Thinking forms virtually our sole basis for dealing with life. We
are attached to our thoughts. We think they are who we are.
Indeed, the whole of Western culture supports the mind’s
pre-eminence, and thought as the sole mechanism for
organizing ourselves and our civilization.
However, these notions do not find huge support amongst the
mystical traditions. On the contrary, these ancient traditions
teach methods that seek to still the mind. “Stop Thinking!” is
often the injunction to the spiritual student. Why is this, if
thinking has served us so well, both individually and as a
“…we still carry one problem with us: this mind that reasons so
intelligently is still basically confused. Therefore, every
‘insight’ is saturated by confusion. I am sorry to say it so
bluntly, but human understanding is confused. It is not
unmistaken wisdom, and it is not authentic until complete
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub
Ling monastery, Nepal.
Thinking, by itself, is subject to inherent flaws. The most
obvious is its high degree of subjectivity. Hardly anybody agrees
about anything. The world’s problems are created around
differences of opinion – often regarding relatively minor issues
– around which vast intellectual and emotional edifices are
Are we actually in control of our thoughts at all? Meditators
become increasingly aware of their thought processes, and the
seemingly random nature in which thoughts move. Many have
concluded that it is not they who think, but rather thinking
“happens in them”. The more one studies the process of thought,
the more it resembles the weather; a mysterious undirected
process, created by innumerable causes.
Thought is rarely accurate. Each person possesses an in-built
system of presuppositions, prejudices, societal conditioning,
religious background, and psychological complexes. Even the
extensiveness of our vocabulary plays an important role in
thinking. The precise mix is different for each person, but it
all critically affects the way the person thinks, and the kind of
thoughts that occur. Also, none of us possess total and perfect
information. Even if we did, the deep-seated biases within the
minds ensure that our conclusions will almost always be
Certain key human issues are necessarily relative. Morality is a
prime example. A person’s moral framework derives from sources
such as family, society, peer groups, religious training, and
even the kind of TV programs a person habitually watches. The
only way to make morals absolute and to cast them in stone (as
Moses did) is to appeal to a moral absolute such as God, who is
beyond dispute. However, even here, we can then debate as to
which type of God we choose to follow, which revelation from God
is true and which false, and so on. Consequently, morality
becomes dependent upon the society in which one is raised, and
the kind of religious undercurrent present.
To make it worse, our thought processes, flawed as they may be,
are being subtly manipulated by the government and media.
Communists and Islamic fundamentalists are not the only ones
subject to brainwashing. Those in the West are also told how to
think, and usually go along with it compliantly. For example, we
are currently being sold war as a remedy for violence, and
bombing as a method for achieving peace! Could there be anything
Indeed, the recent international situation highlights another of
the mind’s inherent fallacies: the tendency to create polarities.
We like to think we are clear-minded enough to be able to judge
Good and Evil. In many cases, we CAN determine certain rules and
penalties that will enable a society to run efficiently, without
degenerating into anarchy. However, to ascribe categories of
“good” and “evil, “saint” and “sinner”, as liberally as we do, is
almost always unwise. Given our own highly fallible thought
processes, who are we to judge? From a metaphysical context,
events may be occurring for all sorts of reasons of which we can
have no idea whatsoever. Indeed, was it not Jesus himself who
said “Judge not, that you be not judged”?
Polarizing tendencies seem to arise from our need for (a)
certainties we can feel comfortable with, and (b) generalizations
that enable us to make mental short-cuts to rapid solutions. We
need certainties because we want to understand the world we live
in, and exercise some degree of control within it. We also need
to generalize complex information. Otherwise, it would be too
hard for most us to deal with, and we could never reach a
conclusion, and hence achieve the certainty we desperately need.
Overall, such thought process leave us with the comfortable
feeling that we “understand” the issues, whereas the reality may
well be that we understand nothing at all! A good example is the
recent labeling of certain people as “Islamic Fundamentalists”.
This is a convenient term that enables us to package such
individuals in the “evil, insane, brainwashed nutcase” category.
Thus, we don’t have to seek to know anything further about them;
their history, their motivations, or their desires. After all, it
is a disease, is it not? These people are “evil”, and belong to
an “axis of evil”. What more is there to understand?
One disastrous result of polarized thinking is the sequence of
attack and counter-attack we see in all the trouble spots in the
world; whether it be Israel, Sep 11 2001, and formerly in
Northern Ireland. Such a pattern ensures only more of the same.
It is the politics of the playground – of five-year old children.
Sadly, many adults have not advanced much further than the
playground in their problem-solving capacities.
The above is not intended as a support for any group, but rather
serves as an example of how simplistic we prefer to make our
thinking, in order to live in a world we can understand. Our
governments deal in bite-size explanations of highly complex
issues. The general public, the majority of whom know little
about history or foreign culture, swallow it whole without
Reality is inherently complex. It is doubtful if anyone is
capable of completely comprehending it. For any event to occur,
there are a myriad contributory causes. The polarizing mind seeks
an easy explanation; often a single cause. In doing so, we do not
solve any problems we face, but rather perpetuate them.
However, thought processes can be redeemed by seeking ever deeper
communion with the source of Being; the higher self, the God
within, or whatever term you prefer. Realized Masters, who are in
perfect union with the Divine, have no need for conventional
thought, but perceive reality directly. This is a worthy goal for
each of us to aspire to, but it is a difficult one. It may hint
at why all spiritual traditions call upon the follower to enter
the silent gap between thoughts, and dwell ever more often in
That is best done initially through meditation. Through steady
practice, this state of mind can follow us outside of the
meditation session and into the whole of life. By simply being
more mindful of our habitual thoughts, we may also become more
aware of the quality and direction of them. In that way, we can
catch ourselves engaging in tendencies that are unhelpful or
In conclusion, our thoughts and opinions are rarely even a
remotely accurate view of reality. We need to be ever watchful to
not take ourselves or our opinions – or those of others,
particularly those in authority – too seriously. Instead, by
working continually within, and by studying in a spiritual
tradition, it will be possible ever more into our awareness, the
Higher Self, who can redeem, purify, and ultimately transcend,
the power of Thought.
Copyright Asoka Selvarajah 2004. All Rights Reserved.
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