We spend most of our lives in a haze of unproductive thought. We implicitly believe that we see the world—including ourselves—clearly, but we spend most of our time ignoring what is right in front of us. We are utterly captivated by thought.
If we start to look behind, or through, or around thought, we come into contact with direct experience unmediated by the process of thinking. Most of the time, we are unaware of how thought is pulling us away from direct experience, and into its web of confusion. If you watch yourself throughout the day, and notice when you are thinking, how much of your inner mumbling is creative and worthwhile, and how much is idle chatter, grumbling, and worry?
More often than not, our thinking is worthless—although cherished—bullshit, and only serves to make our lives harder and more painful. I urge you to carefully observe your own experience and see if any of this is true. On close inspection of my own consciousness, I found that patterns of thought I had long clung to were actually enormous wastes of energy and attention. We often imagine we can think our way out of problems, when many times it’s the thinking itself that creates and sustains the problem. Without thought to hold it, the problem melts away.
To turn the attention away from thought and toward direct experience is—or rightfully should be—the goal of mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality. Even small steps away from thought can decrease our suffering. We become less hung up on an ego–centric, myopic view of life, and can start to see the world outside the narrow lens of thought.
For a period of months, I was obsessed with learning everything I could about people who no longer experience thoughts, or whose relationship to thinking has dramatically transformed. One such person is Gary Weber, long–time meditator and yogi, and author of Happiness Beyond Thought. One day Gary went down into a yoga pose thinking, and when he came up out of the pose, found that his thoughts had vanished. Not all thoughts. He could still plan and strategize—he was managing a huge research budget as a scientist—but the constant, annoying buzzing of stupid thought had gone away. What was left is what he simply calls stillness, a state of panoramic flow in which each moment becomes almost effortless.
Gary firmly believes that this state is not out of reach for others, and has written several books, and many articles about the kinds of practices that can help us reach it. Chief among these are yoga and meditation, as well as a form of self–inquiry in which as a thought arises, the practitioner inquires To whom is this thought arising? or Who am I? The thought is traced back, as far as it can be, to its source. Where did it come from? Where is the thinker? The idea is that as we turn thought back on itself, we realize there is no one source, or thinker, or self, from which thought originates.
The inquiries have the tendency to interrupt the flow of thought, to silence it. As questioning each troublesome thought becomes more and more automatic—less verbalized and more simply felt—thoughts arise less and less. Or at least, this is the way the practice works in the best cases. I’ve tried my hand at inquiry, and have certainly found it helpful. When thoughts are particularly problematic, as in anxious, addictive or depressive thought, inquiry can help relax the hold those thoughts have on us.
The point in all this for me is that we don’t have to live in constant service to every whim and notion that enters our brain. For many of us, inner life is characterized not by peace and joy, but by jealous longing, frustration, anger, and sadness. There is hope for those of us who struggle with these experiences. There are ways of working with the mind to bring about greater well–being, and radically so. I wonder if too many people simply dismiss spirituality as mumbo–jumbo. And indeed, many Buddhists believe in rebirth, and New Age teachers spout nonsense about quantum mechanics and universal consciousness. It is good to be skeptical of these claims.
But it does not follow that the experiences of someone like Gary Weber are to be dismissed as easily. In fact, Gary is trained as a scientist, is an atheist as far as I can tell, and has a materialistic worldview. You don’t have to believe any woo–woo to understand how meditation can change the character of your experience so radically that your life will be forever transformed. That’s not to say we will all achieve what Gary has achieved. I suspect a great amount of practice, and a fair bit of luck are required to find the deepest happiness beyond thought. But the rest of us can still learn much from those who have found the peace that passes understanding.