Paying Attention to Thinking


We normally think pretty much automatically, which is to say we passively allow ourselves to be ‘taken over’ by whatever thoughts come along. This doesn’t usually seem a problem until we find ourselves being plagued by thoughts that we do not like. When this happens we naturally try to rid ourselves of the negative thinking, but what we find then is that we are simply not able to tell the unwanted thoughts to ‘go away’.


The problem is that we have allowed our thinking to become automatic, which means (as we have said) that our thoughts take us over whether we like it or not. Automatic thinking is a habitual sort of thing and I cannot snap out of it all of a sudden just because I have suddenly decided that I don’t like the sort of thoughts that I am getting. What happens then is that I say ‘NO’ to my thoughts – I struggle against them and try to break free, but all that happens is that I feed the thoughts by fighting them. Saying NO to a thought strengthens it because saying NO makes a big issue of it; the thought is like a bully and if we run away or try to escape we only make ourselves more of a victim to it. We play right into the bully’s hands, so to speak.


It is perfectly possible to get out of the trap of negative thinking but in order to do this we must first start paying attention to all of our thinking, so that our thinking stops being so ‘automatic’. Basically, automatic thinking is due to our long habit of ‘not paying attention’ and so the only cure is simply to start paying attention! Even if someone tells me this, though, I still feel confused because I do not know what exactly I am supposed to be paying attention to. The best way to deal with the confusion that comes when I start wondering “What am I supposed to do?” is to look more closely at what thinking actually involves, and ask ourselves the question:


One way to look at thinking’ is to say that our senses pick up information from the world about us (or from our memories of previous sense-impressions) and then our thinking interprets that information for us – i.e. it analyses the data and presents us with solid conclusions, when it is able to. This is all one continuous automated process: first there is the sensory input, and then our thinking ‘processes’ this information and tells us what the information means, and what implications it has for us. It gives us (or so we assume) the correct interpretation. We then act on this basis.


There is a serious problem with this way of looking at the thinking process however, and this is that it is unreflective. This means that we totally trust that thoughts are providing us with an accurate picture of what is going on; a thought turns up on our doorstep saying, “This is the story, this is how it is” and we automatically accept that this version of reality is true, or ‘right’. This is where the problem is because there actually is no ‘right’ way to look at the world. What we see when we look at the world depends upon the way which we choose to look it from – there are many possible perspectives that we could take, and each particular perspective gives us a different picture. But we can’t really say that one picture is right and the others are wrong because the picture that each perspective provides us with is ‘right’ for that perspective, but no picture is ‘universally right’.


A simple way to illustrate this idea is to thinking in terms of a house. When I look at a house from the front, facing the front door, it looks one way. If I go around and look at the house from the side, then the picture that I see of the house is a totally different one. From the back of the house I see another view, and if I somehow suspend myself in the air and look down on the house from directly above the roof, then I will get yet another perspective on the matter. So which is the true picture? Clearly, none of the perspectives taken provide the definitive ‘right way of looking at the house’ – they are all right in their own ways, and at the same time we have to say that none of them are absolutely right because there is always more to the house than we can see from any one viewpoint.


Perhaps, we might think, if we take all of the views and add them together we would arrive at the correct description? This seems sort of logical but it doesn’t work either. For one thing, we can only look at the house one way at a time (although for this example it is true that we could make a series of architectural drawings of different views and look at them simultaneously), and for another thing, there are an endless number of possible perspectives that we could take! As Robert Anton Wilson says, you can never have a map that totally describes the territory. The map is never equal to the territory, no matter how much detail you manage to cram in! The scientific term for this sort of idea is complexity, which simply means that there are many right ways to see anything, but no overall right way. As Nobel prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine says, there just isn’t any ‘divine viewpoint’ from which we can objectively survey (and map) the whole of everything. This idea can be related, within the field of mathematics, to Godel’s ‘incompleteness theorum’.


The example of the house is not perfect for our purposes because it is possible (as we have said) to visualize a number of different views simultaneously. This is not true for thinking because one thought excludes another – we simply cannot think two thoughts about something at the same time (at least, not under ordinary circumstances). I cannot think that something is good and bad at the same time; I may alternate from one to the other but that is it. Because one way of thinking about things necessarily excludes all other possible ways, this means that our thinking process cannot be trusted in the way that I do.


Now, it is important to stress that our thoughts are not actually ‘lying’ to us. They are telling us their own truth, which is necessarily limited (or ‘relative). Relative truth means that ‘it is true for that particular way of looking at the world’. The picture that thought gives us is true relative to the assumptions that had to be made before the thought in question could produce a clear cut (or definite) conclusion. Without making assumptions there can never be any solid certainty for us to rest on, and so another way of looking at this is to say that thought is limited because its always has to make unfounded assumptions before it can proceed.  Making ‘assumptions’ basically means that we have to assume that the perspective (or ‘angle’) that we are going to take is the right one; if I don’t take this first step of saying “I’ll look at it this way” then obviously I’ll never get anywhere! It goes without saying that I could have taken a different perspective, but then that would have had to been the ‘right way’. Therefore, the whole concept of ‘rightness’ is relative…


So, our thoughts do not lie but they only show part of the truth, not the whole truth. Where the problem comes in is when we take it for granted that this thought that I am having is absolutely true, not just relatively true. At this point, my thinking stops being helpful to me, and becomes a deadly sort of trap. What tends very much to happen is that we have an unconscious reason (or bias) to see things one way rather than another, and so I start selecting one view (often an extreme black or white view) without realizing that my data processing is prejudiced. Then, I fall into the trap of believing this black or white view of the world. I might think that I am a terrible person, and that my life is ruined; or I might think that I am a truly great person and that I am really going places. Both views are the result of unconsciously biased information processing.


What is the true story? Well the true story is that thinking can never give me the true story, and so the most helpful thing that I can do is to stop ‘jumping to conclusions’ and leave life as it is, an open book. The crucial difference between life and our thoughts is that our thoughts are always certain, whilst life is uncertain. Another way to put this is to say that our thoughts are conclusions – they are finished, whilst life itself is ‘unconcluded’, open, and always therefore unfinished. There is a secret reason why we opt for the certain (thought-produced) version of reality and the reason is that we cannot bear the discomfort of ‘not knowing’. We find uncertainty hard work because it demands something from us – if I can write something off by being final in my judgement then I do not need to do any work; I can resign, so to speak. If I think that I know the ending of the book then I do not need to carry on reading it, I can throw the book down and say, “What’s the point? I already know what is going to happen…” In this way I sneakily avoid the ‘work’ of being in reality, which is always uncertain, always developing, and I obtain the short term benefit of feeling justified in not giving life a chance to prove me wrong.


So far, then, we have said two things. The first thing that we said was that normal everyday thinking is an automatic process whereby we tend to unreflectively accept a partial picture as being ‘absolutely true’ and the second thing we said was that we always have an ulterior motive for accepting the certainty of our thoughts at face value in this way. All of this is pure theory however, and as such it is useless to us in any practical sense unless it makes sense to us on the basis of our own experience. A theory is like a thought – if I am tempted to either [1] believe it or [2] disbelieve it then what this shows me is that I have a secret agenda to take refuge in certainty (either of the positive or negative variety); which relieves me of the necessity to take on the responsibility (and the risk) for ‘seeing for myself’. This means exposing myself to the uncertainty of reality, where I cannot be sure what I will find.


We said before that the key to becoming free from the habit automatic thinking (i.e. taking stuff for granted) is paying attention, and we are now in a better position to understand what paying attention means in practice. Normally, we pay attention in a one-sided (or ‘uneven’) way, i.e. we notice the way in which the thought is right (or true) and we ignore the way in which the thought is not right and not true. This is like when I deliberately see only one side of the argument so that I can have the satisfaction of having a definite belief to hang on to. It is not that the evidence I am paying attention to is necessarily wrong, but where the thing is that I turn a blind eye to ‘competing’ evidence, and also turn a blind eye to the fact that I am turning a blind eye. The point is that ‘uneven attention’ is not attention at all, but rather it is a sort of unconscious manipulation (or distortion) of reality.


The first step in developing ‘evenness’ (or ‘lack of bias’) is therefore to pay attention to the way in which we are deliberately not paying attention. This means spotting the fleeting moment of choice in which we decide not to notice something, which also equals the moment of choice in which we decide to give away our freedom. The way in which we do this is very simple. The first thing that we have to do is just spend a bit of time reflecting on the ordinary everyday process of having thoughts. Basically, having a thought is like catching a bus – here I am waiting at the bus stop and a bus pulls up in front of me. The process of passive identification which we talked about earlier means in terms of this metaphor that when a bus pulls up, I automatically jump on it and let it take me for a ride. This process seems perfectly normal and acceptable to me and I don’t experience myself as having no freedom in it – the reason for this being that I take it that I actually want to catch the bus. I side with the compulsion so that it doesn’t seem like an external force, but my own free will.


But suppose a bus (i.e. a thought) comes along that I don’t like – a scary or unpleasant thought. Well, as we have said, the problem with the state of passive identification is that I have to go along with what ever comes my way and so if an unpleasant thought comes along I have to ‘go along’ with that too. This is the difference between buses and thoughts: I can choose not to jump on a bus if I don’t want to go where it is going to take me, but with a thought it makes no difference whether I say YES or NO to it because both positive and negative reactions create an unbreakable attachment between me and the thought. ‘Attachment’ means that there is an issue, and any purposeful reaction to an issue just confirms the issue as an issue. Thoughts are like traps because any reaction to them feeds them and makes them stronger – even if I deliberately don’t react (i.e. ignore) the thought, this too is a purposeful stance that I have taken, and it too will strengthen the thought in question.


So what can I do, if I can’t deliberately do ‘not doing’? The answer is very simple. If we go back to our analogy of ‘catching the bus’, what I do is that I catch the bus as normal. I have to do this – I can’t fight this automatic process because fighting always involves ‘identifying a certain reality’ and identifying a certain reality means that I am jumping on the bus just the same. So what I do is that I jump on the bus as normal and notice myself jumping on the bus as I do it. This ‘noticing’ is the key: to notice that I am catching a bus (i.e. to notice that I am forming an attachment with a thought) is to be aware that I didn’t have to do it. When I notice myself hopping onto the bus I am also at the same time noticing my lack of freedom in this – I am noticing the automatic quality of my thinking, which a completely new and surprising thing to see.


“And how exactly does this help me?” I ask again. Well, it is true that noticing doesn’t seem to be helping me. It makes the whole thing even more painful and frustrating than it was before. What I don’t see straight away is that this pain is how my increased freedom of perception shows itself. Before, I did not have the freedom to see that I wasn’t free and so all my problems were to do with unconscious suffering, which is where I suffer without understanding my suffering. Unconscious suffering is the usual state of affairs for us – it is when we do not allow ourselves to see the real problem, but pre-occupy ourselves with ‘phoney problems’ that are designed to protect us from being aware of what is really going on. If we solve the phoney problem we feel great (for a while), and if we fail to solve it we feel bad, but whether we win or lose we are still only involved in games, i.e. we are still ignorant of the hidden motivation behind what we are doing. When I see thinking as the automatic process that it is, then I am ‘free to see that I am not free’, which means that I am gaining insight into the hidden motivation that compels me to identify with every thought that comes along.


When the hidden motivation is no longer hidden, then the ‘integrity of the game’ is fatally flawed – it can no longer function. We can explain this in terms of the ‘self-distraction’: let us say that there are two possible states, one is present and the other absent. When I am present I am ‘here’ in reality, in touch with what is going on, and when I am absent I am away somewhere else, completely not in touch with ‘here’. In the second state I am distracted, and in the first state I am not. The point about this is that when I am distracted I do not know that I am distracted. I am ‘absent’ precisely because I don’t know that I’m absent! In the game of self-distraction it is absolutely essential that there is this ‘double not-knowing’: I have to ‘not know’, and not know that I do not ‘not know’; I have to be absent, and also absent from knowing that I am absent. Without the doubleness it doesn’t work at all, which is to say – if I am absent but I am not absent from knowing that I am absent, then I am not absent at all. To be present in my absence is to be present. What this means in practice is that the instant I realize (or see) that I am in a distracted state, then I am no longer distracted but back in reality.


Having understood this principle in relation to the game of self-distraction, all we need to do now is to apply it to the game of thinking, which is not (as it turns out) that different. We can say that thinking is a game because it involves a hidden motivation, which means that is based on self-deception. The way the ‘deception’ works can be explained in the following way. A thought is essentially a theory or model of reality, it is a picture which comes with the suggestion that “This is the way things are”. As long as the thought is seen as a provisional theory and nothing more, there is no deception. A provisional theory says, “ Well, maybe this might be a useful approximation of the way things are…” and when there is this ‘maybe’ the theory keeps its legitimacy  – it is not taking itself too seriously and it doesn’t really matter that much if the theory turns out to be wrong because no one had invested in it. We don’t invest in maybes, we only invest in certainties. For example, I can’t get that excited just from knowing that there is a theoretical possibility that the world may end tomorrow, any more than I can get particularly excited by the remote possibility that I may perhaps one day win the lotto if I keep playing.


The thing is, though, that thoughts incorporate within them a sort of ‘slippery slope’ which we tend to slide down. When we start to slide we can’t stop sliding, and the whole process of ‘identification’ has happened before we know it. We have ‘bought the ticket,’ and we are firmly on board the bus. What has happened is simple: in order to produce any kind of a definite picture at all – even provisional dotted-line type picture – the thought has to oversimplify reality, it has to direct our attention in a certain direction, at a certain class of details, and therefore it has ignore all the other directions, all the other details that we might otherwise have picked up on. This is basically a process of ‘losing perspective’: when we toy with a certain view of the world, a certain thought, then there is naturally a temptation to follow the logic of the thought a bit further to increase the definition, which is to say, to join up all the dotted lines of the provisional theory in order to produce a ‘total picture’ – a solid picture made up of strong black lines and satisfyingly defined spaces. What happens then is that we lose a huge amount of perspective in one go, and because of this dramatic ‘information collapse’ we no longer have the ability to know that we are missing anything. The ‘doubleness’ of irreversibility has spring its trap on us: we have forgotten something very important (that the thought is only a theory), and we have also forgotten that we have forgotten.


At this point, the provisional theory has become unquestionable dogma  – we have a way of looking at the world which asserts itself to be the only way of looking at the world, and such is the authority of the picture we see that we become totally ‘brainwashed’ by it. The process of ‘yielding to temptation’ (sliding down the slippery slope) usually happens so very quickly that it is quite invisible to us; the whole thing is fait accompli before we know it, and therefore there is no feeling of choice at all. Going back to our bus analogy again, the automatic quality of the identification process means that we just find ourselves sitting on the bus going down the road – this happens every time, whether I like it or not, and there is simply no way for me to put the breaks on the flow of events by brute force.


The ‘self-distraction’ example allowed us to see quite clearly that no brute force is actually needed at all to fatally injure the integrity of the game – all I need to do is to be aware of myself being distracted and – lo and behold – I am no longer distracted. The hidden gain behind distracting myself is obviously that I don’t want to be where I actually am, and so I use some pretext to draw my attention away, but what is the hidden gain behind thinking? This is much harder to see because we are so sold on the idea of thought’s legitimacy, which is to say, we find it absurd to suppose that we think not to solve legitimate problems but rather to avoid some ‘awareness’ that we don’t want to have. We have already touched upon this notion, and what we said was that thinking is a way of avoiding uncertainty. The idea is that there is security in certainty, even when that certainty is negative, and so we tend to cling on to it despite the fact that this clinging is causing loads of long-term problems. In fact one handy definition of a psychological game is to say it basically involves the ‘one-sided’ (or (‘uneven’) operation of focussing on the short-term gain as a way of distracting ourselves from the inevitability of the long-term cost. Another way of putting this is to say that the secret agenda behind having a thought (or a theory) is to exclude any other thoughts (or theories), i.e. we want the feeling of being totally sure about something and we don’t really care what it is we are being sure about. For this reason, I am not really interested in seeing the process whereby I choose to identify with a thought, and see the world in that particular way rather than in another, all I want is the ‘final product’, so to speak.


At this point it is helpful to look even deeper into our motivation to be attached to our thoughts (as opposed to having thoughts but being unattached to them). Why are we so scared of uncertainty? One way to explain this fear is by considering the somewhat challenging idea that the self which we normally identify with is itself a game, which is to say, it is a picture that only looks real when I look at things in a certain way. Of course, as with all games, the point is that I cannot allow myself to see that my secure and solid sense of self is dependent upon me choosing to look at the world in a specific narrow way, because then the solidity (or certainty) which is so important to me evaporates into thin air. Anything that I do on the basis of this constructed self reconfirms the validity of that self, and so straight way we can see that no matter what the overt aim of my purposeful actions (which includes thinking) might be, the covert aim is to maintain and protect the integrity of the game of being ‘me’.


It is easy to see why there should be fears in connection with letting go of the empirical or game-playing self. This is a big step to take – it is unprecedented, in fact. What happens if I let go? How can I trust that everything will be okay if I take this unprecedented step? What lies behind the certainty of the familiar everyday ‘me’? It is not helpful to attempt to answer any of these questions because then all we are doing is swapping one certainty for another. What we can say however is that the deeply familiar sense of being ‘me’ is produced by deliberately losing perspective, which is to say, looking at things in one way only. If my perspective increases on the matter, the black and white lines or boundaries that define my sense of self become provisional and ‘open to interpretation’ – we find ourselves on shifting sands, in fact.


The narrowly defined self is just like a theory because it forces us to focus only on stuff that is relevant to our inbuilt data-processing prejudice. Basically, the self which I am identified with is a bias; it is an arbitrarily biased viewpoint that I do not acknowledge as being arbitrary. We have just said that the defined self forces us to see the world in a narrow way; contrariwise, we could just as well have said it the other way around – that the act of focussing on a specific way of looking at the world creates a specific observer. A defined view automatically generates a defined self. When our perspective increases (for whatever reason) we start noticing irrelevant information, information that doesn’t ‘fit in’ with our neat theory of the world. This means that I start to lose my grip my identity a bit. The general process is one of ‘increasing openness’: when boundaries (defining lines) get rubbed out, I stop feeling separate and isolated and instead I start to notice all the ways in which I am connected the world around me, a part of everything rather than a-part from everything. It starts to become impossible to say for sure where ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins.


As Alan Watts says, the everyday self is like a lap which seems to be there when we are sitting down, but which vanishes when we stand up. ‘Sitting down’ corresponds to the low perspective situation, and ‘standing up’ corresponds to high perspective. Using this analogy, we can say that the secret motivation of the thinking is to maintain a state low of low perspective, where we can’t see the wood for the trees. In a similar way, we can also say that the anxiety behind thinking is the anxiety of the lap being afraid (without admitting it) that it might evaporate out of existence. And yet the irony of all this is that the lap doesn’t really wink out of existence because it was never really there in the first place. It was only a construct of our way of looking at things and so what is there to lose?


Of course, despite the fact that in reality there is ‘nothing to lose’, we continue to hang on to our thinking for dear life. This is because thinking is a circular argument: if we could get enough perspective we would see perfectly clearly that we do not need our thinking (that our non-stop thinking has become pointless and unnecessary) but from inside the thinking, it all seems very necessary and very important. So yet again, it seems that we have got stuck, that we have reached an impasse. How do we work with this? In order to see our way out of the apparent impasse all we need to do is to go back to our practical exercise of ‘catching the bus’: I cannot deliberately stop myself from jumping on board the bus, but I can watch myself doing it. This seems so simple that we cannot see how it can possibly help and so it is worth just going over the principle again. The point is that when I see myself catching the bus I can’t help seeing at the same time that I didn’t have to catch the bus. I am actually seeing two things: [1] I am powerless to not catch the bus and [2] there is no absolute need for me to catch that particular bus – I could have caught any bus in fact. Or not caught a bus at all..


In terms of becoming identified with a particular thought, what this means is that I see myself having a thought, but at the same time I know that the thought I am having is not an absolute statement of ‘how things are’. Basically, I see how the thought is forcing me to look at the world in a specific way – I see it taking away my freedom to look at the world in other ways. This is where the similarity with the game of self-distraction that we talked about earlier comes in. Just as awareness of the fact that I am distracted punctures the integrity of the game of self-distraction, so too does awareness of the essential arbitrariness of thought puncture the integrity of the game of thinking. When I know that the way I am presently seeing the world is the result of the bias inherent in the thought, then what I have is an awareness of the relative truth of the reality that I am seeing. My thought is showing me a picture of ‘how things are’, but I know that this is just a version of reality, one of many. I cannot fight this version (i.e. deny it), but the whole point is that I do not need to fight it – seeing that a thought is only a thought and not reality is enough.


It is important to stress that this awareness approach doesn’t ‘make everything better’ straight away. What happens is that we gain a greater insight into reality, whereas before we were using the ‘automatic-identification-with-thoughts’ process in order to avoid perceiving reality. The reason we were so happy to give away our freedom to perceive reality was because we were avoiding discomfort – this is the motivation behind all games – and so gaining awareness of the thinking process necessarily involves encountering that discomfort. We can give a straightforward example to explain this. When we feel seriously bad (i.e. when the ‘mental discomfort indicator needle’ jumps into the red), a certain type of thought automatically appears. This type of thought is basically about escaping from the mental or emotional pain that we are going through. The actual thought could be anything – I might think “If I have a drink I’ll feel better”, or I might think of doing something else that will straightaway make me feel better. All of these thoughts are offering me a way out, and they appear as if by magic as soon as the pain hits me. Even thoughts like “Why me?” or “If only I hadn’t…” are offering an escape from the pain (although this is not immediately obvious) because what I am still looking for a way out, only here I am doing it by leaving reality entirely.


This allows us to see clearly the (hidden) motivation behind believing in those thoughts – I desperately want to believe that there is a way out, and I am willing to bend reality if needs be. The actual reality is of course that there is no quick fix for the pain – there is no way for me to exit what I am going through. If I were to practice paying attention to my thinking, I would expose the avoidance game that I am playing, and so I would start to feel ‘worse’ because I would no longer be able to believe in the ‘false escapes’ offered by my thinking process. The thoughts of ‘how-to-escape’ still come thick and fast, but now I am unable to take refuge in them any more. The effect is painful, like adding insult to injury – not only do I have the original pain or discomfort, I also have to endure these utterly stupid and futile thoughts. I know that the thoughts are futile, but I am still totally powerless not to think them, and so as a result the experience is doubly painful.


Actually, I would probably prefer to go back to the old state of believing in my thoughts but once I have become disillusioned it is not so easy go back to the old ‘unconscious’ ways. I have sacrificed the short-term gain of false escaping for the pain of reality, and ‘reality’ is synonymous with ‘zero freedom of manipulation’ (i.e. the impossibility of doing anything about it). This does not look like much of an improvement, but it is. I have lost my ability to believe in illusory short-term escaping (and the false comfort that comes with it) but it is precisely because of this that I am no longer obstructing the natural process of change. When I see through the false comfort of my games I take on board the true nature of my situation and the long-term result of this is that I find the peace of mind that had been so long denied me.


If we apply this principle to thinking in general, the long-term result is that we become ‘free from thinking’. This does not mean that we become totally mentally blank, but simply that the nature of our relationship with our thoughts changes. We can think, but we don’t have to. We’re free to think or not think. Eckhart Tolle says that he counts it as his greatest achievement that he doesn’t have to think if he doesn’t want to! So being ‘free from thinking’ means that if we do think, we think freely, and not because we are being compelled to do so by the overwhelmingly compulsive quality of the thoughts themselves. But being ‘free to think or not think’ also means that when we do have thoughts, we know these thoughts to be thoughts, which entirely changes the nature of the thoughts. The thinking process no longer determines reality for us, it no longer writes the script for us, and as a result we are no longer trapped in a prosaic ‘thought-created virtual reality’. As Eckhart Tolle says,

If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he is dreaming. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream.


  1. doyourwork · November 28

    Don’t know if I make sense: When I reach a thought or a particular stimulus-response, either I give in to inattention (automatic mode) or I will have to bear the discomfort of ‘not-knowing-how-to-fill-the-time’, it is easy if only I give into inattention then everything goes smoothly 🙂 And, thought usually convinces us that either we should be ‘doing the right thing’ (one that will fix me) or not be there at all.

    Thank you for this.

  2. zippypinhead1 · November 28

    Yes that makes perfect sense to me! When we are used to be bossed around by thought then there is a lot of discomfort to ‘not obeying orders’ – the only acceptable option is ‘doing the right thing’, as you say. Nothing else will do. But eventually this discomfort turns into a sense of freedom though – the sense of freedom that comes when we realize that’s its OK not to follow orders… Thanks for your comment, and all the others comments you have made.

    • doyourwork · November 28

      I am grateful to have stumbled upon your writings.