thinking about thinking
Why were ancient ascetics inventing and pursuing yoga? Not to unveil six packs but to unveil reality— the direct perception hidden by the thinking mind.
Today we blame our technology, use our technology for “meditation”, but even before the advent of cell phones and stock markets, humans were in pursuit of mental clarity. We have always been, first and foremost, thinking beings— obsessed with our thoughts, how to improve them, and how to (sometimes) get rid of them.
What is thought?
Thought is the movement of the mind.
Movement creates time; thought creates psychological time. We have memories (movements held to represent the past), hopes and plans (projections of past to the future), expectations and their resulting pleasures and disappointments. In all of these movements, the mind is in constant comparison: holding the now in light of what is not-now.
We developed this baseline ability for the evolutionary advantages of understanding natural cycles: where to find ripe fruit, fresh water, friendly places to spend the night. But we did not naturally develop a way to stop spinning our minds towards the insanity of constant projection in time and space.
But there are actions of the mind that are not thought: these are perceptions, direct and instant understandings of reality as it is. We have intuitions, innate knowledge, and feelings.
Not many of us rest our minds in the place of direct perception. Each of us has a natural set point of the thinking mind, the network that neuroscience calls “default mode”, as a singular resting state of the mind. But we intuitively know that we experience many states of mind, and through training/meditating/medicating, we are able traverse the states of mind at will.
The apparent difficulty in training the mind for high functioning, pain-free, pleasant inner life— a stable state of sanity— is that we are working invisibly, on the invisible, waiting hoping wishing for visible results, which sounds as insane as not trying.
Here are some allergies for the mind. They’re all workable— choose one that speaks to you and use it for some time, daily, for a month or more. Perhaps draw the image now, and again weekly as a reflection point, a visible anchor for the invisible changes you are working within.
*The mind as a garden
How does your garden grow? A wild patch of favorite flowers, all mixed together in unplanned, chaotic beauty? Are there mysterious debris hidden among the weeds, or patches that you are unable to see clearly? Maybe your mind is more like a sculpture garden: large, bare expanses of perfectly cut lawn with just a few chosen monoliths of statement and purpose. Are there places fertile for creativity, clarity, and self exploration?
All gardens need regular tending: watering and nurturing the plants, seeds, trees that you care to nourish while simultaneously and vigilantly weeding/ not watering the seeds that do not serve you and your higher purpose in life.
In this imagery, your thoughts are the visible garden: everything you see growing. With time and care, you will be able to see below the surface to the roots of the garden: your deeper memories, ideas, beliefs. You want those roots to be healthy, whole, and supportive of high potential.
*The mind as a field
So good for goal directed work that requires multi tasking and taking on different roles/projects: you can imagine soccer players, your inner team. The observer/coach watches the mental work, removed from the game but watching closely at everything that is happening. A good coach minimizes over exertion of any single player, maximizes coordination between players, cultivating good inner communication and swiftly dismissing conflict.
Notice if you can recognize the purpose of the players, and how easy it is to clear the field and simply enjoy witnessing the empty space of not-work. The easier it is to clear the field, releasing past and future games, the more fluent your transition between flow state and goal oriented effort.
The players should want to listen to the coach, to trust the inner guidance. Notice the tone of your engagement with the present and the process. There is a spectrum of inner relationship with the now:
Fighting (actively fighting current)
Resisting (holding ground against the current)
Waiting (impatient for the moment to pass)
Wishing (reluctant to be in the moment)
Accepting (I am here and this is ok)
Dropping into (immersion/passive)
Embracing (active: I am here and this is good)
Surrendering (passive: washed over by perceptions but centered in self)
Giving in (this is not good, I’m not changing, and I’m not happy)
Wallowing (passive: not good and lost in it)
Just as in the physical reality of soccer, the game flows best when the players are fit and active. The coach is best when rational: free from likes/dislikes, able to plan as well as to abandon the plan in favor of harnessing an unexpected opportunity.
Stay happy in your body, alert in your mind, and you will enjoy the game of life.
*Ocean of islands
This is the imagery that will speak to you when you feel most spacious in your mind: imagining a vast ocean of currents, and islands, all under the broad expanse of blue skies. You will know when there are storms to weather, and you can ask yourself: are you on an island, a still point, where the movement of thinking has paused? Or are you flowing with the current, moved and moving with ease and purpose?
With time, with practice: the islands expand, walkable distances, explorable places of stillness, untouched by the current or the clouds. Under the sky, your thoughts will be like the clouds passing by, interesting but undisturbing. Your attention is broad like the space around you, as generous and encompassing as the sky. You will be able to choose when to dip into the ocean, harnessing and moving with the current, knowing that you are more powerful that way.
Fighting the current, succumbing to the tides— these will be in your past. You’ll no longer need to “manage” or control yourself, there is no need for creating boundaries between you and your nature. You can be free to act and see things as they are, when they are, without grasping for anything different from what is.
If you ask yourself, what do I need? The answer will be clear, simple, discrete rather than the confusion of “more” or the haze of “don’t know”. If you ask yourself, what is between me and enjoying this present moment, the answer is: nothing. And if you see your reflection, you will smile and know that you are here, and you are now.