As a rule, we spend most of our time thinking about this, that or the other. One thought follows another, which follows another, mostly in a fairly random fashion. Our normal everyday thinking makes a comfortable sort of cocoon that completely surrounds us and envelops us. We are basically lost in our thinking, but because the sensation is pleasant and because the thoughts that we are having are so absorbing, we don’t actually notice, at the time, that we are thinking.
Even if we did focus on the fact that we were constantly thinking about ‘this, that or the other’ we would probably not see any harm in this. Thinking is what we do – it would be pretty strange to go around with no thoughts at all in our heads, wouldn’t it? That makes us think of being ‘blank’, or ‘brain-dead’ or something like that. But the point is not that thinking is something we should have to stop ourselves from doing because thinking, in its right place, is useful, if not to say indispensable. The point that we are making is that our normal everyday thinking isn’t the constructive or indispensable type, it is more of a form of entertainment or self-distraction. It is exactly the same as watching something on TV just to pass the time comfortably, or gossiping with friends over a cup of coffee. We gossip to ourselves, basically!
Thinking is really a tool like a spade or a tractor – if it has a job to do and it is specifically directed to do that job, then everything is ‘above board’ and there are no problems. The tool is being used as it should be. But what happens normally is not like this at all; instead of us using thought as a tool what happens is that it is the thinking itself which is calling the shots. In this case the thinking ‘uses us’, i.e., we are sequentially ‘occupied’ or ‘possessed’ by whatever random thought happens to come along.
As we have said, this suits us all too well because it passes the time for us and it allows us to become comfortably distracted. Needless to say, we don’t allow ourselves to see that this is the way things really are, because that would spoil our entertainment. It would ‘burst our comfort bubble. The everyday type of continuous, involuntary thinking is like daydreaming really, and the thing about a daydream is if I know that it is a daydream then this spoils the whole thing. The thing is to pleasantly waft off into daydream land without actually realizing that this is in fact what we are doing.
Therefore, we are not saying that there is any harm in thinking, but what we are saying is that thinking should be the servant and not the master. It should not control us, but it should be useful to us. In answer to this a lot of people might say that they are in control of their thinking, they might say that they are not compelled to think, but rather they choose to think. Believing this is our comfort zone however, it is like a drinker saying that he chooses to drink, that he isn’t a slave to his cravings at all. If we tried to stop the constant flow of inane thoughts we would soon find who is wearing the trousers – us or the thinking. And of course, when the thinking stops being pleasantly and ‘harmlessly’ distracting and becomes negative in its character, then we soon discover that it isn’t so easy to banish the unwanted thoughts after all. For example, when I start to become prey to worrying thoughts or angry thoughts or self-persecuting thoughts then I soon get to see what the score really is.
It is at times like this that I begin to wish that I knew how to get out of the mess that I am in, and as most people who have been in this situation will tell you, trying to force the thoughts to go away isn’t the way! That just doesn’t work. So we if we can’t control the thoughts to make them go away, and we don’t want to carry on being controlled by the thoughts, what do we do? There is a way to work with our thoughts that does not involve controlling or being controlled however, and this way is called practicing mindfulness. We can explain what this means very simply – all we have to say is the following:
There are two (and only two) possibilities:
 either I am thinking without realizing that I am thinking
 I am seeing that I am thinking
 is a ‘doing’, it is an automatic, unreflective, involuntary ‘reaction to an external trigger’. , on the other hand, is ‘seeing’ – it equals ‘noticing’ or ‘being mindful’. Seeing, unlike doing, is genuinely free, which is to say, it is not a mechanical reaction, a habit or a reflex. It is not the result of obeying a compulsion and then sneakily avoiding the awareness of this by saying that ‘what the compulsion wants is what I want’. Seeing, therefore is not the result of ‘not being there’ but the result of ‘genuinely being there in the here and now’. Seeing is when I cease to hand over all responsibility to a reflex of perception, a reflex of thinking, and a reflex of behaving (or ‘reacting’).
The task (or ‘practice’) in mindfulness is to remember your intention to notice your own mental state at all times. It is important to bear in mind that this does not mean changing your mental state (or trying to), or reacting to your mental state, or evaluating your mental state, but simply noticing it. This, as we have said, is very simple – either I am thinking, or I am seeing that I am thinking. These are the only two possibilities. Either I am ‘not here’ or I am ‘here’, either I am not in the here and now, or I am in the here and now. And the key to everything is that when I notice that I am not in the here and now, then at that instant I am in the here and now. In other words, the moment when I become aware of my own lack of mindfulness (my own self-forgetting) is the moment when I become mindful. I have ‘remembered myself’!
THE FALSE SELF AND ITS PROBLEMS
The result of practicing mindfulness is a very big change. The best way to understand this change is by looking at what happens to us if we don’t practice mindfulness. Basically, the more time we spend in our thoughts (in what Professor David Bohm calls ‘The System of Thought’) the more we crystallize around us a ‘false sense of self’. This false sense of ‘who I am’ is the mind-created self, it is the self-of-my-thoughts, it is ‘who I think I am’. This false self is also sometimes called the ‘self-image’ and it is purely a construct (or creation) of the involuntary stream of thinking that I am normally subject to.
The false self is very different to the true or genuine self because it is fundamentally insincere. The false self does not really value what it says it values, it only thinks that it ought to value this stuff, and so it pretends to itself that it does. It upholds the values that it does because it thinks that these are the ‘right values’ to have – it works everything out logically, and then it does what it thinks is right, what it thinks will benefit it. In other words, the false self’s position on everything is always carefully calculated and therefore always utterly insincere.
Another way to explain this characteristic peculiarity of the false self is to say it never genuinely enjoys itself or has a good time, it only puts on an act (to itself and others) that it is enjoying itself. It creates a very plausible appearance of having a good time and then by not looking too deeply at anything it ends up kidding itself that the appearance of happiness must be true. The surface appearance is what counts, and so if I notice myself worried about surface appearances then that is a sure sign that I am in the ‘unconscious’ (or ‘identified’) state. It is a sure sign that I am passively identified with the false self.
We can give an example of this sort of thing to make it a bit clearer. The false self always tries to make sure it goes to the ‘right’ places, that it does all the ‘right’ things, and that it hangs out with all the ‘right’ people. If it can successfully do this then it figures out logically that it must be happy because it is making all the right moves. I have got to be happy because I am successful, I say. It matters to the false self that it should be happy and so it invests a lot of time and effort in this, but ultimately everything it does is just ‘theatre’ – everything is just for ‘effect only’. When I am unconsciously identified with the false self then I am worshipping the god of ‘appearances’!
There are two main problems that come from the theatrical life of the false self. One is the cruel anxiety that comes when I can no longer ‘keep up appearances’ – either for my own benefit or for that of others. This explains why when we are anxious, we are often most anxious about the fact that other people may see that we are anxious, and why when we are feeling bad in general, we tend to feel particularly bad about other people seeing that we feel bad.
That is one problem. The other problem is that the life we lead when we are identified with the false self has no real meaning, only pretend meaning. Basically, the whole thing is an elaborate sham, it is an exercise in inauthenticity, and when this starts to dawn on me, the result is a very deep and profound form of despair. I might feel that my whole life is a sham, or ‘a lie’. I might also experience terrible self-loathing, and feel a strong sense of worthlessness. This corresponds to what we call ‘depression’. It could be said that the ‘problem’ here is the loss of the true self, which is at the same time the loss of any actual meaning in our lives.
The drawbacks associated with the life of the false self are therefore very severe. We might justifiably conclude that the price that we pay for the benefit that we obtain from unconsciousness (which basically comes down to ‘the ability to successfully lie to ourselves’, or ‘the ability to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves’) is too steep.
The false self is a like a Steward or Viceroy of a country who usurps the role of the King, but the problem is that he is unable to do the job properly, so that the country falls into rack and ruin. The people are discontent, civil wars break out, pestilence and famine rule the land. Whilst the Steward was aware of his proper role, and did the work of his King, then everything was okay but once the Steward gets rid of the rightful ruler, and claims that he himself is the one and only authority in the land, then disaster must surely follow. This is a very well-known allegory – we may think of the story of Robin Hood and and the Sheriff of Nottingham, just to give one example. The ‘self-image’ – we might say – is the Steward (or Sheriff) who as a result of becoming greedy, arrogant and power-crazed has taken over the role of the True Self, and the strife and pestilence are the anxiety, depression and general misery that follow his inept rule.
Outlining the disadvantages like this allows us to see very clearly what the advantages of mindfulness might be. The advantages are – we might say – that we recover the connection with the true source of meaning in our lives, which is another way of saying that we regain our sincerity and our authenticity. Mindfulness results in ‘peace of mind’, which is the peace that comes when I am able to unreservedly accept the truth for what it is, rather than having to stubbornly (and pointlessly) fight against, without even being able to see what exactly I am fighting against. So I no longer have to try to ‘win’ the whole time, which was an extraordinarily bad idea anyway since the simple truth of the matter it was never going to happen…!
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.