I said in a previous post that posts tagged spirituality aren’t to be interpreted as truth-apt and that I wanted to be clearer about how to interpret these posts. Well this post is an exception. Do interpret it as making truth claims. I’m going to be more rigorous than I normally am in spiritual posts and try not to make any false claims. So let’s get started.
This activity doesn’t require you to believe superstitions or unsubstantiated claims as a prerequisite. It’s very simple. All you need is a pen and paper. Be sure to use a pen, not a pencil.
Here are the instructions:
Pick up the pen and hold it to the paper. Whenever you notice a thought that can be written down in words, you write it down. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, that’s not the point. Don’t worry if it’s even coherent or continuous. Don’t scratch anything out. Redundancy is perfectly fine. Just write down whatever is on your mind. If it’s kind, peaceful, helpful, write it down. If it’s hateful, vulgar, taboo, write it down anyway. It’s important that you don’t censor anything. Just let there be a continuous flow of thoughts from your mind to the paper.
Write until you notice enough thoughts that your mind outpaces your hand. Try to at least fill up 1 full page with thoughts. The more, the better. The goal is to write down as much of your own self-talk as you can.
This style of meditation has limitations that don’t inhibit practices like Vipassana. An obvious one is if your hand can’t keep up with your mind then you miss some thought-material. Another limitation is you can only capture a rather small fraction of thoughts. A significant portion of your thoughts aren’t words and sentences. They’re images, memories, abstract concepts, and emotions.
None of that matters for our purposes. What matters is you end up with a tangible object to reference. Please do it before you continue reading. You won’t get the full benefit otherwise.
Now read the whole paper back to yourself. If you did the exercise correctly your writing will sound very unstructured. The important thing to realize is this: While you were writing your thoughts down, you were noticing them. Otherwise how could you have written them? But in normal everyday experience, you are not noticing them. Just because you stopped writing them down, just because you stopped paying attention to them doesn’t mean they went away. That constant flow of thought is still there. It’s just in the background.
If you wrote for long enough you might notice certain things reading it back. For example you might notice you had the same thought 3 times in a row. Imagine if you were having a conversation with another person and they repeated themselves 3 times in a row. You would probably be very confused.
You might notice in your writing things you already know. In fact all of your thoughts might be things you already know. Imagine if you were invited into someone’s home and they started telling you what it looked like. “The walls are white. The door is made of wood. There’s a painting in the hallway”. That would be strange. But this is exactly the character of the conversation going on in your own mind.
If you’re an insecure person with self-doubt then you might have written “I’m useless. I can’t accomplish my goals. I should just give up”. Even the confident have insecurities. But those aren’t fruitful thoughts. If you talked to someone else that way “You’re useless. You can’t accomplish your goals. You should just give up” you might catch a straight right hand to the jaw. Nevertheless you talk to yourself that way continuously.
Point being most of us live our lives spellbound by this endless stream of thought. Thinking thinking thinking… from the moment we wake up in the morning until we close our eyes to sleep at night, from cradle to grave. We live our lives in a thought-trance with no obvious way out. You could probably stick your hand on a hot stove for 5 seconds if you really wanted to. But even if your life depended on it you could not stop thinking even for a minute.
This incessant thinking, this addiction to thought, is a form of insanity. You’ll never hear about it in the media though because an addiction that everyone suffers from is no addiction at all. It’s just “life”.
Unawareness of Thought Is the Problem, Not Thought Itself
None of this is new information. Contemplatives have said for centuries that being “hypnotized” by your own thoughts in every moment is the normal way of being. That is to say you aren’t in the mode of noticing your thoughts most of the time. You’re simply thinking without knowing you’re thinking. Although contemplatives have talked about this mostly in religious contexts, there’s no reason you can’t recognize this fact of the mind firsthand in a secular context. That was the goal of the writing exercise.
I have to clarify that thinking is an absolutely necessary faculty. It’s necessary for survival and human progress. For instance all technology first began with a thought. So thought is not the enemy here. The problem is thinking without being aware of it. As contemplatives through the ages have discovered, having that background stream of thoughts is a primary source of human suffering. Reason being that internal conversation, even for the most average people, is often negative and, as I discussed, sounds like how someone in a mental asylum might communicate.
Life is Pain
There may be no more important fact to realize if you want to lead a fulfilling life than this one: Throughout the course of a normal human life, the quality of one’s mind determines quality of one’s life. If you go through life entranced by your thoughts as most of us do, you will lead a life of dissatisfaction. You’ll never be fully content with the present moment. In my own experience and others’, even the best days of our lives don’t quite cut it. In ancient Indian literature, this is known as Dukkha.
An Alternative, Perhaps?
Mystics, yogis and monks that have spent decades doing nothing but meditating in caves have suggested that there are alternatives to living entranced by your thoughts. They’ve suggested that contentment is actually a learnable skill. To most people it sounds strange that one could learn to be content. It’s thought that contentment arises out of favorable life circumstances. This is contradicted by scientific studies showing people don’t report being much happier given increases in income once the threshold for basic needs is met.
Unless you believe all the contemplative literature over the millennia is merely a product of mental illness and self-deception, you have to admit some people seem to have found an alternative to being entranced by thought, to being perpetually dissatisfied with life. Once you admit that, you also have to admit that if it was possible for them, then it just might be possible for you too.
And the alternatives to dissatisfaction don’t require you to ignore bad things happening in the world or accept religious dogma. They just require a shift in consciousness. For some the shift is gradual taking many years of practice. And for others like Eckhart Tolle it’s instantaneous.
Is Spirituality For Everyone?
Now I’m not saying there’s an alternative for everyone. Oftentimes an interest in spirituality comes after seeing the mechanics of suffering. It’s not hard to notice. I couldn’t have been older than age 12 when I saw it. I wanted something. I got it. I was satisfied for an instant before it wore off and I wanted something else. At that point I had the revelation that the nature of the mind is to never be satisfied. At the time, like most westerners, I made nothing of it. I assumed that was the way life was and it couldn’t be any other way. It wasn’t until I neared adulthood that I sincerely considered the possibility of alternative mind states.
There is a basic level of introspection required to notice the mechanics of suffering and to become suspicious of alternative ways of being. In my own experience I can’t imagine how you couldn’t notice the mechanics of suffering. To me it’s so plain and obvious I recognized it as an adolescent. But there are people that go their whole natural lives not being the slightest bit curious about why they suffer. Some people are so “grounded” that frankly only psychoactive substances can get them to notice that experience can be vastly different than the usual. But most people, especially westerners, prematurely assume introspection offers nothing of practical importance.
Even if your goal isn’t to be the next Eckhart Tolle it’s not a bad idea to keep in mind what it was like to read back your own thoughts written on paper. The next time you’re sad, frustrated or depressed, just notice the mechanics of your suffering. Notice the undercurrent of thought. The paper and pen were only there to help, but you don’t need them. You can actually notice more when you’re not limited to what you can write on paper. Maybe it’s not your internal dialogue that’s causing the suffering. Maybe it’s a bad memory. Whatever it is, try being aware of it.
The final point I want to make is that every claim I’ve made about the mind in this post can be tested in your own experience. You don’t have to take my word for it. If you don’t believe that unawareness of thought is a primary cause of suffering then all I can do is urge you to do is pay closer attention. It’s just a common fact of experience and you don’t have to accept any unsubstantiated claims to recognize how distracted you are all the time. You don’t have to accept unsubstantiated claims to suspect that others have found alternative ways of existing in the world and that maybe you can too.