Wherever there’s a thought there’s a thinker. Wherever there’s thinking there’s a self. This is an easy enough statement to make – it is so easy that it sounds trite. It sounds downright facile. When we go into it however we find that we are tugging at the thread that threatens to unravel everything we know, everything we believe in. This is a thread we are usually very careful never to go tugging and the unremitting mundanity of our everyday lives is testament to just how reluctant we are to go pulling it!
It seems redundant to say that where there’s a thought there’s a thinker. Of course there is – there has to be someone there to think the thought, doesn’t there? This isn’t the point we’re making though. We aren’t saying that at all. We aren’t saying that ‘because the thinker is there the thought gets to be there’ (which is how we usually see it), we’re saying that the thinker is there because the thinking is there…
That’s the sort of thing thinking is – thinking is a very subtle sort of a trap and the way that it works is by causing us to take for granted the very same assumptions about reality that it itself makes. We see things the same way the thinking does, and then we become blind to the fact that the thinking is only provisionally true (which is to say, we become blind to the fact that thinking is ‘true only on its own terms’). We lose sight of everything that the black-and-white thinking doesn’t acknowledge as being true, and so we become ‘narrow without knowing that we are’. We become ‘constrained without knowing that we are’. Another way of putting this is simply to say that thinking traps us by causing us to identify with a self which isn’t who we are at all – a self which is ‘true only according to the thinking’. This mind-created perception of there being ‘a self’ automatically comes into being (or rather it comes into virtual being) when we fall into the trap of being ‘narrow without knowing that we are’…
This ‘identification with a self’ occurs by way of what we might call a ‘backwards inference’ –
By focussing on the object of thought we automatically assume the existence of the one who is thinking the thought, the one who is relating to the object of thought
If there is an object then there must also be a subject – the object of thought cannot exist on its own, after all. Directing our attention outwards towards the object of thought is the obvious move (the move that we are supposed to notice), whilst ‘assuming the existence of the thinker’ is the covert move, the manoeuvre that we aren’t supposed to notice. Who notices a thinker being created every time we have a thought, after all? If we could notice this then our attention would indeed be sharp. We notice the highlighted appearance of the thought alright but not the assumption of the thinker…
Having our attention continuously directed towards our thoughts gives us the impression not only that ‘we are the thinker’ but also that we are in control. We have the subjective impression that we are in charge of our thinking, the subjective impression that ‘we are in the driver’s seat’. We experience ourselves having choice in the matter of what we think about – except in unusual circumstances, it seems to us that we can think about one thing or we can think about the other. We can ‘direct’ our attention onto one particular mental object if we wish to do so or we can direct it onto another and this gives us the feeling of being in control. What we can’t choose however is ‘not to be the thinker that thinks this, that or the other thought’! No matter what thought we think we are still the same thinker and this is what we can’t change. Any apparent change is only theatrical, which is to say, it exists purely on the level of outward appearances.
Another way of putting this is to say that whilst we may have the trivial freedom to think either this thought or that thought we don’t have the radical freedom to not think at all, and this is of course the only freedom that counts for anything. This is like a person who walks into a used car lot and is promptly given the choice of buying any of the cars on show there. The salesman is (naturally) only too happy to give the prospective customer to buy any car that he or she sees there in the lot – the one freedom he doesn’t not want the prospective punter to have is the freedom to walk out of the lot without buying any car at all!
We can say therefore that we are so dazzled by the ‘trivial freedom’ of all the choices regarding what thought to attach our attention to that we never notice that – no matter what choice we end up making – we are always stuck with being the same old thinker. No matter what we think about we’re caught – we caught all ways. We’re caught every way – there’s no way we can ever be ‘not caught’ in this regard. This particular trap of the mind is however invisible because we’re not attentive enough to see it. The loss of freedom is happening on the inside but we’re all about what is happening on the outside. Lots of choice is happening (or may be happening) on the level of theatrical appearances but there is zero choice about what happens or doesn’t happen on the inside and this is where it counts. On the inside we’re trapped. On the inside we’re saddled with being ‘the same old thinker’ the whole time – even though this isn’t who we are actually at all, even though it’s only a ‘conditioned illusion’.
This is when it comes down to it an extreme form of impoverishment. It is an impoverishment of possibilities because we don’t actually have any possibilities – we only have the one possibility and that’s called ‘being trapped’. Of all the infinite number of possible viewpoints we could take but we’re stuck with only the one. We’re so stuck that we don’t even realize we are stuck! We don’t realize that there could be other ways of looking at things. We would laugh if someone told us that there were. This is like being stuck in the same old armchair week after week, month after month, year after year. An armchair is fine for a while – for an hour or so every now and again perhaps if we need a rest – but when we sit in it for months on end then we lose the use of our legs. We forget that we have legs! The upholstery of the armchair adheres to our skin and so we actually grow into the chair (or perhaps it could be said that ‘the chair grows into us’). Either way it isn’t good. Whichever way it is we forget that we have any possibility of any other type of existence. We forget that ever had any other type of existence (any type other than the chair-bound one) and so when this happens clearly the chances of us ever regaining our non-sedentary status become virtually zero. Why would we miss what we don’t know ourselves to have lost?
What pins us down in ‘the armchair’ is thinking. We’re free to think this, think that, and think the other, but we’re not free to not think. We’re not free to get up from the wretched stinking armchair of our thoughts and have a bit of a walk around the place! We’re stuck fast in the sticky web of thought and we don’t know the difference. No unfortunate ‘soon-to-be-eaten’ fly was ever as stuck in a spider’s web as firmly as we are stuck in the web of our thoughts!
The corollary of the statement ‘wherever there’s thinking there’s a thinker’ is of course that whenever there isn’t any thinking then there isn’t a thinker. This too sounds like a very facile thing to say – it seems to be saying nothing to say this. Of course if there’s no thinking going on then there can’t be a thinker. Big deal – tell us something we don’t know. When we go into it however we see that this is actually something truly marvellous – it is ‘the wonder of wonders’! What we’re actually looking at here is ‘unconditioned freedom’.
Suppose that I am free not to think. Suppose that instead of the trivial freedom to think this, that or the other I’m free ‘not to be the thinker’. Suppose I’m free to finally get out of the rancid armchair that I have been stuck on for the last thirty years. This actually doesn’t seem like any sort of freedom at all to us because we’re so used to sitting there in the armchair that we honestly don’t know that it is possible to have any sort of a life apart from it. We’ve been stuck in this position of unpleasant intimacy with the wretched armchair so long that we think that we are it. We’ve become passively identified with it and so the notion of us having any independent existence from it is frankly meaningless to us. The notion of ‘radical freedom’ has become frankly meaningless to us…
It is sometimes said in meditation classes that it is ‘impossible’ for us to entirely stop thinking. Thought – we are told – is a natural phenomenon which is always occurring to some extent or other and we shouldn’t try to ‘stop’ it. This is a bit of guidance that is given to us by meditation teachers. This bit of advice is of course perfectly valid, but with one important qualification. The qualification is that it is impossible for the self to stop thinking. This just isn’t ever going to happen – the self cannot rid itself of thinking, not if it had a million years of meditation practice in which to do so. Wherever there is a self there is thinking, just as ‘wherever there is thinking there is a self’.
This isn’t what we’re saying however. We’re not suggesting that the mind-created self can stop thinking if it so pleases – what we’re saying is that ‘where there’s no thought there’s no thinker’! This is the freedom ‘not to be’ that we’re talking about here, which is the same thing as the freedom ‘not to think’. This is the type of freedom that Robert Wyatt refers to in Free Will And Testament when he says:
Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air.
Be on the loose, neither compacted nor suspended.
Neither born nor left to die.
Had I been free, I could have chosen not to be me. …
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.