When Thoughts Come…

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‘When thoughts come, throw them away’, says Ouspensky. When Ouspensky says this he doesn’t mean that we should fight against our thoughts or try to control or correct them. If we fight against our thoughts (or in any way try to control them) this simply means that we are afraid of them and fear causes us to stick to our thoughts as if with superglue. Fear is superglue just as desire or craving is superglue, and so if I am trying to get rid of my thoughts out of fear (because I perceive them to be a threat) then this is always going to have the opposite effect. Fighting against our thoughts doesn’t make them go away, and neither does trying to control them. This is the basic principle that we never seem to grasp…

 

When Ouspensky says, ‘When thoughts come, throw them away’ he means that we should no longer be looking for something from them. If we believe that our thoughts have something in them that we need then straight away we have given our power to them. Straight away I am the servant of thought rather than its master. When we feel that our thoughts have something in them that we need then this is an addiction! We have set thought up in a position of unquestionable authority over ourselves. When we have this sort of relationship with the thinking process then we are ‘the helpless addicts of thought’, and this is the normal way to be…

 

Of course, it makes no sense to say that we shouldn’t feel that our thoughts have something in them that we need, or that when thoughts come we should throw them away. Words like ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ only ever come from the thinking mind anyway – they come from our ideas of right and wrong. To say that we should throw away our thoughts (or that we shouldn’t be looking for something from them, something that’s somehow going to change everything) involves us in a paradox therefore – it involves us in the paradox of ‘thought trying to escape from thought’ (which is the same thing as the paradox of ‘thought trying to free itself from thought’ or ‘thought trying to control thought’). This is the paradox that we are caught up in the whole time without realizing that we have been caught up in anything. It is – for us – an invisible paradox, but we’re caught up in it all the more for not seeing it.

 

It’s not that we should throw away our thoughts or that we should free ourselves from the shackles of our own thinking. This would put us in the utterly absurd position of saying “We have to be free” which is a very clear example of the type of paradox that we have just been talking about – what we’re saying when we make a statement like this is in essence that ‘we’re not free not to be free’ which of course means that we’re not free at all! If I say that I have to be free (or that I ought to be free) then what I am actually doing is embracing slavery in the name of freedom. I am slavishly conforming to the rule which says that there must be no rules! If we were truly free then we would be free not to be free but this is a subtlety that the thinking mind always glosses over in its heedless rush to attain its goals.

 

When Ouspensky says ‘When thoughts come, throw them away’ this is not then a moral imperative – it is not any sort of imperative at all. It’s just that if we were ‘in the state of unconditioned consciousness’ rather than ‘stuck miserably in the thinking mind’ (which is how we usually are) then when we see thoughts coming along then we wouldn’t experience any attachment to them, either of the positive or negative variety. We wouldn’t be drawn to them and we wouldn’t be repelled by them. We wouldn’t experience either fondness or aversion to them; we wouldn’t ‘clutch at them’ and neither would we ‘push them away’. This is like getting advertising leaflets coming through the letter box – when we are in ‘unconscious mode’ then we are, in all probability, going to be drawn to the glossy images, attracted to the phoney promises that are trying to draw us in. In this case we’d pick them up and find them interesting – we’d get absorbed in them, sucked up into them. But if we were conscious rather than unconscious then we wouldn’t have any interest at all in the junk mail that comes through the letter box on a daily basis because we know well that there’s nothing worthwhile in them! We’re wise to this kind of thing and so we don’t get hooked into reading through them – we know what we’ll find in it before we look into it and so there’s no need to bother. We pick it up and put it in the recycle bin without wasting our time reading it. When we see junk mail we simply throw it away…

 

This isn’t because we’re afraid of what’s in the junk mail – because we think that there’s some kind of ‘badness’ in it that will contaminate us – it’s simply that we know very well that there’s nothing in it! Exactly the same is true in the case of our everyday thoughts, therefore – we don’t get sucked into them because we know very well that there’s nothing new, nothing worthwhile in them. This tends to sound rather outrageously radical. How could we possibly say that ‘there’s nothing worthwhile in our thoughts’? What sort of statement is this? Admittedly the majority of the thoughts that we think on a routine basis are fairly inane and not really worth bothering with but we nevertheless believe that there’s good stuff to be had in there too, if we ‘sift through all the dross’. We firmly believe that there are nuggets of purest gold to be had there as well, if we only could get lucky enough to come across them, and so we spend every day engaged in ‘sifting, sifting, sifting’…

 

Our everyday type of thinking might therefore be said to be like the lotto in this respect, in that we keep at it on the off chance that we will win something! It could also be said that our everyday type of thinking is like the type of entertainment we get on TV – the truth of the matter is (when it comes down to it) that the stuff on TV is just ‘more of the same, more of the same’, and this ‘same’ was never really that good in the first place! We carry on watching regardless however, and it could be said that the reason we persist is because we have the unconscious assumption that there has got to be good stuff in it somewhere, which we might find if we keep on dutifully watching all the programmes. And so it is – we might say – with our everyday old thinking. It might bore us silly but – out of either hope or a sense of misplaced loyalty – we keep on faithfully engaging with them!

 

Most of us would probably object to this view of the thinking process. What about creativity, we might object? What about genuinely ‘insightful’ thoughts, what about those flashes of realization that may change our lives forever? Or on a humbler level, we might ask what about those clever ideas that may help us to ‘get ahead of the competition’ in the cut-throat business of modern life? This objection is confused, however. Creativity and insight don’t come about as a result of thinking, as a result of exercising the mechanism of rational thought. The great scientists have always say that their insights came about not as a result of thinking long and hard about the problem but rather through ‘letting go’ and letting the realization come all by itself, without forcing. August Kekule (like a lot of other organic chemists of his time) thought long and hard about what the chemical structure of benzene might be, but the answer came into his head only when he gave up and forgot about trying to work it out. The solution actually came to him on the Clapham omnibus – so the story goes – in the form of a spontaneous visual image of a snake biting its own tail.

 

Similarly, any poet will tell you that you don’t ‘think’ a poem into existence – the essence of the poem comes out of nowhere, it just comes into our head all by itself. It’s not really ours at all. This is necessarily true for all creativity – creativity means that it is new, and the mechanical thought process by its very nature can only ever look for ‘new combinations of the old’. This is all a mechanical process can ever do. It is true that coming up with ‘new combinations of the old’ can sometimes pay dividends (like writing novels or TV series by a formula, for example) but there is no creativity in this – it is just banal entertainment, just as our everyday thoughts are ‘banal entertainment’. Thinking does not produce profundity no matter how much effort we put into it! Actually, what gives birth to profundity is stillness of mind, not the ongoing mechanical activity of the everyday mind, which blocks spontaneity and creativity at its very root. As Krishnamurti says,

Thought is always an outward response, it can never respond deeply. Thought is always the outer; thought is always an effect, and thinking is the reconciliation of effects. Thought is always superficial, though it may place itself at different levels. Thought can never penetrate the profound, the implicit. Thought cannot go beyond itself, and every attempt to do so is its own frustration.

 

…Thought is response to any challenge; thought is not action, doing. Thought is an outcome, the result of a result; it is the result of memory. Memory is thought, and thought is the verbalization of memory. Memory is experience. The thinking process is the conscious process, the hidden as well as the open. This whole thinking process is consciousness; the waking and the sleeping, the upper and the deeper levels are all part of memory, experience. Thought is not independent. There is no independent thinking; “independent thinking” is a contradiction in terms. Thought, being a result, opposes or agrees, compares or adjusts, condemns or justifies, and therefore it can never be free. A result can never be free; it can twist about, manipulate, wander, go a certain distance, but it cannot be free from its own mooring. Thought is anchored to memory, and it can never be free to discover the truth of any problem.

All of this is not say that thought isn’t useful within its proper domain because of course it is – it is because thought is so powerful a tool within its proper domain (which is the practical, concrete, down-to-earth world that we relate to every day) that we over-generalize it and over-apply it to imagine that it is useful for everything, in all possible domains. The thinking mind – as has often been said – is a ‘survival tool’ and so inasmuch as survival is important, so too is this tool. What we easily tend to forget however is that life is about more than just surviving! Where thought isn’t so useful (or rather the exact opposite of useful) is – we might say – in the non-concrete realm, which is the realm of our actual unconditioned being, as opposed to the virtual reality domain of our conditioned or concrete identity. When we treat thought as if it were above everything – including our actual being – then we necessarily reduce our being to the level of the crudely mechanical, and do not permit ourselves any more subtle (i.e. less concrete/literal) existence than this. In other words, when we over-value rationality then this means that we do not permit ourselves a spiritual life, because the thinking mind cannot conceive – and cannot therefore acknowledge – any such possibility…

 

Living in a wholly concrete world (i.e. living in the ‘gross’ rather than the ‘subtle’ realm) is – despite its appalling banality – nevertheless intensely attractive to us because it allows us to hold tightly onto a fixed or definite view of reality and ourselves. It could be said that when we are not using the instrument of rational thought within its proper domain (when we are ‘over-valuing’ it and making it therefore our ‘unquestionable master’) what we are actually doing may be called ‘holding on for the sake of holding on’. What we’re holding onto with our thinking are the literal/concrete productions of the thinking process and so really this is a case of ‘thought hanging on to itself’.

 

Thought hanging onto itself is a loop of logic however and a loop of logic – as every student of philosophy knows – is tautological, which is to say it has no actual substance. It is appearance with no content – it is a statement with no basis. So what we’re holding onto doesn’t have any real substance to it, even though the very reason we’re holding onto it as tightly as we are is because we imagine that it does. We cling to our concrete conceptions because we assume that they alone are real, but the ‘truly real’ has no concrete black-and-white character. As the Buddhist teachings say, the truly real has no character at all! Reality as it is in itself has no ‘form’ – it has no form because it is what all forms are imprinted upon. This rather difficult idea is often explained in terms of the ocean and the waves that travel upon it – the waves seem to be real because they are what we see, but actually they are transient and lacking in any essential nature of their own. This is to say, what we call ‘a wave’ – as if it were an actual thing in itself – is essentially an illusion. What is real is the ocean, but we don’t see it for the waves. What’s more, we can’t grab hold of the ocean because it is ‘characterless’; we can’t hold onto it (or ‘define’ it) because it is not a form, but that which gives rise to all forms…

 

So the nature of reality is such that we can’t grab hold of it and this is what we find unattractive about it! Saying that we find this lack of anything to hold onto ‘unattractive’ is putting it mildly – actually we find it totally terrifying, which is why we prefer to relate to our concrete-conceptual reality (the reality that is made up of literally-understood things), even though this concrete (or literal) reality is an illusion. What we’re holding onto with our thinking is lacking in any real substance, but it does nevertheless provide us with something that we are very fond of. What it provides us with is a basic kind of ‘familiarity’. It provides us with two things: it provides us with a reassuring sense of familiarity and it provides us with something to do – an ‘engagement’, an ‘activity’ that is essentially repetitive and therefore not challenging for us. It suits us only too well to be ‘rehashing the old’, therefore – it suits us precisely because this way we know that nothing truly new will ever comes up. At the same time however this safe and reliable ‘repetition of the known’ is very, very tedious, very, very sterile (or ‘stale’) and so we have to do something to disguise this dreadful tediousness, this toxic sterility, this poisonous staleness. That’s why the ‘rehashing’ business is so important – we can’t get away with thinking the same old thought over and over again, that would be pure torture!

 

Thinking thus provides us with an occupation which is ‘ontologically unchallenging’ (meaning that it doesn’t challenge our idea of ourselves, our idea of ‘what it’s all about’) but at the same time as being ontologically unchallenging it is also superficially diverting, superficially distracting, which means that we don’t get tormented beyond endurance by the sheer absolute undiluted tedium of what we are engaged with! This then is a great package – it seems to offer us everything. It seems to offer us the escape from radical risk that we so badly want without us having to pay the price for it, which is ‘all-pervading unendurable ennui’. On the face of it, therefore, we have it cracked – we have the very thorny problem of ‘ontological fear’ cracked once and for all. Somehow, by this clever double-dodge, we seem to have ‘pulled it off’…

 

Actually, of course, we haven’t got away with anything. In fact we’ve created a worse difficulty for ourselves – albeit a difficulty that we are unable to see. This combination of factors (the absence of ontological challenge along with the superficial diversions or distractions that stop us noticing it) is actually an extraordinarily deadly mixture. It has (we might say) a property that we hadn’t thought about, a property that we didn’t expect, something that we hadn’t necessarily bargained for. The combination of ‘zero ontological challenge’ and ‘non-stop superficial entertainment’ is ‘deadly’ in that it is guaranteed to send us fast asleep. It is guaranteed to ‘put us under’, to anaesthetize us as if with chloroform or halothane. It is as if we are going around wearing a sealed helmet that has a little device piping in a potent anaesthetic gas the whole time, a narcotic agent that is guaranteed to ‘put us under’ and ‘keep us under’ for the duration of our lives. Only this isn’t regular sleep that we are talking about here but ‘the sleep of the soul’, ‘the sleep of the spirit’…

 

Our non-stop thinking puts us very effectively to sleep, in other words. It’s a narcotic just like heroin or television or alcohol or gambling or fashion magazines or social media sites or power games or any other of the entertainments that we love so much. It’s a drug, not to put too fine a point on it, and we’re all well and truly addicted to it. Non-stop thinking is our drug of choice – a drug, what’s more, that we can manufacture in unlimited quantities wherever we go. We’ll never run out! When we are thinking away to ourselves, lost in our internal monologue, then we have effectively ‘exited’ the reality of the here and now. We have taken up full-time residence in the ‘mind-created virtual reality’ of our thoughts. We’re in a bubble of thought. We’re in our own personalized little dream-world. We have just enough awareness left to perform routine-habitual tasks such as driving a car, going to work, going to the pub or out for a meal, watching sport on television, cooking the dinner or chatting to a friend, but that’s it. It’s mechanical stuff only. And sometimes we hardly even have this little bit of ‘left-over’ awareness available to us to properly carry out the task we’re engaged in – we might for example miss the traffic lights changing from red to green, or eat our entire dinner without noticing that we have done it, or completely fail to hear what our friend was saying to us…

 

Eckhart Tolle puts this succinctly in his quote – “The human condition: lost in thought”. It’s not just because we are day-dreaming (and thus conspicuously absent, even to our fellow sleepers) that we can be said to be ‘lost in thought’ – the most super-efficient goal-orientated / analytical type of thinking is just as good for getting lost in. When we relate to the world (or to ourselves, or to other people) on the basis of thought we aren’t relating to the world at all – we’re relating to our concept of the world, to our idea of the world. The proof of this is the bland, bored, jaded, ‘matter-of-fact’ way in which we do this relating – when we relate to the conceptually mediated version of the world (to our ‘rational simulation’ of the world) this keeps us asleep. This is why we generally look the way that we do look – dully fixated or absorbed with our goals, with our hopes and fears, with our old familiar ideas and beliefs. It’s all just a well-worn routine…

 

There is nothing to excite our astonishment, our childish sense of wonder, when we look at the world through ‘adult eyes’. Actually, when we look at the world through ‘adult eyes’ there’s nothing worth seeing there at all! What we see is just an accumulation of ideas, an accumulation of thoughts and the world isn’t like that at all – the world ‘as it is in itself’ doesn’t have anything to do with our banal, crummy, infinitely tedious second-hand generic conceptualizations of it…

 

When we look at the world (or at ourselves, or at others) without the layer of conceptual mediation getting in the way (without it superimposing itself on reality) then – and only then – do we ‘come back to ourselves’. Then – and only then – do we ‘wake up’…

 

 

 

 

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