What Thoughts Are Worth Thinking?
We typically expend a great deal of time and energy interacting with our thoughts. Interacting is perhaps an odd term here, because most of us are in fact so involved with our thoughts that the line between “thought” and “thinker” disappears altogether. Most of the time, we are so immersed in thought that we forget how vast our awareness can be, and operate as if thought was itself the basic fabric of reality. This mistake is responsible for an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering.
It’s as if we’re sitting so close to a movie screen that we forget we’re in a theater, and we begin to respond to the images on the screen as if they are reality. Even worse, we’ve been so well trained to sit with our nose to the screen that if we are reminded that we are in a theater, and decide to back up and look around, our deeply habituated attention inexorably pulls us back to the screen, and back into forgetfulness.
To be clear, when I use the word “thought” I’m referring primarily to the internal dialogue that we all keep running in the background. Much of this dialogue is in language, but it can also take the form of images. All of it is essentially self-involved. At times this dialogue is crystal clear: We may notice a beautiful classic car and automatically think something like: “That looks so fun! I’d love to have a classic car, but actually I’d prefer an old Ford pickup. I wonder how much it would cost to get one that runs, and how much to make it really reliable. I’d need some new tools for that, which is actually a great excuse, I’ve been needing to upgrade forever. I’d also have to make room in the garage, and I still haven’t called anyone to haul off the old stove. Jeez, we have so much work still to do on the house. Should I do it myself, or should we hire someone...”
If you observe carefully, which I highly recommend, you’ll notice that these thoughts emerge unbidden and without effort. This is, for all practical purposes, a universal and deeply physiological human experience. Our brains produce thought in much the same way that our heart produces heartbeats. Really grokking this fact alone is deeply liberating, as it means there is really no sense it taking our thoughts quite so personally.
Here’s a little experiment: set a timer for 60 seconds, close your eyes (to simplify things) and watch your thoughts emerge while you do nothing but observe. Remember, treat your thoughts as if they’re images on a screen, and you’re just here to watch and remember that you’re watching. If you notice yourself getting involved in a particular thought, you can just let go and return to observing. Give it a shot.
Without a doubt many of you who tried it spent most of that time immersed in the thought stream, with maybe an exceptional moment or two of neutral observation. This would be the norm, given how we our brains are wired, and how we live. Or perhaps you had some success, and noticed the stream of mental activity unwinding of its own accord. Interesting, right? Or perhaps, as soon as you decided to sit back and observe, you noticed a sort of pregnant space or silence, not yet occupied by thought. All of these experiences are valuable to explore, but for now let’s focus on the last.
Try it again: Set a timer for 60 seconds, close your eyes, and wait for a thought to emerge while noticing the space in which it would emerge. In our theater analogy, this is something like sitting back and noticing the screen underneath the image, or before the image appears. Give it a try.
Whatever level of success you had with that, you will undoubtedly recognize at least in principle that in order to observe a thought we must first have some awareness. Awareness both precedes and transcends thought. In fact, every single moment of our experience occurs in the space of our awareness. Where else could they occur? Perhaps this seems obvious, but the implications are profoundly significant, particularly in the context of our mental health.
When we forget that thoughts (and sensations, for that matter) are just another largely automatic process unfolding within awareness, our emotional processors likewise forget the difference between thoughts and reality. We then must deal with emotional responses not only to reality, which is complicated enough, but to reality infused with layers and layers of mental activity, much of which is unpleasant and all of which is in some sense mental noise.
Now I am not arguing that thinking itself is a problem. Without the power of thought we would in general be much worse off. Productive thinking has reduced suffering and increased joy and well-being enormously in the course of human history. The question, then, is what percentage of our thinking is truly productive?
What thoughts are worth thinking?
An answer to this question requires, first, an ability to recognize a thought as a thought, meaning as an object of awareness (notice that different types of images are projected on your screen). Getting familiar with awareness itself is helpful in this endeavor (notice the details of the screen before and in-between the images). And meditation is the most rigorous, tested, and well-calibrated tool we know of for working with awareness (practice returning to the screen again and again until it becomes the new default).
The plain truth is that the vast majority of our thoughts are just noise: automatic responses to chaotic stimuli. And while permanently stopping useless thought is not a direct possibility in the short-term, we can with some practice shift our default center of attention away from that noise to the vast, serene, and potent space of awareness within which all experience occurs. In doing so we discover that the saying is true: thoughts are indeed useful servants, but they make for cruel and horrible masters.