Maybe you don’t have any trouble with your thoughts, but I do. Thoughts pop into my mind without my permission faster than a mosquito bites my skin on a sweltering summer afternoon. And, equally without my permission.
Descartes, father of modern philosophy, pointed to both the distinguishing characteristic of human beings and to the biggest curse of human beings when he made his famous statement, “I think. Therefore, I am.”
The fact that you and I can think, reflect on the past, imagine the future, even to be conscious of our own consciousness is what distinguishes humans from all other animals. The fact that you and I can think, reflect and so often regret the past, imagine and so often fear the future, even to be unconscious of our own capacity to be conscious is the biggest curse humans live with and so try to escape from almost continually.
In other words, “Thoughts,” as Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, “can be our best friends and our worst enemies.” I would highly recommend his book entitled Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. I heard him speak for the first time just last week and love the way he blends the best in psychology and the science of happiness with Buddhist teachings regarding the mind and its many afflictions.
Until what is on the inside — that is, your mind — is corrected, the external world, that is, how you perceive and experience the world around you will be a mere reflection of it. In other words, if the world around you is to you an unfriendly, hateful, scary, and judgment-filled place, why is this so? Have you ever sought to know why? Is this the way the world really is? Or, is this the way you really are? Often we project onto the world, as well as onto other people, the afflictive, negative thoughts and emotions that we cannot admit. Or refuse to acknowledge.
More and more, I am convinced you and I create the world in which we live. Pop psychologists glibly suggest, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” While this is true, the problem for most people is how to change their negative thinking and the afflictive emotions that are its inevitable consequence.
Want to change your inner world? Better control your mind, as well as your thoughts?
Here’s the only way possible:
1. Meditate daily. If you’re one of those persons who quickly excuses yourself as having tried meditation and discovering it does not work for you, that’s the first thought you need to change. Why? Because it isn’t so. So much of our thinking is just that — wrong. Deceitful. And, the most deceived person is one-and-the-same deceiver. You can learn to meditate and you must, if you wish to learn to control your thoughts and your thinking.
Books on meditation are as abundant today as cookbooks. I would recommend The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, written by Thich Nhat Hanh.
2. Observe your thoughts. Don’t judge them, observe them. How many times has a thought popped into your mind, for example — let’s say some kind of judgmental thought about a colleague at work or even your partner at home and, instantly, you jump into judgment mode toward them, but then finding fault with yourself for even thinking something negative about someone else.
I would suggest an alternative solution to unwanted thoughts. Instead of quickly dismissing them and then judging yourself harshly for having such thoughts, start from the premise that thoughts are neither right nor wrong. They just are. It’s what you do with your thoughts that introduce the “rightness” or “wrongness” of them. In other words, in the purported words of Martin Luther, “You cannot keep a bird from flying over your head; what you can do is prevent it from building a nest in your hair.”
How? By observing your thoughts. In the east, this is called acting as the “witnessing presence.” Like witnessing an accident and then reporting on it to the authorities. Be the observer of your own thoughts, even the ones that frighten you.
3. Cultivate the space between thoughts. In other words, as you train yourself to be the observer of your mind…you thoughts, you are actually cultivating what easterners call “the primary consciousness” that underlies all thinking. It is that “space between the notes,” said Claude Debussy “that makes the music.” If there were no spaces between the notes on a sheet of music, the sounds you would hear would not only be unintelligible but meaningless, even annoying.
This space is the place of internal peace. It is what some call “pure consciousness.”
The idea of emptying your mind of thought is terrifying to many westerners, accustomed, as we are, to the mistaken notions that we are our thoughts and that every waking moment should be filled with thought. After all, “an idle mind,” or so my mother used to say, “is the devil’s workshop.”
This is the core error, however, in our shared human experience here in the west. The east is all about “emptying” while the west is into “acquiring,” and “accumulating.” Add to this the other error, the error of thinking you are your thoughts, and we’ve got a “workshop” going on inside that is truly devilish. You are not your thoughts. You’re not even the observer of your thoughts, although that is much closer to perhaps who you really are.
Why is this all so important? Because this is the only way to get control of your thoughts. And, if you wish to be happy, and who among us does not wish for this, you must learn to manage the mind. Otherwise, it will menace you like the constant dripping of a leaky faucet.
The problem in our western world is not that we do not know how to think. As enumerated so eloquently by the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth, “the problem most people have is not thinking; it is not knowing how to stop thinking.”