I have a weird title up here. I wonder if you understand the question. I actually wanted the title to be “Do Your Thoughts Think You?” But that would have been very confusing. This piece is about how much we are in control of our thoughts. Are we responsible for our thoughts? Are our thoughts independent of us?
That thoughts think themselves
Try this exercise. Let’s give ourselves five minutes. Close your eyes. Try to think of nothing for those five minutes. Only focus on your breath. Breath deeply. Were you able to still your mind? Didn’t you have some thoughts passing through your brain? You probably thought about something that happened in the past or what you look forward to happening in the future. If you are like most people, you were not thinking only about the present moment, focusing only on your breath. This problem presents a question. Who are you really when you can’t control your own thoughts? Doing this exercise, as you watch your thoughts, they seem to pass through your mind on their own volition. In other words, it’s as if your thoughts are thinking themselves, and you are just an observer in this theatre.
Who are we? Does the self exist?
Let me be honest with you. I got all these ideas from reading Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. I haven’t finished reading the book. In one of the sermons of the Buddha, the Buddha talks about the self, or better still the not self. He discusses four categories of things we consider to be us. An example is the physical body. He will say something like, are you the same person you were ten years ago? Although you look similar, you still look different. Even your thoughts have changed. Personally, I can think of a lot of stupid things I have done in the past and cringe. Ah, the stupid things I have done, you won’t believe! So if you are not the same person you were in the past, where is that permanence that resides in you? The Buddha concludes that the self doesn’t exist.
Practitioners of Buddhism have different interpretations as to what the Buddha meant. Some say it doesn’t mean literally that the self doesn’t exist, but that what we usually think of us ourselves doesn’t exist. I mean, are the ideas in my head things I really believe in, or do I hold them because everyone else thinks they are correct? Are we just imitators? What things are important to us? As Peter Thiel likes to ask, what do you know to be true that other people disagree with you on? These are questions we need to ask ourselves so we know who we really are.
I can’t exhaust my topic if I don’t talk about suffering. It is a central part Buddhist teachings, from the little reading I have done. The Buddha’s great insight was that our pleasures are fleeting, and because of that we end up suffering. And that pleasures can’t ultimately be satisfied. This idea is really deep. I don’t like using the term deep because sometimes I hear people call things deep, and those things don’t make much sense. It’s like, yo, I don’t understand what this dude is saying so he must be deep. Honestly, the Buddha’s insight is deep. I think what the Buddha says is true. Our unhappiness comes from our unfulfilled pleasures. And man, or woman, isn’t without pleasures. There seems to be a lot of agreement, especially in evolutionary biology, that we seek pleasure because that’s what has made our species to survive. Food and sex (so they say) feel good because we need them to survive. We feel pain the way we do because if we didn’t we won’t survive. Actually, in most cases we are fooled without knowing what’s happening. Like we seek status because it makes us more desirable, giving us a greater chance of propagating our genes. I think Richard Dawkins makes this point in the Selfish Gene, which I haven’t finished reading, because he gets very technical and I easily get bored with such things. The point is that natural selection doesn’t care about our individual wellbeing. We are biological machines. Our nature may make us do things that are not in our best interest. Again, traits which may have been useful in the past may not be useful in our modern word. That’s how nature fools us. Let’s have an example, say someone insults you in traffic so you rush towards him to let him know what an idiot he is for insulting you. You could get yourself killed doing this. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense to do this. However, it appears the problem is in our nature. When we were hunter gatherers we had to live together with other people in a close community. You wouldn’t want anyone to take advantage of you in such an environment because the moment you allow it you create an incentive for other parasites. So you confront people and fight to keep your place. You didn’t even have to win to let others get the message that you wouldn’t be taken for a ride. We are fooled in having road rage because we are not in our ancestral environment, we are unlikely to meet the culprit again.
Anger has a pleasurable side to it. Especially when you get to tell the other person, what an as***le he is. Sometimes when I don’t say it to someone I begin to feel physically ill. I don’t do this with family and friends but once a while you meet a foolish person. These kinds of people are an endangered species, however, not yet extinct, and you just can’t believe there are human being like them. In the end of this piece, I will tell you things that have made me calmer, more peaceful. But you can’t apply it to a foolish person. At least I can’t. As I said earlier, letting a foolish person go scot free makes me physically ill, and I am not a confrontational person. I seem to be vengeful when our ways cross often and they don’t change from their foolish behaviours. I get it on a level of principle to ignore idiots. It usually works. However, I think it is dangerous to ignore them if you have to deal with them on a regular basis. I have also found that dealing with them makes them change their ways. So deal with them. I am the kind of person that if my child tells me he is being bullied at school I’ll teach him how to whack the bully so there’ll be minimal damage rather than go to the school to ask questions. You don’t even have to win fights against bullies. The fact that you are prepared to fight back is usually good enough for them to leave you alone. I know this from personal experience. Now see who will be telling you to be calm.
Suffering and taming unhealthy thoughts and the not-self
We are tricked by our nature, so pain will be inevitable. But our suffering, we can overcome. The eighth chapter of Romans, particularly verses 5-8, discusses this subject. Instead of heeding to the flesh, we need to be spiritually minded. How do we do this?
Before we go into it, I’ll like to talk a little about the self. I don’t believe that the self doesn’t exist. I don’t even believe that thoughts think themselves. That we have no control of our thoughts. I think our brain is such that it cannot be empty, because as humans there will always be some matter that occupies us. I think the self exists because on some really deep level we have the chance to choose. We can choose slavery or suicide. We can choose to love our family so be slaves. We can choose to be good or evil. We can choose to be good even when being good is not rational. I believe that no matter our circumstance (and circumstance does matter) we can exercise our will. This is difficult for me to explain. When I look at my short life, most days I have lived I have had to decide. I have had to choose between right and wrong. Forget all the verbiage, at some level we know what is right and wrong. The grey areas aren’t much. Maybe the idea of doing no harm will suffice. The truth is that it is difficult to do what we know is right. Why? Because hard things are hard. Really hard. So I believe that as humans we have our will, and in our modern world there are very few times we don’t have it. That’s what makes us appreciate when someone does something extraordinary, whether charity or a work of art, because we can connect with the pain, time and soul that went into it. I will agree that our environment plays a role in who we become, but I believe the will can create its own environment.
That was a long aside. Let’s continue. The solution I have found in order to tame our thoughts which seem to fly everywhere is meditation. This solution is presented in Why Buddhism is True. I found same in The Book of Joy co-produced by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a superb book by the way. The whole idea of meditation is to put out noise. Or just good old having a quiet time. There are two main types of meditation- mindfulness and concentration. In mindfulness, you watch your thoughts as you think, well, as they come to you. In concentration, you try to keep your mind still. I mean, you try to have no thoughts. This is usually done by concentrating on a mantra, an image, or breaths. I am no expert on meditation. I’ve tried it about three times since I became familiar with the idea about six months ago. I am too lazy to meditate. I am embarrassed to say this, but I will; when I think of meditating, I keep thinking if it wouldn’t be better if I sleep. So instead of doing proper meditation I do a kind of mindfulness exercise which is suggested by James Altucher. It’s simple. If you think a bad thought, tell yourself- not good. I mean, if you call a friend and she doesn’t pick up the phone, don’t start thinking that she saw your call but ignored it. Then you start thinking about how you’ll do the same to her. Who does she think she is? You get the idea? Not good. It’s not wrong to think negative thoughts but try to analyse them too. Maybe your friend is just not close to her phone. Again, ask yourself whether the thought is helpful. There is this old Tibetan Buddhist (I hope I got the origin right) saying that goes like, why worry when you can change a situation? And why worry when you can do nothing about it? Doing that will be, ahuh, not good.
Another idea that has helped me is one I found in Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson. I am almost nowhere with that book. I was practicing it even before I saw it in his book. It’s just that the book kind of concretised the phenomenon. This idea is also very simple. It’s called not self. So when I see myself starting to fake it, I will remind myself- not self. Let me give you an example, in this piece my entire goal is to help people with wandering minds like mine to have some calm so they can be more objective and hopefully in the end achieve some modicum of peace inside. I am not superman so I can’t tell you that you will always feel at peace, since I am not always calm. It’s fine to be angry sometimes. This is my goal. To achieve this goal of inner calm, I suggest that you should meditate. But you see, although I felt good the few times I have meditated, it’s not a habit of mine. I can just talk about meditation. Give you the juice, and give you the impression that I am really a dope guy. But honestly, I suck at it. So if I get the urge to present myself in a way that makes me look good but is in fact false. I tell myself, hey, not self. These days I really like it better to say things about myself that are really embarrassing. Doing that for sometime now, I find that they are not even really embarrassing. Like one time at church in a discussion, we were talking about addiction, and I gave my contribution about how I was addicted to pornography and how I got myself out of it. You should have seen the shock on people’s faces. I don’t think it was what I said as that I said it. I am not saying I am radically honest or anything. As James Altucher will say, I believe in constructive honesty. The one that doesn’t harm others. Again, I am not saying I am a most honest person, I just feel like people sometimes present themselves in away they are not. Sometimes I don’t even see the self interest in it. Like a really stupid lie. One time, my most beloved lecturer told me about a student she had given some task. It was on students assessment. This student started massaging figures for students who were not his colleagues. I doubt he even knew them. Excuse my French, but this is really stupid.
A few more rants
Honestly, I am done with the post. You can stop reading if you want. I think the piece is even becoming too long, but I will keep ranting. The problem with faking is that it makes us less happy. We also don’t accept ourselves. I mean, it’s fine to have weaknesses. When we accept ourselves, we can laugh at our weaknesses, and they no longer become painful. Jordan Peterson, who I have already mentioned, listened to his inner voice. At that time, when he realised that he was saying things he didn’t believe in, he stopped himself. We should always stop ourselves.
It’s better to make fun of ourselves; that means we are human. I’ve realized that I can denigrate myself and nobody can do me a thing. Can you laugh at me when I am laughing louder at myself? Good luck.
My whole point is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, not read too many meanings into things and try some form of exercise that makes us calmer. You shouldn’t be like me. Meditate!
Thank you for reading.