Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of December 3, 2012

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Beyond Thinking

(Learning to Be: Part 3)

Our thoughts are at once our greatest tool and our velvet prison. We well know the usefulness of our ability to think: planning, learning, weighing options, rehearsing, remembering, creating, solving problems, cogitating, categorizing, conversing, and so on. Without our ability to think, our life would be incredibly impoverished, back to our animal roots. And yet our thoughts constrain us, keeping us on their level, in their circle. It is not a bad place, except when we suffer from anxiety, anger, jealousy, fear, obsession, depression, or some other emotional distress that muddies our thoughts. But even at its best and clearest, our thought-sphere is a very limited place.

Those limitations are not obvious. Our thoughts can soar to the most sublime subjects: the creation of the universe, the nature of the Divine, truth and love. Yet such thoughts still remain just thoughts, just sounds or images in our brain that symbolize something else. The thought of the universe is not the universe. The thought of the creator is not the Creator. And the thought of love is not Love. Thoughts pale to insignificance before the realities to which they refer. Nevertheless, we mistakenly ascribe reality to these thought-symbols themselves and live in thrall to them.

Thoughts are so intimate that they seem to be our true voice, one that no one else hears. Thats me thinking these thoughts. But the great majority of our thoughts are not intentional. We dont think them. They think themselves: bouncing off each other, pinging our memory bank, lurching to yet another tangent, an endless chain. And this seductive, self-generating stream of thoughts carries us along with it. It lulls us into a kind of inner sleep, wherein we dont have to do anything, we just let our thoughts be who and what we are. This is a poor existence, constrained to a domain of automatic, associative thoughts that take our attention, take us.

To understand this, to believe it, to have any hope of going beyond thought, we need to see our mind situation clearly. In meditation, if we anchor ourselves in body awareness, so that we do not slip away into the stream of thoughts, and if we quietly watch what happens in us, we see our thoughts coming and going on their own, without our directing them. Its like a computer program that jumps from one memory to an associated one, from one notion to another, without any need of outside control.

There is no I in our automatic thought stream. The thought I is just another thought. The thought I that we believe in so deeply is not the reality of who we are, not our will or attention, not our true I. We construct our whole persona around the thought I. But it is just a thought. We need to see this again and again. We need to become thoroughly steeped in seeing that our thoughts are almost always automatic and are never who we are. Only by becoming completely and directly convinced of this, do we come to the point of being ready to set our thoughts aside, ready to not be taken in by them. Thoughts are just thoughts, nothing more. They have meaning, they are symbols referring to people, objects, events, or abstract concepts, but they are not me or you. Just as spoken language is not the speaker, our thoughts are not the one who sees or thinks them.

Yes, sometimes we do think intentionally. We might consider a problem, make a plan, remember how to do something, and so on. But even then, we are not our thoughts, we are the one who is thinking them. Still, for the most part, no one is thinking them, yet we believe they reflect our intention, our self, even though they just follow a cause-effect, stimulus-response mode of generation. Watch your thoughts. See them in action, until you are ready to step free of them.

Now that does not mean stopping thoughts. In our quieter moments, they may subside temporarily. But we cannot stop them directly and they will be with us for the remainder of our life, just as our breathing and digestion will. No matter. Our spiritual work is to be free in front of them, to move our attention into domains other than thought.

The first of those, as mentioned above, is body awareness, and more generally, sensory awareness other than the cognitive perception of thoughts. Body awareness grounds us in the present, in the concrete reality of our body. Further practice opens us into the energy field, the sensitive energy that enables us to be in contact with our body. This grounding diminishes the hold that our thoughts have on us.

By practicing thought awareness, grounded in our body and watching our thoughts come and go, we begin to see into the gaps between thoughts, into the mind-space around our thoughts. Just beyond and surrounding our thoughts is the silence, the great, welcoming, immediately familiar stillness. Thoughts are in time, define time, while stillness is timeless. Opening to the cognizant stillness within us, we can just be, we can enter our being. This is a new perception for us, the perception of inner spaciousness, of inner stillness, of pure awareness. Our thoughts may continue their ever-changing stream, but we are here, in our being. Thoughts are no obstacle to that. In this state, our thoughts do not take us away from our being. We are like the sky with thought clouds passing by, clouds which cannot affect the immensity of the sky beyond them.

For this week, watch your thoughts. Notice particularly the thought I. Notice how your thoughts take you for a ride, in which you are passive. Notice the vast stillness of being, the great inner space of your mind, surrounding your thoughts.

See also: Thoughts and Thinking


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