In meditation practice we sometimes get the idea that we should ‘get rid of our thoughts’. This is a basic misunderstanding of what meditation is and until we see the error clearly it is very easy to fall into it. What happens then is that we get caught up in that most pointless of all struggles, the ‘war against thinking’!
What we don’t see when we get stuck in the fruitless, futile, pointless and interminable struggle against thinking is why it should be fruitless, futile, pointless and interminable. On the contrary, it seems to us that we should be able to get rid of our thoughts, that we should be able to ‘blank out’ our thinking (or perhaps ‘control’ our thinking). What we can’t see is that, as Krishnamurti says, we are our thinking. If I am my thinking then how can I possibly get rid of my thinking? In this case, how can I possibly dispense with it, or push it away? I’m trying to get rid of my thinking, but my thinking is ‘me in disguise’, so what I’m really trying to do is to get rid of myself. This of course involves me in a paradox because in order to get rid of myself I have to exert myself, I have to assert myself. I have to ‘use the muscle to get rid of the muscle’. I am ‘throwing fuel on the fire in order to make the fire go out’. I am ‘utilizing the instrument of the self to try to make the self go away’, but because utilizing the instrument reinforces its reality rather than weakening it I’m really just banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall! This is the paradox of ‘using the self to get rid of the self’.
If we talk about ‘blanking out’ the thoughts instead of eradicating them we get caught up in the very same paradox, the very same self-contradiction. ‘Blanking the thoughts’ implies de-emphasizing or de-potentiating them so that they are not disturbing us so much. It implies relaxing our thoughts, putting them into the background in some way, reducing them to the status of some kind of harmless ‘elevator music’. But the thing about trying to ‘de-emphasize’ or ‘relax’ our thinking so that it becomes toned down and less obtrusive or annoying is that trying to do this causes us to tense up all the more. ‘Relaxing on purpose’ is a paradox!
We have to tense up because we are actually trying to do something and all purposeful doing requires us to tense up. Purposeful doing doesn’t happen by itself after all – we have to do it or it won’t happen. We have to have ‘the idea of what is to happen’ and we have to then take charge of the proceedings so that the idea which we have had gets to happen (and so nothing else gets to happen). What this means is that in order to deliberately tone down or blank out my thinking I have to tense myself up and so – paradoxically – I have to ‘tense up in order to relax’. This is of course the glitch inherent in all ‘deliberate’ or ‘purposeful’ relaxation!
I have to tense up to either de-emphasize or control my thinking but because I am my thinking this means that I have to emphasize myself in order to de-emphasize myself. I have to make myself ‘more there’ (as the purposeful self) in order to be ‘not there’, in order that I might have a bit of peace from myself and all my non-stop purposeful doing, my non-stop controlling. I am using the instrument of the purposeful self in order get rid of the purposeful self. I am using the tool of thinking to get rid of thinking, and this just isn’t going to work!
We could also say that the glitch is that I imagine that there can be a self there without any thinking. I want to be there (the self wants to be there), but I don’t want for there to be this constant, tiresome, repetitive thinking that is always going on. I want to lose the bad habit of thinking all the time, thinking for no good purpose, for no other reason than ‘because I can’t help it’. I want to ‘be there’ (in what I imagine should be a blissfully calm or peaceful state) without all this never-ending non-blissful mental chatter that I seem to be addicted to. Or perhaps I imagine that I could be there with the thoughts somehow suppressed or controlled so that they aren’t irritating or disturbing or upsetting me so much. This idea of mine (the idea of ‘the blissfully calm self or ego’) is a fundamental misapprehension however because the self cannot exist without the special mental bubble or cocoon that it spins for itself out of its thoughts. This special mental bubble or cocoon is made up of thoughts that have the function of proving to the self that it exists, that it is actually ‘real’ and so without it the self can obtain no such proof, no such existential reassurance!
Sometimes these thoughts are of a ‘positively validating’ nature and sometimes they are of a ‘negatively validating’ (or ‘self-critical’) nature but either way the self is still being maintained. Either way the reality of the self is still being reiterated and reinforced and reaffirmed. When we have a positively-validating cocoon of thoughts then this gives rise to a positive self-image and when we have a negatively-validating cocoon of thoughts then this gives rise to a negative self-image but positive or negative it’s still a self-image! We’re reaffirming the all-important idea that ‘there is a self’ in both cases.
So the idea that the self can get rid of its thoughts is perfectly nonsensical! The self cannot get rid of its thoughts because its thoughts are extensions of itself – if I have the idea that I can eradicate my own thoughts then this is clearly nonsensical because the idea that I can eradicate my thoughts is itself a thought! When I buy into the idea that it must be possible to eliminate (or at the very least tame or in some way control) the thoughts that I keep having (and which I can’t stop myself thinking) then this too is a thought just like all the others – this too is ‘a thought which I can’t stop myself thinking’. My thoughts control me and not vice versa and so the fantastic irony here is that when I conceive the notion that I must be able to control my thoughts (which is of course the basis of ‘rational therapies’ such as CBT) this is simply my thoughts controlling me to make me believe that it must be possible for me to control my thoughts!
Really, the self is controlled by its need to keep on thinking and also by its need not to see that it is being controlled by its need to keep on thinking! So in order not to see that it is being controlled by its need to keep on thinking there has to be a cover story of some kind – a plausible hook or gimmick to attach our attention to. This gives us a reason for thinking the thought – a reason that isn’t just ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’, or ‘thinking because we don’t know how to stop thinking’, or ‘thinking because we need to keep on thinking’, or anything like that. So we believe the reason, we believe the cover story or gimmick and then we don’t have to see what is really going on. We keep reading the label and we don’t have to notice what’s actually in the jar. We keep going along with what the guy is telling us and we don’t have to see that what he is telling us doesn’t match what is happening. We keep on lapping up the entertainment and we don’t have to see that the entertainment is really very poor – we don’t have to see that the world around us is actually a lot more interesting than the entertainment that we are distracting ourselves with.
We could say therefore that the mental bubble or cocoon that the self spins around itself is made up of two levels – the overt and the covert, the nominal and the actual. There is the official version and the unofficial, ‘off-the-record’ version and just so long as we keep our attention on the nominal level (which is reading things the way we are supposed to be reading them, looking at things in the way that we are supposed to be looking at them, understanding things in the way that we are supposed to be understanding them) then the integrity of the self-validating bubble is maintained. We think about this, that and the other and ‘the overt level of meaning’ allows us to believe that there is a perfectly good reason for thinking it, rather than it just being the case that we have to have something to think about, no matter how petty or banal or meaningless (or upsetting or disturbing) it might be. This way is the self gets to be validated, this way the self gets to carry on feeling that it exists…
The overt level of meaning (which validates the thinking) is manufactured by the thinking itself. Or we could say that a thought is only meaningful to the mind that thinks it, or more precisely, to the mind-set from which it arose. There can be many minds sharing the same mind-set (this is what society is, or any social group is) and then the thoughts that we think seem to be universally meaningful, meaningful in their own right. But they aren’t! The thoughts are only a reflection of the mind-set that is giving rise to them and they have no existence, no reality without them. So no matter what mental gymnastics we perform when we are in a particular mind-set, we are never going to free ourselves from these thoughts. We are always going to be in a state of bondage to them. We are always going to be controlled by them, whilst imagining that we are calling the shots, that we are driving the vehicle. Trying to get rid of our thinking (or trying to change it) is just being controlled by our thinking without knowing it. It is just a different way of being controlled by our thinking – a more convoluted way of being controlled by our thinking.
If a thought is only meaningful to the mind-set from which it arose then the other side of what we’ve just been saying is that when we move out of this mind-set then the thought is no longer meaningful, and if it is no longer meaningful to us then it can no longer control us! If the mind-state changes then all the thoughts that used to make sense in relation to it no longer make sense. They lose their grip on us – they might still be there, but they no longer have the type of ‘hold’ on us that they used to have. They no longer validate themselves in the way they used to. Or we could say that when the mind-state changes then even if the thoughts are still there they are no longer pushing my buttons in the way that they used to. They no longer cause me to ‘react’. It’s like someone trying to get me to play a game that I no longer have any interest in, a game that I have now outgrown. Or it’s like being in a room where everyone is watching sport on TV – if I don’t follow that sport then I might be looking at the screen in the same way as everyone else but it isn’t the same thing at all. I’m not getting caught up in it. I might be curious about what is going on, but I’m not ‘interested’ in the way that everyone else in the room is interested…
We could say that everyone else in the room is looking at what’s on the TV in a serious way, whilst I’m looking at it in a playful way. It’s all the same to me whether I look or don’t look at what’s on the screen – I won’t be upset if something else happens or if someone comes up and starts talking to me, as anyone who is seriously watching will be. I’m free to watch or not watch – I am not exclusively interested in seeing the match or the game. I am not ‘disinterested in anything else, disinterested in anything that isn’t connected to the action on the screen. The same is true with thoughts – if I am playfully observing my thoughts then this is not at all the same thing as ‘taking a serious interest in them’. I’m not fixated, I’m not hypnotized, I’m not addicted. I’m not ‘glued to the screen’. My attention isn’t trapped in the thoughts, as if ‘nothing else matters’. Crucially, I am not trying to control my thoughts, and so I am not being controlled by them… As Adyashanti says –
Ego is the movement of the mind toward objects of perception in the form of grasping, and away from objects in the form of aversion. This fundamentally is all the ego is. This movement of grasping and aversion gives rise to a sense of a separate “me,” and in turn the sense of “me” strengthens itself this way. It is this continuous loop of causation that tricks consciousness into a trance of identification. Identification with what? Identification with the continuous loop of suffering. After all, who is suffering? The “me” is suffering. And who is this me? It is nothing more than a sense of self caused by identification with grasping and aversion. You see, it’s all a creation of the mind, an endless movie, a terrible dream. Don’t try to change the dream, because trying to change it is just another movement in the dream. Look at the dream. Be aware of the dream. That awareness is It. Become more interested in the awareness of the dream than in the dream itself. What is that awareness? Who is that awareness? Don’t go spouting out an answer, just be the answer. Be It.
When we’re not trapped within the thinking mind (as if what our thinking shows us is the only thing that matters) then we’re not addicted to the process of thinking. As Adyashanti says, we haven’t identified with the sense of self that the thinking has created for us. We can think or we can not think but if we do think then there’s a playful quality to what we’re doing, an essential ‘freeness’ in what we’re doing. It’s not like we need to be thinking, it’s not as if we believe that our thinking is going to tell us something that is absolutely vital for us to know about! It’s not like our thinking is going to save us from sure and certain doom!
But the point that we have been making in this discussion is that we both want to have our cake, and to eat it. We want to be stuck in the same old static mind-set, and yet we want relief from the thoughts that are afflicting us. We want to live exclusively in the world that the mind creates for us, and yet we want to be free from the thoughts that are holding us hostage, the thoughts that have power over us because of the fact that we are stuck in this world. And the reason that we want to stay in the same old mind-set (and in the safe-and-secure world that is produced by this mind-set) is because ‘being stuck in the same tired old mind-set’ is what maintains the self, and we think that we are this self.
The reason we think that we are the mind-produced self is because of the trapping / enslaving / captivating / addicting / hypnotizing power that the thought which says “I am this self!” has over us. The thought which says “I am this self!” controls us – it controls us to accept what it tells us. It has the power to make us believe that this is who we really are. This is the hold that this highly plausible – and yet at the same time completely untrue – thought has over us!
Meditation is not ‘a war against thinking’ because wherever there is a ‘war’ (i.e. wherever there is this business of struggling and straining and striving) there is the self trying its damnedest to maintain itself. This effort (the effort that manifests itself in the struggle of the self to eliminate or to have control over its own thoughts) has nothing to do with meditation because wherever the self is, there can be no meditation. Meditation can only occur when there isn’t a self there, when there isn’t a big over-fed, over-valued bully of a self trying to get everything to happen its own way, trying to make sure that it is ‘centre-stage’ the whole time, trying to make sure that everything is ‘about it’. Meditation is on the other hand the absence of the self – it is the absence of this false authority.
The self suffers from ‘split-sincerity’ – it wants to carry on being there (it wants to carry on being in control and dominating the proceedings) but at the same time it hates the restrictions, the pettiness, the tedious oppressively nonsensical repetition that is forced upon it as an inevitable corollary of its continued existence, as a result of its continued domination and control. It wants to carry on being there, but at the same it hates the suffering that this clinging brings and so what it does is to struggle against itself in a perfectly futile way, whilst making out that it is not struggling against itself, and that it is in fact conducting some kind of legitimate (i.e. ‘non-theatrical’) campaign.
What the self does – since its acknowledged commitment to never relinquishing itself means that it can never genuinely improve its situation – is that it pursues the struggle on a strictly theatrical level – on the level of nominal meanings, on the level of superficial appearances. On this level it gets to feel that it is ‘sincerely engaged in transforming itself’, whilst on the hidden or covert level, it has no intention of changing anything at all. On the covert level, it just wants to ‘hang in there’, whilst fooling itself the whole time that it is doing something responsible, that it is doing something constructive about its problems.
What this split-sincerity means therefore is that when the self ‘wages war’ (i.e. when it struggles and strives and strains, as it always does) then what it is actually doing is struggling against 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.