessly from any given point, weaving endless daydreams for the sake of dreaming. And though we expend a lot of energy on this compulsive dreaming, we never work anything out or take action with these dreams. Usually they are trivial – pointless reiterations of compulsive preoccupations, in which the endless projections of future possibilities and mistaken memories of the past are mixed with the present. The thoughts and fantasies that arise from this mess grow and expand because so much of it is speculative, unanswerable and yet compelling – producing a form of mental pollution – a ghost world which creates itself endlessly.
No other creature on earth does this.
Most other creatures on the planet have their attention firmly fixed to the present moment their body is living in.
But while all the rest of the planet is happy to be mentally in flow with its immediate experience, we human’s give most of our mental energy to a self created heaven or hell in our heads. And our body tries its best to react to both worlds – the reality it lives in, and the reality it has created. As we stumble about in a noxious fug of compulsive thinking, worrying and daydreaming, so much of what we do is misguided and destructive, affecting everything, and everyone around us. The casualties of this pollution are not only ourselves. By virtue of our technology and numbers, it is also our planet that suffers along with us.
Ideally we should have a choice between the two parallel realities we live in, of immediate experience and concept. When we need to, we should be able to think intensely – to ‘freeze’ things as concepts so we can examine them, and deal with them. But then, when nothing requires our attention, we should also be able to let go of thinking and just surf the moments with an awareness that is naked and clear. In this kind of awareness, though thoughts come and go as they will, we should be able to choose when to hold a thought long enough to express it, and when to just go with the flow.
If our attention is balanced with awareness, we are able to remain detached enough to not become lost – such that, though we may, when necessary, give our attention over to thinking, if there is awareness, we never become lost in it.
Because there is a difference between actively thinking a thought and being aware of a thought.
Our attention can only attend to one thought at a time, whereas our awareness can be aware of whole idea’s all at once. An understanding that arises from the awareness feels light. It has no effect on the body. It arises into our awareness like a bubble, a small explosion; then passes away without eliciting further thoughts or reactions.
In meditation it is exactly this kind of awareness we develop.
We practice empowering our awareness by pulling our attention away from ‘what we think about things’, to what things actually are – sensations in the body – sensual events happening in real time.
In this way, the attention slowly learns it doesn’t have to think about things.
It learns that ‘present time knowing’ is more effective than thinking – that present time knowing brings with it an intuitive intelligence that is much more agile and complete than clunky old thinking. .
As such, we no longer take our thoughts so seriously. Mind realizes that it doesn’t need to always be thinking to function. We learn to only engage thinking and concept making when we need to, leaving the thoughts we don’t need to spin like unengaged gears in an idling engine.
So we stop reacting to our conditioned internal monologue, and pay attention to what we know – developing an ability to contemplate problems holistically and wait for an understanding to arise from awareness. We learn to be aware of our momentary life experience as feelings, sensations, sights, sounds, smells and tastes as well as our idea’s about them.
As time goes by, eventually our conditioned habits of compulsive thinking give way to the more gentle and intuitively intelligent awareness.
Attention becomes less hyperactive, and merges back into the surrounding awareness.
And the more we live from awareness, the more life becomes imbued with that magnificent ‘rightness’, which can only come from the intuitive knowing of awareness.
And it is at that point that the tranquility we so often hear about as an attribute of meditation, begins to arise.