Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of August 27, 2012

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Presence of Mind

(Presence in Daily Life: Part 9)

We believe in our thoughts. We even believe we are our thoughts. But there is a basic, qualitative difference between our thoughts and the thinker of our thoughts, when there is a thinker. Consider the ongoing stream of commentary that flows through your mind, almost continuously. Do you drive those comments? Are you intentionally thinking those thoughts? Or do they simply arise on their own, as pre-conditioned, pre-programmed, habitual, patterned responses to other thoughts and to your experience of the moment? Typically there is no I, no thinker behind our thoughts: they just flow automatically from one to the next to the next. They feed off each other, off our memories, and off what our senses bring us. This stream of thoughts creates the convincing but false illusion that we are thinking them, that they are the embodiment of a person, namely us.

Sometimes we do think intentionally, like when we are considering some problem, planning a course of action, weighing alternatives. In such cases it is right to say with Descartes, I think, therefore I am. The thinker is there.

Usually though, our thoughts think themselves. This would be fine, and is fine, except for the fact that we assume that since we do sometimes think, then all our thoughts are ours and intentional. We assume that we think all our thoughts, that they always speak for us, that they are our inner voice, that we know who we are because we know our thoughts. This is one of our fundamental illusions. Not only are we not our thoughts, but we usually are only vaguely aware of them.

Our brain will go on producing automatic, associative thoughts for the rest of our lives. We cannot stop our thoughts, at least not directly. But we can stop our identification with them, our belief that we are our thoughts. How? Meditation helps. When we sit quietly, not doing anything, we can see our thoughts flowing on their own, without our initiative, without our intention. That stream of thoughts is what our brain does, in the same way that our heart beats, our gut digests, and our lungs breathe. Itís automatic, but not always.

A case in point is breathing. We breathe all our lives and our body does so automatically. Yet we can breathe intentionally when we so choose. We can change our breathing pattern for a short time, as in some yoga practices. This is not to advocate yogic or any other change to our breathing patterns, but is just to offer the example of an automatic function that can be non-automatic and intentional when we so choose. So it is with thinking: nearly always automatic, but intentionally directed when we act as the thinker pondering some issue. Seeing all this clearly in quiet meditation begins to liberate us from the tyranny of our thoughts, from identification with them. Just as we are not our breathing, we are also not our thoughts. That is the road toward clarity, toward presence in our mind, toward presence of mind

There is this cognitive awareness beneath our thoughts. Through that awareness, we are cognizant of our thoughts. But the awareness and the thought are not identical. One is a conscious screen and the other is displayed on that screen. Yet neither the screen nor the thought is who we are. We are the one who sees the screen. Watch your mind intentionally, without trying to change your thoughts. Be the one watching your mind, be yourself, your own I. You are not a thought. Your I is not a thought. Your I is your will, the one in you who sees and chooses and directs your attention, the one who can think intentionally, the one who can be aware of your thoughts.

Presence of mind begins in tuning into the quiet awareness beneath our thoughts. That quiet awareness is not disturbed or hidden by our thoughts. It is always there, awaiting us. It is a place of inner peace, a refuge. We can relax into that stillness behind our thoughts and just be. We relax into the big sky of our mind and let our thoughts come and go of their own accord like passing clouds. We relax into the broad field of conscious awareness and let our thoughts roam at will like cattle on an expansive range, without following, being lost in, or driven by our thoughts. This brings order to our mind. Then, when we need to think about something, we can take the reins of our thinking mind and direct it with clarity. We can cognize, we can see, mentally, what is necessary and appropriate to our immediate situation. This is presence of mind.

The usual definition of presence of mind concerns the ability to see what needs to be done in the midst of sudden crisis demanding immediate action. But we are not going to intentionally create crises in order to practice presence of mind. So instead we practice presence in our mind, in our thoughts and emotions and attitudes, and in the cognizant stillness behind them. We are here in our big mind, but we are not a function of our mind. Rather, we own our mind. When we do not need to think about something intentionally, we let our thoughts go on automatically, giving them a wide berth without interfering with them, and also without falling prey to the illusion that our thoughts are us or even speak for us. Yes, our thoughts are close to us, intimately close. But they are not as close as our I, our will. Our thoughts are external to us; they not who we are.

For this week, please practice presence of mind.


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