Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Are Not What You Think

During vipassana meditation practice, we cultivate the ability to see everything that happens as merely events that arise out of stillness, last for a while, and then return back to stillness. Throughout this process, we can see, through our investigation and contemplation of these events, that none of them contain any separate or permanent "self." They are all the results of interdependently co-arising causes and conditions.

What is often forgotten, however, is that the thoughts the mind creates are also empty of self. Out of years of habit, we have come to experience thoughts as having some origin within a self, when actually the mind creates thoughts by its own mechanisms and processes. The realization that we do not think our own thoughts can be a stunning insight for new meditators, or even for seasoned practitioners.

If we could actually control what thoughts we have, wouldn't we only think pleasant, self-loving, peaceful, happy thoughts? I imagine we would. Yet, thoughts come unbidden in the form of past regrets about some event that may have happened years before, or anxieties about some future catastrophe that will never take place. True, there may be intentions to think about certain subjects, such as when we need to devote attention toward a specific problem. However, just as in meditations where sound is the primary object of attention, there is the intention to listen for sounds, but there is no "I, me, or mine" in the sound itself. In the same way, there is the intention to think in a certain direction, but the thoughts that arise come unbidden and empty of self.

It may be helpful to rephrase the way we relate to our thoughts, as well. Instead of saying, "I thought such and such," it may be better to word it as, "The mind thought such and such." As in the example of sound meditation, this way of relating to thoughts can help us to dis-identify with them as containing I, me, or mine. When we are not clinging to thoughts as being "mine," then it is easier to see them simply as events; as un-asked for creations of mind based on many previous experiences, but not as actual facts (outside of being thoughts). In this way, we are not held prisoner by these thoughts, which can reduce our suffering. 

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz):
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness. . . These visions have no reality outside your consciousness. No matter how frightening some of them may seem they cannot hurt you. . . Just let them pass through your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky. Fundamentally they have no more reality than this.

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