Working With Thinking


One thing that is not very well understood at all in our culture is how to deal with thinking. What we tend to do is to label certain types of thoughts as ‘negative’ and then try to fight back at them. Put simply, this means saying a big ‘NO’ to the negative thoughts in the hope that we can send them packing. This does not have the desired effect however because saying ‘NO’ to a thought feeds it and makes it stronger. We can see why this should be so by considering the matter in terms of ‘making an issue of something’. Thoughts are issues when it comes down to it. To start of with the ‘thought-to-be’ is merely one way of looking at the world, one way among many other possible ways. It exists as a sort of neutral possibility, but we have no special relationship with it at all. Basically, we don’t care whether this particular viewpoint is valid or not – it is simply not an issue to us, and this means that I don’t say YES to it and I don’t say NO.

What happens with all of us is that we have certain acquired biases that make us sensitive to particular ‘ways of looking at the world’. For example, if I have developed a sensitivity about me as a person not being as good as other people then (unbeknownst to myself) I will be listening out for viewpoints that have a bearing on this issue. I will be selecting data. This ‘bias’ makes me pick up on anything that is at all relevant to my sore spot, and it also makes me more-or-less oblivious to viewpoints that have nothing to do with this issue. To take a specific example, what happens is that I become very sensitive to any comments or reactions from other people that tend to corroborate the central hypothesis that everyone is better or more interesting or more worthwhile than me. Therefore, by a strange piece of irony, I only take notice of the sort of ‘evidence’ that makes me feel bad because it corroborates my underlying suspicion that I am a worthless person. I become fascinated by this viewpoint – there are other possible viewpoints out there, other bits of ‘evidence’ that don’t agree with my hypothesis, but I am blind to them. When it comes down to it, I am actually attracting ‘negative thoughts’ to me without realizing it.

The next thing that happens (as we have said) is that I then try to get rid of the ‘negative thinking’ by saying ‘NO’ to it. I try to fight back. We are now in a position to see why this is no help at all. If ‘not being as good as everyone else’ is my issue, then trying to convince myself that I am as good as everybody else only entrenches the issue more. Saying ‘NO’ to an issue (saying that it isn’t an issue) only makes it more of an issue!

For example, suppose that you know someone who thinks that they have just made a terrible fool of themselves in public. They are mortified, and you wish to make them feel better, and so you contradict them. They say “I made such a fool of myself!” and you say “No you didn’t” This is just like being in a pantomime – every time they say “Yes I did!” you say “No you didn’t!” Both YES and NO re-affirm the issue, they make the issue bigger not smaller. You might think that you are being helpful but what you are really doing is sending the message that it is such a terrible thing to make a fool of oneself that we mustn’t think of that possibility even for a second. Blind, compulsive denial of the possibility re-affirms the hidden rule that IT IS VERY VERY BAD INDEED FOR ME TO MAKE A FOOL OF MYSELF IN PUBLIC.

So, what ought you to do, in order to be genuinely helpful to your friend? Well, we know that you can’t contradict their thinking, and we also know that you can’t just agree with it. Saying “Yes, you really made a complete plonker of yourself didn’t you?” isn’t going to make them feel any better either. The answer is not to try to correct the situation, but to have sympathy, or empathy. Another way to put it would be to say that the helpful thing to do is to ‘not get sucked into the game’. This means remaining detached from (or ‘uninfluenced by’) the information-processing bias that is hidden behind your friend’s thinking. It is this ‘slant’ which is responsible for them attaching so much importance to this issue of ‘being as good as everyone else / not being as good as everyone else’. In other words, it might be a sore spot for them but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a sore spot for you.

We can apply this principle to thinking in general. If I take issue with my thinking by saying YES or NO to it, then I feed that thinking and it afflicts me more than ever. I get stuck in it, it just sucks up all my energy and keeps going around and around the same old tracks. The more I fight it, the more stuck I get. We can understand a thought as being like a canvassing politician who wants to obtain your vote. He or she comes along and tries to influence you. We could also say that a thought is like a door-to-door salesman. When I first become aware of the thought that is like when I get the first knock on the door. I open the door to see who it is and the salesman comes in and sells me some crap that I never really wanted in the first place. I didn’t want the product and I didn’t need it but after the silver-tongued salesman has had a go at me I end up convinced that I can’t actually do without whatever he is selling. So then I buy it, and I am stuck with it!

A thought works not by literally selling us things, but by selling us a particular viewpoint and saying that this viewpoint is better or more valid or more real than any other possible viewpoint. It works, in other words, by making itself plausible, or believable, or convincing to us. The thought wins when we start to believe in the reality that it shows us. Once we ‘fall’ for the thought (like the innocent and gullible victim of a shrewd and experienced door-to-door salesman) then the act of ‘believing’ in it effectively drives out all other perspectives on the matter, and I end up with a reality that has been described in over-simplified ‘black & white” terms for me. I then get stuck in the oversimplified and unrepresentative version of reality, which means that I am effectively blind to any evidence that does not agree with the basic assumptions (or biases) that lie behind the thinking.

Falling for the smooth-talking salesman means saying YES to the thought, and for the reasons that we have just explained, this does us no good at all. Because all thoughts oversimplify and misrepresent reality, they cause us to be blinkered to the ‘bigger picture’. It is no good at all buying into them. Each thought claims to be the definitive ‘view’ of things, just like each salesman claims that what he is selling is the definitive product, but in both cases the truth of the matter is being distorted. The fact of the matter is that we are being sold dodgy goods.

With thinking that is repetitive and obviously ‘negative’ (like “I am a terrible person” or “My life is totally ruined”) we are powerless not to believe in the thoughts but we also know that we can’t go on thinking them because they are too harmful. This is when we try to fight the thoughts. Saying NO to thoughts is like refusing to open the door to the salesman, but this doesn’t work because by doing so we are sending ourselves the message that we are unable to face the thoughts. We are training (or ‘conditioning’) ourselves to believe that we are helpless prey to any door-to-door salesmen that come around. Even if the thought in question does temporally go away because we have blocked it, all we have done is create in ourselves an addiction to hiding (or ‘blocking’). Because saying NO to thoughts feeds them by making the whole thing a bigger issue, what happens is that the thoughts gain strength, slowly but surely, until one day they get strong enough to break the door down. Of course, we could react by investing in a stronger door (one made out of reinforced steel) but then the same thing happens again. Eventually the thoughts get strong enough to break through our defences, and so we are forced to hide deeper. This is clearly the wrong road to go down!

Another way in which we try to say NO to thoughts is by arguing with them. My thoughts tell me that I am a terrible person or that my life is ruined forever and I try to argue the point. I try to convince myself of the opposite point of view. This equals ‘contradicting’ and we have already seen why this can’t work. As soon as I start arguing the case I have implicitly accepted that the whole thing is worth arguing about, I have accepted that there is a real issue there. Sometimes we try to avoid the extremes of ‘contradicting’ and instead we try to reformulate the picture in a more realistic and balanced way. I might say, “Well, sometimes I make a mess of things but then so does everybody and that doesn’t mean that I am a terrible person”. This strategy is no good either, even though it looks better than simply contradicting. It is no good because my motivation for talking myself into believing that I am not a terrible person is my fear of being a terrible person.

It is fear that is motivating my reasonable and rational and balanced attempt to restructure my own thinking, and so the underlying rule (or bias, or assumption) that is behind the fear goes unquestioned. The assumption here is that there are certain states of being that are basically unforgivable, and unredeemable. Therefore, if we end up in such a state it is all up with us. By acting out this underlying assumption in such an unreflective way I have reinforced it, and so the fear will dominate my life even more. The point is that I don’t really need to be ruled by my fear of myself or other people evaluating me in a negative way. Instead of trying to obtain the ‘freedom to be evaluated positively’ (which is slavery by another name) I can discover the freedom of not always having to act out of fear, the freedom of being able to unconditionally accept reality, whatever that reality might turn out to be.

In one sense, we can say that working with thinking (as opposed to reacting to thinking) means not being attracted to what it is selling me, and not being afraid of what it is selling me. This means that I answer the door to the salesman with an open mind, and without any hidden agenda to accept or refuse anything. In practical terms, however, this is just about impossible because we have been ruled by our thinking so long that we have become helpless ‘reactors’. The trigger comes along, and we ‘react’. There is no choice in the matter. In practice, therefore, what working with thinking means is watching ourselves react.

This process is simplicity itself: what happens is that the salesman calls at the door, I let him in and see what he has to say, and then before I know what has happened I start to believe what he is telling me, and so I end up buying the goods. This is ‘reacting’. The work comes in because this time I am watching what is happening, and so I can see that I have ‘fallen for it again’. Work means seeing what is happening. In terms of thinking, we explain the process as follows. A thought comes along and before we know what has happened, we get ‘sucked into it’. We forget that it is just a thought, just another way of looking at the world, and we fall into the trap of thinking that the thought is reality. We lose the distinction between a thought (or an idea) about reality and reality itself. A thought is a representation of reality, a ‘theory’ about reality, and it can never be any more than this. It is never the final word, and yet when a powerful thought comes along we automatically get sucked into believing that it is the ‘final word’ on the matter.

Losing perspective in this way is reacting, and seeing that we have gone and lost perspective again is work, because seeing that we have lost our perspective is in itself perspective. So I see that I have been taken away somewhere by the thought – I notice that this is what has just happened. “There I go again” I say. And so it continues: every time a thought comes along and ‘swings my vote’, so to speak. I see the fact just like I would see a wave breaking on the seashore. “There goes another one,” I say.

It can be seen from this that working with thinking is a very patient business. There are lots of thoughts out there, just as there are lots of waves in the sea. It would be no good me sitting by the seashore watching each wave coming in and hoping that it is the last. That would crack anyone up. Working with thinking doesn’t mean hoping that each thought that crashes into us like a big Atlantic breaker will be the last one. It doesn’t mean trying to get rid of thoughts. Instead of watching our thinking with an agenda, we just watch it, like a fisherman out at sea on a trawler watching the swell. The fisherman doesn’t get tired of watching, or fed up because he isn’t seeing what he was hoping to see. It isn’t a goal-orientated type of thing to do. In India this sort of exercise is sometimes known as ‘action without the fruit of action’, and it is known as a sure way to calm the mind. Otherwise, everything we do is based on restless desire and so we can never go beyond restless desire.

Although we can’t get rid of all thoughts, or even of all negative thoughts, there is a helpful change that takes place. What happens with practice is that we stop getting so attached to thoughts, and so we don’t get stuck in them. We find out that we are not so gullible anymore – we are no longer the legitimate prey of every passing salesman. The salesmen will still call to the door, right enough, but we will not buy anything off them. We won’t be rude or argumentative or discourteous, we just won’t buy the product. Another thing that happens as a result of steady practice is that we stop attracting negative thoughts. Once we allow all thoughts equally, without trying to shield ourselves from ‘bad thoughts’, then we stop fixating on negative viewpoints.

By getting perspective on thinking, we see that thoughts are only thoughts. There are all sorts of ways of looking at the world, and each is valid in its own way. When I look at the world in this way, then that is how it seems. When I stand on this particular vantage spot, then that is the view that I see. This is the principle of ‘conditional’ or ‘relative’ truth. As long as I see that each thought is like a different coloured pair of sun glasses, which I can wear to provide a differently tinted picture of the world, then I am not going to fall into the error that the view I see is ‘the one and only reality’.

When we see that all thoughts are valid in their own way, we stop arguing with them! There is no big deal, no issue. By being unattached to any one particular view of reality (any one ‘partial picture’) I get to see life in its fullness, in its ‘roundness’. This is the balance and completion that is missing when we deliberately manipulate our thoughts in order to try to see reality in a balanced and ‘right’ way. Reality does not show its face in response to a ‘correct’ choice that we make about how to look at it, it shows its face when we let it unfold according to its own law, not ours