I don't know why I didn't realize this a long time ago: The outside world is a lot more interesting than my thoughts about it.
Well, I suppose I had realized it, since I find actually lying on a warm, sunny beach much more appealing than merely thinking about that prospect. Ditto with the pleasure of actually drinking coffee compared to pondering the notion of brewing a cup.
But I've failed to pay attention to what I know. And that's a problem most of us have: paying attention in a proper way.
The meaning of "proper," naturally, can be debated endlessly. Which I don't intend to do. I'm simply speaking in a commonsense fashion. There are ways of paying attention which are better than others, because they make us feel better -- and other people too.
Sharon Begley speaks of this in her book, "The Plastic Mind: New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves." (The book's title seems to have transformed itself also, as it's different from my copy.)
The conscious act of thinking about one's thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking.
...Without attention, information that our senses take in -- what we see and hear, feel, smell, and taste -- literally does not register in the mind. It may not be stored even briefly in memory. What you see is determined by what you pay attention to.
Everybody has to decide for themselves what they want to see. That is, what their focus will be on during their likely one and only lifetime here on Earth (or anywhere else).
As for me, I'm realizing with steadily increasing clarity that my thoughts about physical reality are a poor substitute for the genuine thing.
This doesn't take away from the importance of thinking when I need to engage in it -- just that I'm finding less and less necessity to overlay thoughts about the world on top of my experiencing of it.
In my Tai Chi class I don't need to keep up a dialogue inside my head about how I'm moving. I simply need to move. I know the forms (Long Form, Short Form, 48 Form, etc.) that we're doing, or "playing" in Tai Chi parlance. So all I need to do is practice the meditation in motion that is Tai Chi.
During my evening dog walk I don't need to think about how the day has gone, or what I'm going to do after the family canine and I arrive home. I simply need to feel my feet take step after step, sense the air entering and exiting my nostrils, watch Serena sniffing her way from fascinating scent to fascinating scent.
The spiritual teacher/guru I used to believe in was fond of saying, "We aren't human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." (A Teilhard de Chardin quote.)
Well, here's another option: be a human being having a human experience.
Then, maybe -- highly improbable, but a possibility -- after you die you'll be a spiritual being having a spiritual experience. While human, be human. If spirit, be spiritual. Why short-change experience by making it something other than what it really is?
A thought of something spiritual (supernatural, immaterial, other-worldly) takes place via the physical brain. So it is real, but not of the same sort of reality as the world is.
Thoughts only exist inside our heads until we communicate them, like I'm doing now by having a thought, typing out in English when it consists of, and then publishing this post on the Internet.
Thinking is essential for making our way in the world and relating to other people. However, it's an open question as to how much we need to think about what we're doing and experiencing. Often thoughts are an unnecessary adjunct to experience, such as when I wash the dishes and think "I'm washing the dishes."
On the other hand, thinking about how to experience something different from what is happening now often is necessary. If my computer won't start up, I need to think about what to do before doing it.
Religions, though, want us to think a lot about imaginary experiences. Prayers, mantras, ritual invocations, and such are designed to place true believers in a frame of mind where the here and now is made subservient to a fantasized there and then.
Sure, all this religious stuff can feel good. Sitting in church, surrounded by people who believe like you do, hearing tales of a heaven that is so much better than this imperfect world -- all this can produce highly appealing thoughts.
But that's all they are: thoughts. Reality is somewhere else, all around the worshipper. The sound of the preacher's voice, the hardness or softness of the pew, the brightness of candles, the sight of an image of Jesus on the cross.
After I left my Tai Chi class, I drove home. I decided to turn off the radio. I wanted to simply experience driving as fully as possible. It was much more interesting than usual, because my attention wasn't divided like it often is.
I felt the bumps on the underside of the steering wheel, as if for the first time. The sensation of turning a corner was fresh, even though I'd done it so frequently before. I realized that the world is where I should be focusing more of my attention, because the reality out there is more substantial than my thoughts about it.