We humans are – for the most part – a highly ‘incurious’ folk. We’re not naturally like that but we’ve become like that. We just want to be left in peace so that we can go on doing whatever it is that we already are doing. We don’t want to be bothered, in other words. Whatever the thing is, we just want to be allowed to carry on with it and not to be interfered with. We don’t want to have anything else coming into the picture. We implicitly see whatever it is that we are doing as ‘good’ and anything that gets in the way of it as being ‘bad’ (and this is not because of any inherent special virtue in what we doing, but simply because it happens to be what we are doing).
This isn’t a moral judgement, even though it tends to sound like it. It’s just the way things are. For the most part we genuinely do believe that whatever it is we’re doing does have some special inherent value; we’re absolutely convinced that it does and it would take a hell of a lot to dent our conviction. This is therefore a matter that’s ‘out of our control’; it’s out of our control because we aren’t in control – we are being controlled by our beliefs, we are being controlled by a customary way of seeing and behaving in the world. If we have beliefs about the world or about ourselves (and who doesn’t?) then we going to be controlled by them – that’s just the way it works. To say this might in itself strike us as being odd since, more often than not, we see our beliefs as empowering us, strengthening us,providing us with a solid foundation to face life from and so on. Moreover, we see our beliefs as being our ‘choice’, which is of course very different kettle of fish from power ‘being controlled by them’! And yet we are being controlled by our beliefs and this could hardly be otherwise – any description of the world that we can’t (or won’t) question is always going to control us.
This brings us back to what we started off this discussion by saying – that it is our nature – by and large –to be a profoundly incurious folk. It is our beliefs, our habitual and well-worn ideas about reality, that cause us to be incurious (or ‘unquestioning’). To live with a belief about the world is to be unquestioning of that world; to have ideas about things is to be incurious about those things. Beliefs by their very nature are something that we automatically accept, just as ideas are, just as thoughts are. To go around being completely hemmed in by a fog beliefs, ideas, conceptions and thoughts is to be deadened by them therefore – we are deadened by them because we are never actually looking at anything, not really. We’re not looking at anything because of all of our thinking, because of the constant activity of the rational mind. Being a ‘thinker’ isn’t such a great thing after all!
We could of course ‘look’ at our thoughts (in a curious way) and this would be a very interesting thing to do. The thing is however that we don’t look at our thoughts – thoughts have this kind of a property in them that means that they automatically direct our attention to some ‘predetermined target’. We’re ‘told where to look’ in other words. We are deftly directed elsewhere, and the thought (whatever it might be) doesn’t want us to look at it. It’s like a signpost in this respect – a signpost doesn’t want us to look at it, it wants us to look at where it is pointing. We’re always thinking about ‘some-thing’, in other words, and what this ‘something’ is is inevitably a construct of thought! Actually, we can’t think about something that isn’t already a construct of thought!
Our thoughts don’t director us towards reality in other words, and this is the point that we find so hard to understand. The thought stands for some element in reality but it doesn’t direct us to reality – it CAN’T do that because reality isn’t a predetermined target, because reality is ‘uncertain’ or ‘fluid’. Thought works by ‘specifying’ and how can we specify something that is uncertain? How can we point at something flows, something that isn’t the same thing twice? What we are saying here is that ‘the thought’ and ‘what is being thought about’ aren’t two different things, much as we might imagine them to be. Looking at this the other way around we can say that ‘thought’ and ‘reality’ are two qualitatively different things and that the former doesn’t lead onto the latter. There is a discontinuity between the two that we would need to ‘actively jump over’. Being passively pushed or pulled along by thought isn’t going to do that.
What thought does therefore is that it ‘refers us to itself’, or – to express this another way – thought refers us to its signifier or referent for reality as if this signifier or referent for reality were the same thing as reality. This is what we might call ‘the Hyperreality Principle’ in honour of Jean Baudrillard – the invisible conflation of the map and the territory. The ‘reference’ and ‘what is being referenced’ are taken as being one and the same thing and this is why Anthony De Mello says ‘Thought as a screen, not a mirror; that is why you live in a thought envelope, untouched by reality’.
A thought stands for some element in reality but it doesn’t direct us to reality – it can never do that. It can’t do that because reality is not a predetermined target, reality is not because reality is ‘uncertain’ or ‘fluid’. It isn’t as fixed or static thing thought always specifies and so how can we specify something that is uncertain. We point to something that is uncertain. What we are saying here is that thought and what is being thought about aren’t two different things, much as we might imagine them to be that they are. Looking at this the other way round we can say that thought and reality are two qualitatively different things and – furthermore – that the former doesn’t lead onto the latter. There is a discontinuity between the two that we would need to actively jump over. Being passively pushed or pulled by thought isn’t going to do that and so when ‘thought is our master’ then we are never going to leave the Domain of Thought. We’re not ever going to be directed outside of the envelope and so we won’t know that there is ‘an outside’.
We can see that this is the case quite easily just by watching ourselves – thinking is continuous, not episodic, and when we think we slide from one thought to another without a break. We imagine that we are taking a break, we ‘think’ that we aren’t thinking all the time, but we are. In order not to be ‘caught up in thinking all the time’ (and ‘thinking about nothing else but our own thoughts’,as Alan Watts says) we would have to be consciously paying attention when we’re‘lost in thought’ and we just don’t remember to do this.That’s why we’re ‘lost’! We’re preoccupied with one thought after another and when this happens we don’t know that we thinking, we don’t see that we’re thinking, and so we’re not in reality at all. We’re somewhere else. We’re ‘untouched by reality’, just as Anthony De Mello says.
So the point of all this is that if we are ‘lost in thought’, as Eckhart Tolle says, or contained ‘within the envelope of thought’, as Anthony De Mello puts it then of course we are going to be incurious about the world about us. We don’t even know that there is a word outside of us, as strange as this may sound! We assume that we are ‘present in reality’ but the truth is that we are simply being ‘automatically referred on’ from one thought to another in what is actually a repeating loop. Usually the loop is big enough so that we don’t notice that it’s a loop; sometimes however – and a good example is when we’re lying in bed late at night unable to get to sleep because of worries that are bothering us –we can actually see the loops. Not that being aware of being trapped in a loop helps us any course – at least not in the short-term! Anxiety – as it happens – makes us even less curious about the world, or about life, than we normally would be. We become even more caught up in our thoughts (as every anxiety-sufferer knows) – the suffering caused by being trapped in our heads can easily be just as bad (or even worse, perhaps) than the pain that is being created by the anxiety. They can be experienced as two different types of pain.
It could of course be said that when we are anxious we are still interested in somethings – we are interested (albeit in a ‘negative’ or ‘fearful’ way) in what we are anxious about. We’re interested in finding solutions to whatever problems it is that are on our mind. We’re interested in learning how to be free from our anxiety (i.e. we are interested in the ‘solution’ to our anxiety). This isn’t curiosity however because we are only responding to the pressure that our thinking is putting us under – the pressure to ‘solve the problem’, whatever the problem might happen to be. Curiosity can never happen (on the other hand) as a result of pressure – curiosity happens freely, not as a result of pressure that’s been put on us. We can’t be compelled to be curious. Curiosity is an expression of our innate freedom, in other words.
This gives us a good way of explaining why we can never be ‘curious about the world or ‘curious about ourselves’ when we are contained within the envelope of thought – we don’t have any freedom to be curious, we are on far too tight a leash for that. Instead of having a genuine interest in things we are agenda-driven; when thought is our master then everything we do is agenda-driven, which is to say, we are motivated by the need to obtain something we think will be of value to us, or avoid something we believe to be bad news for us. This is the motivation of attraction/aversion, the ‘motivation that is imposed upon us from the outside’, the ‘motivation of the mechanical mind’. It isn’t too hard to understand how the motivation of the mechanical mind causes us to operate on the basis of greed or fear the whole time, what we don’t perhaps appreciate so quickly is ow ‘Extrinsic Motivation’ (which is the antithesis of curiosity) causes us to be as incredibly gullible as we are with regard to whatever picture of reality it is that we are being presented with. When we are ‘incurious’ then no matter what picture of reality we are presented with by the thinking mind/conceptualising mind, we are going to accept it at face value. Of course we are, that’s what ‘being incurious’ means – it means that we will go along with whatever the ‘accepted thing’ seems to be and that is exactly what we human beings are like, for the most part. To be unconscious is to be malleable. What we are concerned with is ‘looking for the advantage’ and ‘avoiding the disadvantage’ in the terms of the framework that we have been given. This has nothing to do with curiosity about the framework. Our attention is always ‘on the small stuff,’ in other words.
When we’re curious then we are looking at the ‘big picture’ but whoever looks at the ‘big picture’? This isn’t really ‘the done thing’ – we won’t fit into society by being interested in the big picture, after all. What’s more, if we were to catch a glimpse of the big picture – which has nothing to do with our personal hopes and fears, nothing to do with the all-consuming dramas of our everyday lives – then this would ‘upset the apple cart’. No one likes to be shaken up out of their comfortable sleep. No one likes to be disturbed from their habitual pattern of doing and seeing things and this is precisely what ‘being curious’ always does! As we’ve said, we just want to be allowed to carry on doing whatever it is that we’re already doing,and we don’t care what that is.We’re not interested in what that is, just as we’re not (really) interested in whatever it is we believe in (just so long as we have something to believe in). We’re not interested in seeing whatever it is we’re doing, we’re just interested in ‘carrying on doing it’ and ‘carrying on not being interested in it and if this doesn’t sound particularly inspirational, then that’s because it isn’t!