I have been of a philosophic turn all of my life. I remember being about seven years old and riding in the back seat of my dad’s 1950 black Mercury. I was pondering in my mind the concept of eternity and trying to understand how something could have no beginning and no end. A deep fear shot through me as I glimpsed a vastness.
The Catholicism I believed in while growing up led to a questioning of all religions in my college years and beyond. That was when I investigated the beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular. These were the years I first read the Tao te Ching and the I Ching texts of China, and the Zen writings of T.D. Suzuki.
Alan Watts was a great introduction to oriental philosophies and my friend Frank and I would talk well into the night. I remember his books “Psychotherapy East and West” and “The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.” In addition to Watts, we read the premier teacher of my 20’s, Jiddhu Krishnamurti.
In his childhood he was ‘discovered’ by the Theosophical Society in India and groomed to be the Great World Teacher. In his 20’s, just as he was expected to take on his mantle of savior, he walked away from traditional paths and expectations. Instead he spent the rest of his life telling people to follow the pathless path, to be their own teacher and believe no authority other than their own.
As someone who always had problems with authority figures, this mightily appealed to me. From my perspective, Krishnamurti’s teachings mainly revolved around the understanding of ‘thinking.’ In those days, terms like consciousness, awareness, etc. were not thrown about so casually. The great thing was thinking. What was thought? Who was it who was thinking? Who was the thinker?
One of the phrases Krishnamurti said that always stuck with me was (and I paraphrase), “If you understood the nature of thought, you would avoid it like a poisonous snake in your path.” I never quite understood that. Why was thought so dangerous? And how could we avoid it?
By my late 20’s I had noticed that voice in our head that comments on everything we do. In a poem I wrote at the time I called it the ‘magpie tourist guide’ because of its unrelenting commentary. It never stopped talking, evaluating, comparing, labeling.
What I had done, in retrospect, was to become aware of the presence of the Thinker; but I had not realized, and would not for some forty years, was that I was not the Thinker. I was the field of awareness that was aware of the Thinker.
The little brush painting I included today is a sketch of the process. There is the outside stimulus (say a bird in the tree) that is seen with the eyes, relayed to the brain, named by the Thinker sitting on the little throne in the middle of the mind, and then behind that throne is the awareness, the I Am.
All of the years of my adulthood I struggled with the Thinker, trying to throw off its dominion for the constant labeling, evaluating, judging and comparing was tightly bound to states of fear, sorrow, grief, regret and shame. Along the line I had realized that these negative thoughts created negative emotional and mental states but I still didn’t know how to break out of the loop. I still hadn’t realized that I was not my thoughts; I was the space in which the thoughts occurred.
The crisis of illness finally loosened the hold of mentation because I realized the limits of thought. The process of thinking was a stage in man’s evolution; it was a defense weapon comparable to a cat having claws. Thinking improves the possibility of survival but it does not guarantee it. Thinking is limited. It is not the god it pretends to be.
For example, Adam and Eve in the garden – the origin story, the human mythology of our existence. God created One (Adam) and from this One came Two (Eve); and from the Two came the Many. Think of Adam and Eve as evolving creatures in a primitive world (the garden) who did not yet have thought. They lived, named the animals (language) and had dominion over them and ate fruit from the garden. In other words, this is a picture of hunter gatherers.
The next chapter of the story tells of the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Good and Evil, the devil and Eve. I don’t believe there was a snake, nor a real devil in terms of an evil spirit. I think the devil was the awakening of the ability to ‘think’. The snake who whispered in Eve’s ear was the voice of her own mind. Before this she would have had mental ‘pictures’ of the tiger, the plant, the tree, etc. but had not ‘said the word’ tiger, plant or tree in her mind to identify it. The word is not the thing.
When those ‘words’ began to pop up, when she heard that voice in her mind, did she think it was the voice of God? Or of a devil? In hearing that voice she entered a whole new world that was now one step removed from immediate reality. She was no longer completely ‘present’ in the world for now her experience of it was being filtered through her mind and commented on by the Thinker.
And what was Thinker telling her? This fruit is good, this one is bad. Go to that clearing to find rabbits again. Over the hill is where the berries are. In other words, thinking was improving her chances of surviving. The origin of the mind is in that most basic impulse, to survive. And because thinking helped mankind to survive it was considered to be a good thing.
However, the downside of thinking was that Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. They could no longer experience the timelessness and immediacy of life, of each moment. They had lost their innocence. They were now Homo Sapiens – men who think. We have been thinking ever since.
We hear those thoughts in our heads and believe they not only belong to us, they are us – we become separate from everyone else in the world. Thought has made us insecure, aggressive, isolated, and schizoid. Our thinking minds tell us that if we stop thinking we will die – the old survival fear. Now our survival depends on transcending thinking.
If we are able to suspend thought when it is not needed, we can again experience that earlier state of being at one with life. But we no longer have a reference for that state in which we live but do not think. As a species we are still evolving and if we do not destroy ourselves a golden age can lie ahead.
Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” He got it backwards. We are not our thoughts – we are the space in which thinking happens.