Thinking is Suffering


Thinking is suffering, as Eckhart Tolle says somewhere. Thinking is all about problems and the search for possible solutions to these problems. This is all thinking is – over and over again. The unspoken assumption is that the thinking is ‘a means to an end’ – that once we find the solution then everything will be fine and there won’t be the need for any more wearisome thinking. The assumption is that once the solution is found then all will be well. We will then find peace. We’ll have arrived.


This however never happens. We all know very well that this never happens – if it did happens then we would all be going around in a Zen-like state of calm the whole time and we aren’t! Each ‘solution’ only ever leads on to another problem; each answer only gives rise to a clutch of new questions. All is never well – if it was then there wouldn’t be all this thinking going on and there always is all this thinking going on. The thinking is there because all is not well, because there is some sort of a problem somewhere, and so clearly we are never without problems. Things are never OK…


There is always thinking because there is always a problem, because there is always an issue that needs to be resolved. This state of affairs doesn’t necessarily seem like suffering to us however. It doesn’t seem like suffering because we generally feel that we are getting somewhere – we experience the thinking as taking us towards some kind of resolution. As Alan Watts says in one of his lectures, we’re always ‘almost there’; the resolution or prize is always there just around the corner and because of this (erroneous) perception we don’t experience the process of thinking as being largely (if not entirely) futile.


This isn’t to say that rational thought is always futile. There are of course instances where the thinking process is genuinely useful! There are in other words times when there are legitimate problems out there and where we are legitimately trying to solve them. During the day this only happens from time to time however – as we would easily see if we started observing ourselves and our thoughts, we think all the time and only a few of these thoughts are there because there is actually a practical need for them! Legitimate problem-solving happens only from time to time – it’s not the main business of the day. The main business of the day – which is where most of our attention or energy is going – is a project that we are not actually allowed to be aware of, an ongoing project which is consuming the lion’s share of the resources (so to speak) and yet which at the same time we are not allowed to see ourselves being engaged in.


Being engaged in a full-time project that we not being allowed to acknowledge ourselves to be engaged in it is a strange enough idea by itself but it gets stranger – we’re engaged on a full-time basis on a project that we’re not allowed to know about and which is actually completely impossible to complete. This therefore is definitely as recipe for suffering. This is the best recipe for suffering there ever could be! But WHAT – we might want to know – is this undercover project that we’re not allowed to know about, and WHY is it so impossible to complete? The project that we’re talking about here is (we might say) the project of maintaining our arbitrary way of looking at the world, our arbitrary way of ‘being in the world’, and the reason this task / project is impossible to complete is because nothing that is arbitrary can be kept going forever. Nothing that is arbitrary can be made permanent. Because the task that we are engaged in is impossible it isn’t really a ‘task’ at all – it’s simply a jinx. It’s a jinx that we can’t see to be a jinx. It’s a jinx that is disguised as a legitimate task…


And even if the so-called ‘task’ of perpetuating our particular way of seeing the world, our particular way of ‘being in the world’ were possible (which it clearly isn’t) it would still be a completely pointless thing to do. Why on earth would we want to perpetuate an arbitrary way of looking at the world, an arbitrary way of being in the world? Why on earth would we want to perpetuate or make permanent a particular limited pattern of thinking and behaving in the world when it is no more valid than any other way? Why would we want to spend all our time stuck in a particular groove when there are so many other grooves to explore? What we’re actually doing here is, in this not-allowing-of-any-other-possibilities, is artificially keeping things the same when they don’t really need to be kept the same. We’re repressing change; we’re repressing the natural way of things. We’re actually blocking the life-process itself and this has got to be a ‘suspect operation’!


It’s a ‘suspect operation’ because on the one hand it is impossible to do and on the other hand it causes an immense amount of pain and frustration because we don’t know that it is an impossible thing to do (because we don’t know that it is a ‘jinxed task’). We’re going against the natural order of things for no good reason at all – we’re going against our own true nature. This isn’t a ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ matter we’re talking about here. It’s purely practical – it’s about not being absurd or ridiculous. Why after all would we go against our own true nature? Why would we act contrary to what our heart actually wants? The reason is of course that we’re not in touch with our true nature; we’re estranged from ourselves, we’re estranged from our own wisdom and intuition. We have been ‘cut-off’ from the source of wisdom and intuition that lies deep inside ourselves. As we have said, we don’t even know what we are doing! We don’t know that we are engaged on a full-time basis in the particular ‘suspect project’ that we are engaged in. We don’t know that the project is suspect and we don’t even know that there is a project! We’re committed to ‘the jinxed task’ without knowing that we are…


To go back to what we started off by saying, thinking is suffering and the reason thinking is suffering is because we are trying – with our thinking – to do something impossible without acknowledging that this is the case. Of course thinking can achieve real things (genuinely helpful outcomes) in the world and if the only time we were thinking was on this strictly practical ‘thinking only when we need to think’ basis then all would be well. Thinking would not necessarily be suffering in this case. It might be demanding and arduous but there would be a real result. But just as soon as we take the trouble to observe ourselves and our thinking we can’t help seeing that most of the thinking which is going on is not of a practical / helpful nature. By far the largest part of our thinking is simply a type of ‘restless grasping’. What we’re grasping for – whether we realize it or not – is a type of security that just doesn’t exist in the real world. We’re looking for a sense of security in relation to the arbitrary construct, the arbitrary way of looking at things, the arbitrary modality of being, that we have somehow (without actually meaning to) identified ourselves with.


One way of putting this is to say that we are looking for the validation of our particular arbitrary viewpoint or position. ‘Validation’ in this context means proving to ourselves that our arbitrary viewpoint or position is not arbitrary at all, and this very clearly is not going to be possible. We’re trying to prove that something which isn’t true actually is true. We don’t of course see that this is what we are doing – we are driven by a need that we don’t examine, a need that we never question, a ‘need’ that we just automatically go along with. If we were to be slightly more aware of what is going on we would see that we are being driven by a type of deep-rooted insecurity – we’re trying to make an uncomfortable feeling go away. This attempt to run away from an uncomfortable background feeling of insecurity is what is driving our thinking – it is the only thing that is driving our thinking. We neither know what this feeling is nor do we care to know – we just want to make it go away and that is that!


It is also the case that we may have (temporarily!) succeeded in feeling secure in the way that we want to. Security-seeking isn’t our number One motivation in this case; it has been put to one side for the time being. It has been forgotten about. But the thing about this is that just as soon as we solve the pain of the insecurity we incur a different type of pain which then needs to be fixed just as the first type of pain did. The one itch replaces the other. ‘Security’ contains a type of pain all of its own – the pain of suffocating boredom, the pain of sterility, the pain of ennui or meaninglessness, and the way we try to fix this pain is by looking for diversion, looking for distraction, and so this is another thing that will drive our thinking (if we are not being driven by the need to escape from our own insecurity). Both the need to find security (which equals ‘validating our particular limited pattern of being’) and the need to escape from the tedium or meaninglessness of this security once we have found it, (i.e. the need to distract or divert ourselves) come from the same root, therefore. The need to be continually distracting (or entertaining) ourselves seems harmless or normal enough to us but it comes down to ‘covering up the problem’; this type of thinking it is therefore facilitating a problem we don’t know about, it is perpetuating that invisible problem.


When we look into the matter we discover that almost all of our thinking is about compensating (or trying to compensate) for the irresolvable insecurity that comes with being identified with an arbitrarily limited way of looking at the world, an arbitrarily limited way of being in the world, whilst trying to make out that it is not arbitrarily limited. In very simple terms, we’re ‘shoring up the self-image’ (or ‘trying to shore up the self image’) – this basic (conditioned) need gives rise to a range of different types of thinking but they all come down to the same thing. They all come down to ‘trying to make something be what it isn’t’, trying to pretend something isn’t there when it is there, trying to make something better when ultimately we can’t make it better. It’s like scratching an itch to relieve the unbearable irritation it is causing us – the scratching may provide relief from this intolerable itch, but only at the price of making it worse later on.


We might be trying to solve some kind of thinking – the kind of problem that triggers our repressed feelings of existential unease or insecurity – or we might be trying to pleasantly divert or distract ourselves. We might be experiencing our insecurity via an urge to prove ourselves or compete successfully with other people in a similar mind-frame to ourselves; we might be struggling to be accepted or approved of within a specific social context and as a result be thinking either that we’re doing well or not doing well, thinking that we’re either on the way up or on the way down. We might be in some sort of a desire state and thinking about how great it would be to get our hands on the longed-for goal, or we might be thinking about what strategy would be best for helping us succeed in our aim. We might be in an angry frame of mind and thinking about how thoroughly rotten someone is and how they richly deserve for something bad to happen to them (or we might be thinking about all the ways in which we could play an active part in making sure that something bad happens to them). We might be in an envious state of mind and be thinking about how someone has got something that we would very much like to have, or we could be paranoid and be thinking about external forces are working against us. Whatever way we’re thinking it always comes down to the same thing however – we’re trying to get hold of something that it’s just not possible to get hold of, we’re trying to get hold of something that just doesn’t exist.


This brings us to one last way of looking at why thought is suffering, why to think is to suffer. We’re looking for ‘the good thing’ but the thing is that we are looking for the good thing because of the way we think that it will validate us. If it didn’t validate us then that wouldn’t be any good at all! It’s not really the external value we care about, that we’re interested in, but the way in which that external value will say something about us, do something for us.


We’re looking to validate ourselves, as we have just said. But the thing about this is that it just isn’t ever going to happen – we can’t ever be validated in the way that we want to be. We’re grasping for the impossible. The conditioned self (which is the problem-solving self, the analytical self, the thinking or rational self) can’t ever be validated because ultimately it just doesn’t exist. Ultimately therefore, our thinking is driven by the unreal conditioned self’s hunger to be real (in the sense of being ‘permanent’ or ‘non-arbitrary’), and this is the root cause of our suffering…