Thought has been getting a bad rap lately in various circles. Ever since Eckhart Tolle pointed out that there is an awareness that observes thought, so that a thought itself cannot be “me”, all hell has broken loose.
Of course a central problem is that we mainly think in words, and words form the basis for much of our conditioning, so the realization that the persistent thought “I am a mess” is not “me” is extremely helpful.
And as anyone who meditates knows, the ability to observe a series of thoughts and not attach or identify with them, creates “space” for other types of inquiry and experience. We become less and less caught up in any one thought or pattern of thinking.
Inevitably, however, the question of free will comes upas we try to discern whether the thought “I want to get up” causes the action that makes us go to the kitchen. My friend Michael Jeffreys, in his deconstruction, points out that “we don’t make any thought happen so what makes us think that a thought that happens of itself has any power?”
We can even go as far as to negate the reality of thought entirely when we again recognize that there is an awareness beyond thought, that can observe our thoughts, and it appears after the actions that seem to result from them have already occurred. Life never stands still.
We sometimes call this quality of mind “consciousness,” and there are teachings that maintain that the awareness of consciousness is in fact “all” that there is that we know for sure—that the brain does not take in but rather projects the outside world entirely.
It is difficult to refute such an argument, but when it’s time to go to Trader Joe’s it’s a lot easier to assume that we can get in the car and drive because we need food and it’s “out there.”
It seems to be much less painful to live “as if” there is a real world “out there” beyond our thoughts.
And it is also very helpful to accept the world as it presents itself, regardless of our thoughts. The entire Eastern concept of suffering, or Samsara, is based on the illusion created by an overly powerful mind that “thinks” it knows better than reality. We can see some of that in hubris of modern science which sometimes believes “Nature made a mistake” and “we” can do better.
So how can we approach these issues, using our flawed language, and understand them more deeply?
It helps immensely to look at the language we are using more closely. For example, teachers like Rupert Spira point out that when we examine the subject-object structure of the way we communicate with words, it is easy to see where the notion of “ownership” by a self came from – for every action (verb) there seems to be a doer (subject).
E.g., “I had a dream”…
Or when we say “it is raining”, what is the it? And again, when we say “I feel bad”, who is the I – when we discern that there is always an awareness that knows what is being felt, sensed or thought, we move “above” thought, as Eckhart Tolle says. When we numb ourselves with drugs or alcohol, or habitually follow conditioned patterns, we are “below” thought.
But what about thought itself. We may compare thought to software, and it has many similarities in that it seems to “trigger” events and solve problems. But where is this realization pointing?
But if we’ve used computers, we have confronted the following set of circumstances:
We have tried to perform a task, like create a report from data, and it doesn’t seem to work. We may even open the manual, but the language of the manual is obtuse and we cannot follow it. We try the task over and over but we are stuck in the realm of thought.
We think we are doing it right, and we’re attached to our concept of how it ought to be, but it is not working.
Then we go from thought to an idea that takes us “outside” of our “selves”. We’ll call an expert and we dial tech support.
This idea takes some courage to implement, as we all know. We might encounter more linguistic frustration by being connected to someone in India or the Philippines; but let’s assume we have an experienced friend who has used the software more extensively and has experienced the same issue.
This friend, or someone competent at tech support, takes us through the steps and now explains the operation from the point of view of the program (or the programmer who designed it).
Suddenly the entire process “makes sense” – we have gone from Thought – to Idea – to Insight or Realization.
In many ways we have taken our “selves” out of it in order to make space for the “solution” to unfold.
I had an epiphany along these lines last year, when I was invited to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate the marriage of a niece I had never met by a cousin with whom I had recently reunited and bonded.
I wanted to go but was anxious about getting out of my comfort zone and had many “thoughts” about what could go wrong. I could get stranded, delayed, lost, stuck on the tarmac, lose my stuff or massively inconvenienced, and these thoughts were inhibiting me from taking the trip.
When I expressed these fears (thoughts with a powerful self-attached) to Michael Jeffreys in the Santa Monica Eckhart Tolle Meetup Group, he said, “what if you went to Chicago (and none of that happened) and you had a really good time?”
This came from beyond my “self” and was a new Idea. It had not appeared among my thoughts previously, which had been all self/fear-based.
Suddenly I laughed (a common reaction to insight or realization) and said, “I never thought of that.”
Again, it seems to me that I had gone from a coarser, materially controlled sense of experience (a threatened self) to a broader perspective (someone else’s input or idea) to a “finer” realization of a much higher frequency (hence the insight and laughter): I did not know the outcome (and it could be favorable).
And in fact, I went into the trip without expectations and open, and had a blast.
A big part of the experience was the ability to meet every situation “fresh” – without the need to orchestrate or control the outcome – and accept it as it unfolded. In fact, when my cousin picked me up in the car in Chicago and told me I was going directly to dinner downtown, instead of to my hotel for a nap, I had no choice but to surrender… And nothing horrible happened.
I now find it immensely helpful to attempt to create space and use my awareness to discern the quality of thoughts that arise – and let them go unless they have the taste of an idea, or occasionally, an insight or realization.
As I’ve learned, ordinary thought is just sound in my skull, like the traffic going by, and frequently negative bringing up a “problem” that I didn’t even know I had.
And such negative, habitual low frequency thoughts can easily become obsessive.
But beginning to notice different qualities of the same energy as ideas or insights, and not “taking credit” for them as an “I”, gives me the ability to potentially effect a different outcome from one that other thoughts might have envisioned.
Is there a “me” freely doing any of this? I am now prone to dismiss this entire issue as a “word trap”.
And what about the use of the word “Divine” in the diagram above – certainly modern science would frown upon such language.
When I look out at the stars and galaxies, which can take me easily beyond thought or ideas, I have a profound realization – I don’t know. My language is incapable of grasping the “meaning” of what I perceive from “my” own limited perspective.
I can only fathom that there is Something far Greater than my own limited capacity to “think” that comprehends the vastness that is HERE and obviously EXISTS.
It is an experience beyond my mind to grasp. Neuroscience tells me it is all happening within my brain, so it in fact IS Mind, but hardly a mind for which “I” can take credit.
To “me” this becomes the ultimate insight or realization—awe and humility in the face of experience that none of my thoughts cannot comprehend, and that the “I” that I think I may be, and need to get to Trader Joe’s, is nothing in comparison to… this infinite and vast Intelligence called Life.