I think; therefore I am. ~Descartes
There is no such thing as a true thought. ~Adyashanti
These two quotes represent contrasting concepts of thought. The first reveals thought as the source of our very existence. The second knocks thought off its pedestal.
We reflected on these statements during the last in person gathering of the No Way Café. We found the topic difficult to discuss. It’s hard to consider the nature of thinking because we are thinking as we do it! So I apologize in advance for what might be confusing and a bit convoluted. But I wanted to extend the invitation to join in the conversation.
Most of us live in our thoughts. When an event occurs, our minds quickly begin a process of labeling and evaluating. We tell ourselves a story about what happened. The story is heavily influenced by our past experience. Feelings might arise. We interact with or react to the event based on our stories and the feelings they evoke. In this sense, we exist within the story we have created.
If several people are present at the event, each will have a unique story and therefore a unique experience of the event. Some experiences might be similar, if based on similar thought stories. Others might be dramatically different. But none will be identical. Our thoughts give us identity, and they also separate us.
So while we might identify ourselves with our thoughts, does that make them true? We might say, this is my truth (as if truth can be possessed), as distinguished from your truth. Truth becomes, like our thought stories, an individual matter. We all exist in the closed spheres of our individual realities, which we often believe are universally true, but can’t be. If my thoughts are unique to me, then they cannot be universally true.
Sometimes our thoughts are not even individually true. Remember that our thoughts are not the event itself. They are separate from the event and may or may not have any relation to it. Recently someone did something involving one of my kids. I interpreted the act in a certain way, based on my difficult history with this person. Feelings arose. I rehearsed many responses in my mind and had feelings about those, too. But I held off on any actual response. I could see that I was having a hard time discerning an appropriate response because I was so caught up in my thought story. I asked a neutral third party to sort things out. Evidence showed that the person’s act was reasonable and well intentioned.
Wow. My thoughts were not true at all. Not only that, but even after I found out they weren’t true, I was still very attached to them. My feelings based on the untrue thoughts were still swirling. I realized that I secretly wanted the thoughts to be true so that my feelings would be justified. I wanted this even though it caused me distress and what really happened was much better for all concerned. Once the thought story takes hold, we get very invested in it and closed to other possibilities. Why is that?
And what happens before it takes hold? If we go back to the event and look closely, we will see that there is a moment, an almost imperceptible nanosecond, before our thoughts begin. In that moment there is only the event and our awareness of it. Many of us are never aware of this tiny space. The shift from the event to our thought story about the event is too fast. But if you have ever had a shock of some kind, you probably felt that momentary delay between the event and your thinking about it. When we are shocked by something our minds can’t label right away, we might feel disoriented, confused, even sick, like the ground just fell out from under us. Our minds frantically scramble to find a label, to start a story, to get us back on what we sense as solid ground.
To the extent that we identify ourselves with our thoughts, this delay between the event and our thinking about the event is terrifying. In that moment there is no separation into our individual thought stories. There is no “I,” no separate ego living in a thought created reality. It threatens our very existence because within it there is no thought, and therefore, to paraphrase Descartes, I am not. No wonder our minds scramble to jump into the safety net of our thoughts.
But what are we missing? What happens within this nanosecond of pure awareness? While our mind is rushing in to label and evaluate, our spirit enters a vast emptiness filled with wonder. Within this fleeting moment is an eternity of infinite possibility. We are in harmony with the universe. We are one with the event, with everything, because at that moment we are everything, without the separate existence created by our thoughts. We might only glimpse it, but if we watch for it with a little willingness to tolerate the absence of our thought existence, we might find ourselves amazed. We might find truth.
Perhaps both the above statements are accurate. “I” am because I think. Yet no thought is universally true. That doesn’t make thought bad. It just makes it thinking. And it opens up the possibility that there is something true besides thought. Hmm, now that is something to think about!
While reflecting on this topic, I ran across the following passage which seems to capture this conundrum.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking…and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. ~Romans 1:22-23