To think or not to think, that indeed is the question—the endlessly repeated question that consciously or unconsciously gets asked and answered almost every waking moment. I spend a lot of time pondering the pluses and minuses of thinking, though not infrequently a still small intuitive voice inside of me whispers, “Are you using the right tool for this investigatory job?”
Thinking about thinking is a peculiarly human enterprise. Even if animals think, that seems to be the end of the road. I don’t see any sign that our dog agonizes whether she is too attached to thoughts of chasing chipmunks and squirrels. Serena just fully does what she does, and when she isn’t doing one thing she is doing some other thing. Seemingly she has no regrets about the past or frets about the future. Her dog mind isn’t divided. I envy her.
Not that I want a dog consciousness. But I’d like to have a truly human consciousness, which to me is synonymous with “soul.” The 3rd century Greek philosopher Plotinus follows right along in the tradition of the great contemplative traditions (such as Buddhism and Christian mysticism) when he says, “The soul experiences its falling away from being one and is not altogether one when it has reasoned knowledge of anything; for reasoned knowledge is a rational process, and a rational process is many.”
As I wrote in my book, “Reason would be a wonderful vehicle if it could get us to our final destination: lasting wisdom and well-being. But the danger, says Plotinus, is that we mistake the movement of all those thoughts in our heads for actual progress.” Just prior to those lines is one of my favorite passages in the book, two sentences that I remember writing without recourse to reason. They just flowed out of me. I’d like to always be immersed in the pool of consciousness they came from.
“When someone responds to a broken silence with, ‘You interrupted my train of thought,’ they are speaking truly. Generally that train keeps on rolling down the track of each person’s consciousness almost all of his or her waking hours, spewing out thick plumes of ideas and prodigious sparks of inspiration, a noisy rolling mental thunder that, strangely, never makes much progress in spite of all its frenzied motion.”
Ever since I started studying yoga and meditation in 1969, for the past thirty-five years I’ve engaged in some sort of mantra repetition. You know, the repeating over and over of some word or words in order to still the mind. A well-known Christian mantra is “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” The most famous Hindu mantra is “Om,” or “Aum.” In the ‘70s you couldn’t go to the airport without hearing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare.”
I’m still trying to figure out what a mantra is good for, which probably shows that I haven’t learned much, spiritually speaking, in those thirty-five years. Or, maybe I have. I’ve mantra’d away like crazy for months on end, and I’ve let the mantra slide for months on end. And in the end? I seem to be the same Brian I was before.
I’m beginning to suspect that a single thought (which describes a mantra, using “thought” as meaning any self-produced content of consciousness) is still a thought. And the thought of a thing is not that thing. Hence, thinking about thinking takes us farther afield from the simple truth of thinking; and thinking anything at all takes us farther afield from the simple truth of undivided consciousness—or “soul” if you like.
Plotinus points out the obvious: Whatever we want, we want that, not a thought of that. And this includes my own self, of course. If I want to be true to my self, I have to be my self, not a thought of my self. Concerning the Good, or God, Plotinus says, “For in general thought, if it is of the Good, is worse than it….But being clear of thought it is purely what it is, not hindered by the presence of thought from being pure and one.”
So I’m trying to learn how to simply live life, rather than thinking about myself living life. I strongly suspect that I could get through the day just fine with, oh, about 5% of the thoughts that normally course through my head. Most of the time I could just see, and hear, and feel, and touch, and smell, and go about doing whatever needs doing without adding an overlay of self-awareness to my already evident awareness.
Really, I should listen to my own advice:
“It isn’t necessary to go through life as a sort of double image: a me that does things and a largely unnecessary hanger-on inside my head who watches and comments on the doer. The internal mental dialogue most people take for granted is akin to a play-by-play announcer who never stops gabbing about what is happening on the field of our awareness. The problem is that I already know what is going on because I’m directly experiencing it. I should be able to simply wash the dishes without an inner voice telling me the obvious: ‘I’m washing the dishes.’”
Less thinking, more living. Now, there’s a mantra. Not to be repeated, but to be experienced.
All quotations are from “Return to the One,” by yours truly.