Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Thoughts and Thinking

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We collectively glorify our ability to think as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity; we personally and mistakenly glorify our thoughts as the distinguishing pattern of who we are. From the inner voice of thought-as-words to the wordless images within our minds, thoughts create and limit our personal world. Through thinking we abstract and define reality, reason about it, react to it, recall past events and plan for the future. Yet thinking remains both woefully underdeveloped in most of us, as well as grossly overvalued. We can best gain some perspective on thinking in terms of energies.

Automatic thinking draws us away from the present. We wistfully allow our thoughts to meander where they will, carrying our passive attention along with them. Like water running down a mountain stream, thoughts running on autopilot careen through the spaces of perception, randomly triggering associative links within our vast storehouse of memory. By itself, such associative thought is harmless. However, our tendency to believe in, act upon, and drift away with such undirected thought keeps us operating in an automatic mode. Lulled into an inner passivity by our daydreams and thought streams, we lose contact with the world of actual perceptions, of real life. In the automatic mode of thinking, I am completely identified with my thoughts, believing my thoughts are me, believing that I am my thoughts.

Another mode of automatic thinking consists of repetitious and habitual patterns of thought. These thought tapes and our running commentary on life, unexamined by the light of awareness, keep us enthralled, defining who we are and perpetuating all our limiting assumptions about what is possible for us. Driving and driven by our emotions, these ruts of thought create our false persona, the mask that keeps us disconnected from others and from our own authentic self. More than any other single factor, automatic thinking hinders our contact with presence, limits our being, and blocks our path. The autopilot of thought constantly calls us away from the here and now, and keeps us fixed on the most superficial levels of our being.

Sometimes we even notice strange, unwanted thoughts that we consider horrible or shameful. We might be upset or shaken that we would think such thoughts, but those reactions only serve to sustain the problematic thoughts by feeding them energy. Furthermore, that self-disgust is based on the false assumption that we are our thoughts, that even unintentional thoughts, arising from our conditioned minds, are us. They are not us and we need not act upon or react to them. They are just thoughts with no inherent power and no real message about who we are. We can just relax and let them go — or not. Troubling thoughts that recur over a long period and hinder our inner work may require us to examine and heal their roots in our conditioning, perhaps with the help of a psychotherapist.

Sensitive thinking puts us in touch with the meaning of our thoughts and enables us to think logically, solve problems, make plans, and carry on a substantive conversation. A good education develops our ability to think clearly and intentionally with the sensitive energy. With that energy level in our thinking brain, no longer totally submerged in the thought stream, we can move about in it, choosing among and directing our thoughts based on their meaning.

Conscious thinking means stepping out of the thought stream altogether, surveying it from the shore. The thoughts themselves may even evaporate, leaving behind a temporarily empty streambed. Consciousness reveals the banality and emptiness of ordinary thinking. Consciousness also permits us to think more powerfully, holding several ideas, their meanings and ramifications in our minds at once.

When the creative energy enters into thought, truly new ideas spring up. Creative thinking can happen after a struggle, after exhausting all known avenues of relevant ideas and giving up, shaping and emptying the stage so the creative spark may enter. The quiet, relaxed mind also leaves room for the creative thought, a clear channel for creativity. Creative and insightful thoughts come to all of us in regard to the situations we face in life. The trick is to be aware enough to catch them, to notice their significance, and if they withstand the light of sober and unbiased evaluation, to act on them.

In the spiritual path, we work to recognize the limitations of thought, to recognize its power over us, and especially to move beyond it. Along with Descartes, we live in the realm of “thoughts ‘r us.” But thoughts are just thoughts. They are not us. They are not who we are.

While thought processes, such as planning and foresight, give us power in the domain of time, thoughts also mask the timeless, chaining our inner world to time. No thought can enter the spiritual realms. Rather, the material world defines the boundaries of thought, despite its power to conceive lofty abstractions. We cannot think our way into the spiritual reality. On the contrary, identification with thinking prevents us from entering the depths. As long as we remain mesmerized by thoughts or believe that refined thinking represents our highest capacity, we shackle ourselves exclusively to this world. All our thoughts, all our books, all our ideas wither before the immensity of the higher realms.

A richly developed body of spiritual practices engages thought: from repetitive prayer and mantras, to contemplation of an idea, to visualizations of deities. In a most instructive and invaluable exercise, we learn to see beyond thought by embracing the gaps, the spaces between thoughts. After sitting quietly and relaxing for some time, we turn our attention toward the thought stream within us. We notice thoughts come and go of their own accord, without prodding or pushing from us. If we can abide in this relaxed watching of thought, without falling into the stream and flowing away with it, the thought stream begins to slow, the thoughts fragment. Less enthralled by our thoughts, we begin to see that we are not our thoughts. Less controlled by, and at the mercy of, our thoughts, we begin to be aware of the gaps between thought particles. These gaps open to consciousness, underlying all thought. Settling into these gaps, we enter and become the silent, timeless consciousness beneath thought. Instead of being in our thoughts, our thoughts are in us.

See Also: Thoughts as Thoughts, Cognitive Presence, Mind and Thought, and Behind Thoughts


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