Thought always rolls on and on and on, never getting anywhere but always justifying itself and promoting itself on the basis that ‘it is going somewhere’.
Actually thought rolls never-endingly onwards because that is the only thing it can do. It continues ceaselessly minute after minute, day after day, year after year because that is the only thing it knows how to do. It ‘rolls ahead for the sake of rolling ahead’; it ‘carries on for the sake of carrying on’. It is exactly like a person who talks non-stop about nothing in particular – a person who is ‘talking for the sake of talking’. They have nothing new to say, but saying something new is not the point. The comfortable thing to do is to keep on talking…
Thinking is a kind of comfortable habit that we have, and it comforts us because it distracts us. It is our ‘entertainment’. Admittedly the entertainment isn’t always particularly great, and often it is downright dire, but it is entertainment nonetheless. It is a lot like TV in this respect – the programme we are watching might be pure rubbish, but at least it’s something to watch. Even rubbish serves a purpose in terms of self-distraction! Its some kind of a comfort.
Another way of looking at the normal, run-of-the-mill type of ‘automatic’ thinking that we engage in is to say that it is ‘controlling what is going on in our heads for the sake of being in control’. This type of thinking doesn’t actually do us any good – in fact we drive ourselves cracked in the end – but at least we are in control. At least we are ‘managing the show’, and this makes us feel secure.
Of course, we don’t usually see things like this at all – we believe that our thinking is valid and useful (potentially at least). Moreover, we believe that we can stop it if we want to.
The truth however is a very different story. Suppose I do try to stop the onwards movement of the turning wheel that is my thinking. When I say ‘stop!’ to my thinking that itself is a forward movement of the wheel. The wheel of my thinking is still turning around. Me saying ‘stop!’ is a part of my ongoing mental activity; it is a turn of the wheel, it is ‘business as usual’ for the thinking mind. Me trying to stop thinking is part of the thinking. I am not stopping – I am thinking about stopping! When I try to stop thinking I want my thinking to stop, but that wanting (or ‘desiring’) is part of my thinking.
When I realize that saying ‘stop’ is still thinking, and that I haven’t stopped thinking at all, then this is something that I don’t like. It’s not what I wanted. It might even sicken me because being aware of our own never-ending thinking is a horrific kind of a thing. Because I am sickened by it all (by all this business of me creating an extra level of thinking in order to supposedly end the thinking) I want it all to stop. I want all the thinking to come to an end, including my mental activity of saying ‘stop’ to my thinking. I want to stop instructing myself to stop instructing myself to stop thinking, and so I react with aversion to this never-ending insanity and I say ‘STOP!’
But the movement of my mind saying ‘stop’ is the very thing that I am trying to stop and so I am caught up in a sort of inescapable nightmare. It escalates. The wheel of my thinking keeps turning around and around just as it always does. It grinds on and on like a broken machine that hasn’t got a ‘stop’ button. The more I want it to stop the more it spins around. The more distressed I get the more it spins around and this is neurotic suffering in a nutshell.
Trying to stop thinking is thinking. Saying ‘STOP!’ is the same as saying ‘GO!’. STOP! equals ‘GO!. Or as we could also say, NO equals YES. Within thinking there is no freedom – there is no freedom ‘not to think’. That’s the one thing there isn’t. I don’t think because I choose to think (which is the illusion I’m usually caught up in), I think because I can’t stop thinking.
As Krishnamurti says is necessary to look very closely and very carefully at this in order to convince ourselves that this is how things really are. If I can’t see for myself that this really is how things are, then I don’t stand any chance of ever becoming free from the merry-go-round of the rational mind. I’ve got to see the impossibility of ‘stopping thinking on purpose’.
If I can see it, if I can see the actual horror of being trapped in this way, the downright insanity of it all, then the shock of that insight will wake me up out of the fatal sleep of complacency which is our usual state of being. There is nothing worse than this complacency, and anything that wakes us up from it has got to be good news no matter how painful and unwelcome it might be! So if my thinking has become afflictive (if it has become a source of pain and distress to me) then this is the very thing that I need to wake me up out of my sleep.
Imagine that you are in a busy café or canteen. All around you people are engrossed in talking and thinking, happily absorbed in whatever is ‘on their minds’. This sort of scene seems pleasant enough, and unremarkable enough, and certainly no cause for concern, yet the point that we are making is that when we are ‘comfortable in ourselves’ (when we are happily distracted or entertained, in other words) then we simply have no idea that we don’t actually have the ability to stop thinking. We cannot see that we don’t have the choice of NOT distracting ourselves; we can’t see that the entertainment is compulsory because it is only if we try to fight against the never-ending flow of ‘entertainment’ that we discover our utter powerlessness.
When the entertainment is pleasant, or even when it is trashy like bad TV, we never even think of ‘turning it off’. We are ‘happily absorbed’ in it. We don’t see anything wrong with it. We are comfortable and that’s all that matters…
But when our thoughts turn against us, and start persecuting us and putting us down and making us feel bad, then of course we would love more than anything else in the world to ‘turn off the tape’. This is however when we discover from first hand experience that we simply cannot do this. The tape-loop’ of our thinking keeps on playing, and there isn’t a ‘stop’ button.
Earlier we said that thinking all the time gives us a feeling of ‘being in control’, but actually this feeling is pure illusion – it is illusion through and through. I ‘think’ I am in charge but I am not. I don’t control my thinking – my thinking controls me. As David Bohm says – thought controls me, but it allows me to think that I am controlling it.
The situation is a lot like a man on a ‘jogging machine’ in a gymnasium. When I am jogging along I feel in control, as if I am setting the pace, but if I try to stop running then I discover that I have no choice because I have to keep up with the belt, which keeps moving. The machine is ‘running me’, so to speak. Similarly, we might say that the situation is like a hamster in an electrically driven hamster-wheel – the hamster might think that it is making the wheel turn by its running, but as soon as it tries to stop it discovers that the wheel is controlling it. The poor hamster doesn’t have the choice of stopping! In fact, the only source of comfort for the unfortunate creature is to carry on running because at least then it has the illusion of being in control!
What we have said so far is in an attempt to demonstrate a point. That point is this:
If anything is absolutely, fundamentally, infallibly true, it is that I can never stop thinking on purpose (i.e. by control)!
This has got to be true – after all, control is simply another way of talking about self-assertion and self assertion is (obviously enough) all about asserting the self. Asserting the self is personal will, it is what I as a self will to happen, and for this reason the self and its will are inseparable. When I assert my will, I perpetuate the ‘me’ that wills. Stopping thinking is exactly the same thing as stopping the on-going act of will which is the ‘me’ – in other words, when the thinking stops so does the ‘me’.
When the ‘me’ comes to an end, then all its attendant anxieties and concerns also come to an end – naturally enough, since the ‘me’s’ anxieties and concerns are all about itself. It is truly said that the self suffers from nothing other than itself, and that all its attempts to free itself from its sufferings (which are all for the sake of itself) simply add to the burden of pain.
What all this means is that peace of mind can never come about by means of control (or by means of thinking, which is a form of control). Peace of mind comes when we let go of the self and its interminable nonsensical thinking – it happens when we are no longer obsessed by the well-being (or the not-well-being) of the ‘me’ and its never-ending stream of hopes and fears.
The self however can never let go on purpose, not if it tried and tried and tried from now till the end of the universe. The reason that it can never let go on purpose is because, as we have said, its willing (or controlling) is an extension of itself in the dimension of time. By trying to assert that I must let go I perpetuate myself; by willing myself and my self-created misery to come to an ‘end’, I continue myself indefinitely. This is why we can never find peace on purpose.
If it is infallibly true that I cannot stop thinking on purpose, it is also infallibly true that as soon as I see clearly just why I can’t stop thinking on purpose then I must have stopped thinking.
When I clearly see the impossibility of trying to stop thinking on purpose (or trying to let go on purpose), then this is insight – it is a direct perception of reality, and the direct perception of reality is the one thing that thinking can never show me!
This is because ‘thinking about my situation’ and ‘paying attention to my situation’ are two completely different things. As soon as I pay attention to what is actually going on (rather than remaining 100% preoccupied with what I want to be going on) then I have stopped thinking. This has to be the case because thinking is always about how I would like things to be, which also means that it is a reaction to how I think things are to start off with. ‘How I think things are’ is not the same as how they actually are – ‘how I think things are’ is coloured by my hopes and fears which means that it is not based on curiosity but on prejudice. So when I ‘think about my situation’ all I am doing is ‘reacting in accordance with my prejudices’. When I think about my situation all I am doing is perpetuating my prejudices, perpetuating my ‘unconscious biases’.
I never really pay attention to my situation at all – I instantly think I know all about it, and then I am ‘off’ in my reacting. I am rushing to do something about it. It is as if you tell me something but I am in too much of a hurry to listen – as soon as you speak I react and say “Yes but…” It doesn’t matter what you say, I’ll always say “Yes, but…” I am too pressurized by my agendas to really listen to you, and so all I can do is react in the way I always was going to react anyway.
Similarly, no matter what reality shows me I’ll always come out with an instant “Yes, but…” and as soon as I do this I am back again in the fantasy world of my desires. What I see always triggers my biases, my prejudices, and then my momentary glimpse of reality is gone, covered over by my never-ending projections…
The point that I keep missing is that there is no “Yes, but…” There is only what there is, and that is the end of the matter. That’s where thought stops – before it even gets started.
If I am paying attention to what is going on this is totally different to jumping to conclusions about it on the basis of my thinking, and then reacting helplessly as a result. I am not haggling in a street market because I don’t have any choice either about whether I should buy the product or how much I should pay for it. Reality is not a negotiation; reality is just ‘what is’. This is what Krishnamurti means when he says that reality is choiceless.
Paying attention to what is going on is fundamentally unproblematic because no matter where we are, there is always something that is going on, and we can always pay attention to it! Nothing else is needed, and so there can never be any problem.
Reality is always there right in front of our noses – the only thing that isn’t always there is our attention. But even this isn’t really a problem because then all I need to do is to pay attention to my lack of attention.
All I need to do is to pay careful attention to the reality of my situation (and the reality of my situation includes my habitual inability to pay attention to my situation). The reality of my situation includes whatever it is that is going on. Whatever is going on, that is the reality of my situation.
So when I try to pay attention to what is going on, and my mind keeps flying off the handle like a highly strung Prima Donna on a bad day, then I notice that this is happening. When my mind keeps ‘refusing the jump’ (when it keeps saying “Yes, but…” the second I try to pay attention, pulling me off instantly in a thousand pointless directions) then I just pay attention to my mind doing this.
When something happens I pay attention to whatever it is that is happening, and when I genuinely start to pay attention my thinking comes to an end, all by itself.
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.