Subtler Than Thought

When we’re ‘thinking all the time’ this has the effect of making us fundamentally insincere – it makes us insincere with other people and it also makes us insincere with regards to life itself. It might seem a bit much to say this but when we consider the implications of this state of being where we are ‘thinking all the time’ then we’re bound to see that this is the inevitable result. When I’m thinking all the time what this means is that I’m not relating to people as they are (or to reality as it actually is, if we want to put it like this) but to our ideas about the person, our ideas about reality. This is inevitably going to be the case if we are TATT – I’m always going to be relating to my mental images of the world, my mental constructs of the world, not the world as it is in itself.

We might of course go down the road of saying that this may well be true but we are not TATT – we think sometimes, of course, but we don’t think all the time. This is probably what most of us would say. The thing about this objection however is that we only think we’re not thinking all the time! That’s just a false idea we have. There is a practical way to find out the truth in this matter and that is simply to start practising meditation – when we sit in meditation (or sit in ‘practising meditation’) then we always see that there is a constant ‘thought-stream’ taking place. One thought follows hot on the heels of the other and this succession of mental constructs doesn’t let up.

As Sogyal Rinpoche says in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, it’s only when we experience some considerable shock (the example he gives is a situation where we come home discover that we have been burgled and our house has been ransacked) that the thought-stream is (or might be) temporarily interrupted stop then we experienced a ‘bardo’ – a space between two solid or creative structures. The overwhelming tendency is, Sogyal Rinpoche says, is to engage in our familiar routines of thinking and behaving as soon as we can in order to re-establish the thought-stream, because the bardo is such a strange and uncomfortable place to be. For the steady stream of thoughts to be interrupted is a rare thing, in other words, and if it happens we generally don’t like it in the least and make sure not to hang around in this undefined space any longer than we have to.

We all want to be sincere, the sensation of ‘not being sincere’ is not a pleasant one. The type of insincerity were talking about here is unconscious however because we’re fully convinced that we’re relating to people or things as they actually are, not merely as our mental representations of them. This is an example of ‘honest insincerity’ therefore, and we certainly can’t be blamed for it. There are consequences to our ‘lack of genuine relatedness’ all the same and the consequences are that we are always insulated from the real world; there is always going to be some degree of ‘abstraction’ or ‘removal’ from the world. We’re not truly participating in it (apart from the odd moment every now and again when we feel what it’s like to be alive more intensely, more vividly). We need to be ‘not thinking’ for this to happen however and – as we have said – this doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as we might imagine.

A good way of looking at the type of fundamental insincerity that we’re talking about here is to say that we always have an ‘ulterior motive’ with regard to what we’re doing, whether we’re aware of it or not. We always have an underlying agenda. We always have an agenda because it’s impossible to be in this state of mind where we are TATT without knowing it without having an agenda. To think is to have an agenda! This may not seem very obvious but the point is that thinking is always about the attempt to change things from being the way that they are to the way we want them to be. Thought is always about control, in other words. This point becomes clearer when we consider that if we didn’t want to change anything – which is to say – if we were in that state of being which is sometimes called ‘unconditional acceptance’, then we wouldn’t be thinking. We would no longer be creating alternative realities or commentaries on reality in our head, we would no longer be wishing to be ‘somewhere else’. We would no longer be trying to squeeze irregular things into an unreal mind-created regular context.

When we are no longer trying to be in control, when we are no longer fighting against things being the way they are, then this – naturally enough – brings peace. This peace is something that can never come about when we have some sort of agenda in the back of our minds. Thought can never supply peace for us, in other words, and this is why experiencing a state of profound peace (or mental silence) is such a rare thing. Instead of talking about peace we could also talk about freedom – Krishnamurti says something to the effect that ‘the person who is seeking a reward is never free’ and we could rephrase this as ‘the person who is seeking a goal is never free’. We are never free because we are in a state of slavery to that goal – we’re slaves to the need to obtain some goal or another! There’s an invisible irony here because we imagine that when we have obtained the goal we will be free. That’s the belief that is driving us but it’s a mistaken belief – freedom can never come about as a result of controlling just as peace can never come about as a result of thinking. When we achieve the goal (if we do) all that’s going to happen is that the thinking mind is going to provide us with another one. Achieving goals does not create gaps or breaks in the thought-stream, in other words.

So when we are contained within what Anthony de Mello calls ‘the envelope of thought’ then not only is it the case that we can never be sincere, it is also the case that we can never know freedom or joy or peace. This isn’t such a great deal that we’ve signed up to therefore, and we would be excused for wondering just what the hell we get out of it. The net benefits are zero and the cost is astronomical! ‘How are we to get free from this envelop?’ we might also ask. The answer is however ‘with a great deal of difficulty’ – if there’s one thing that we rely on in everyday life it is thought and so when we’re in a difficult situation we try to resolve it by thinking about it. If there is one thing we can rely upon to be more difficult than anything else in life it is getting out of the envelope of thought, therefore! The more we think about this particular puzzle the more we get trapped in it; even entertaining the idea of getting out of the envelope of thought is getting us more tied up; we’re wrapped up tightly in a parcel of thought and the more we think about escaping it (the more we think about anything, in fact) the tighter the strings around us will get. And if we try to untie the strings that bind us that just makes them all the tighter – trying always comes out of the thinking mind (and trying not to try is still trying). We are so dependent on the thinking mind that we can’t help using it even when the task at hand is to deliver us from the clutches of thought.

Rather than using thought to free us from thought we need to learn to be subtler than thought; this is the only way we find freedom from it. We cannot (needless to say) learn to be subtler via any kind of ‘system’ because systems are never subtle; logical systems are a manifestation of thought. Anything that is not a system cannot be taught, as Bruce Lee says, and so being subtler is something that we have to learn alone, free from all external (mis)direction. We’re so used to the idea of learning things via reference to an external authority of some kind or another (i.e. by enrolling on a course or reading a book) that the suggestion that we have to learn the most important thing of all on our own comes as a shock. The type of subtlety we’re talking about here is essentially a state of autonomy so of course it can’t be taught by another! In this state of ‘subtlety’ we are independent of all external authority, which is to say we are independent of thought and the need to make maps or models of reality.

We become independent of thought in this way – we might say – by developing our negative capability, which is to say, by practising the art of dwelling in the midst of uncertainties without automatically trying to resolve or draw conclusions from them. This is paraphrased from Keats. Negative capability depends on our interest in things ‘as they are’ being stronger then our interest in our own ideas regarding how they should be! We stay still and watch what is happening, adopting – as far as we are able – a policy of ‘non-interference’. In our unsubtle culture we would call this ‘being passive’ but this so-called ‘passivity’ is actually the highest expression of freedom. Purposeful action is the thing we always go for – decisive action is the only answer, we say. Control is the only answer. Forcing is the only answer. What we don’t see is that engaging in purposeful action means that we first have to buy into some model or theory or picture with regard to what is going on and this means becoming dependent upon the external authority of thought. We are so very keen to act that we don’t really care what sort of model we buy into it – it all happens in a flash and we are completely unconscious of the process. We don’t look at this process – all of our attention is on our fixing-or-evading-type behaviour and none of it on the assumptions that lie behind our ideas regarding what’s going on.

The fact that we are so keen to have the ‘instant reassurance’ of purposeful action means that we just don’t mind what sort of theory or model of the world we adopt; this is an absurd sort of thing, but this is what the drive to obtain ontological security is all about. Negative capability, on the other hand, is a measure of the degree to which we are free from the need for ontological security; when we succumb to the need to put OS first, before any other consideration, this turns everything on its head – this makes our whole lives absurd even though we can’t for the life of us see it. We’re controlling on behalf of an unreality, an unreal proposition, and the more we scheme and plan from this vantage point the more embroiled we become in the unreal drama. Not controlling every inch of the way as we go through the day may seem passive (or ‘not continuously asserting our own will’, as we would say) but the thing about this is that it was never our way anyway – it was ‘conditioned will’, i.e. the pseudo-will of the self-construct. We express our true freedom or autonomy not by enacting the biases that are inherent in the self-construct but by not enacting them, and only way we can ‘not enact them’ is if we tune into our own genuine autonomy, which we didn’t know we had. Freedom doesn’t mean freedom to control (which is how we see it), it means freedom from the need to control. The need to control turns out to be nothing more than the disguised need to limit ourselves every step of the way – the need to limit ourselves absolutely in case we were to accidentally discover one day that we’re not who or what we thought we were…

Art –