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Thinking

Updated: Sep 18

In the previous post we looked at how primitive experience, and in particular sensation and perception, arose during the course of our evolutionary history. In turn, sensation and perception formed the basis for emotions and thoughts. This account reveals how sensation and perception- and by extension emotions and thinking- are not something that simply happen to us, but are experiences over which our bodies have a degree of influence. This influence is a critical feature of our innate nature. It means that we can at least to a degree shape how we perceive, feel and think. And in doing so we shape our lives and reduce the extent to which we suffer.


Sensation, perception, emotions and thoughts were fundamental developments in the creation of mammals and the evolution of the mammalian brain. We know in turn that the brain mediates mind; indeed, the mind is often described as ‘what the brain does’. And with mind we come to one of the principal themes of Buddhist teaching.


How great is your mind? A Zen teacher is said to have observed that, ‘This whole universe covers my body, yet my mind can cover the whole universe.’ In this way mind is greater than time and space and everything contained within it. In principle we can think about anything and everything. We can think about what exists and what doesn’t exist. We can even think about logical contradictions- things which could never exist, say a ‘square circle’. Our thinking encompasses the whole universe, real and imagined.


At the same time, we know from biology that thinking and consciousness of thinking was a late addition in evolutionary development, one that arose perhaps only with the evolution of primates and humans. Certainly, as far as we can tell conceptual thought, the ability to manipulate ideas, is confined to the human species. It also seems clear that it is this single skill or capacity which has afforded our species the ability to plan for the future and to learn from the past, and indeed to have dominion over the planet. It is conceptual thought that has enabled human beings to tell each other stories, communicate ideas and have common values. Thinking is what makes language possible, and language, however diverse its forms have taken in practice, is a tool that connects the near-eight billion humans living today.


Conceptual thought is thinking to self-advantage; it comprises calculations which evolved by virtue of the adaptive advantage that such calculation conferred. In this way, conceptual thought is in origin neither objective nor dispassionate; it is a contest, originally in survival and replication. These survival-enhancing skills are a vital component of our efforts to negotiate the world. They enhance our chances of survival, and potentially contribute to our well-being and longevity. We could never and should never abandon calculative thought, but it is I think in our interest to understand what its capacity, and its limitations, really are.


In particular, we should note how calculative thought underpins our self and our sense of self. Even when it is employed by modern humans in contexts in which neither the life nor the fecundity of the human host is at issue, it remains tied to the self that appears to be pursuing it. I need to be right because evolution has determined that my self is everything to me. We become attached to our thoughts for precisely the same reason that we are attached to our selves; and such attachment causes us to suffer.


Unsurprisingly, Buddhism maintains that there is a fundamental problem in such thinking. What might have been a treasured possession turns out to be an embarrassment, and a major obstacle to our well-being. The problem is that thinking typically involves being attached to that thinking. Our evolutionary heritage didn’t merely say ‘here’s thinking, use it for advantage’ it said ‘this is thinking, if you get attached to it, you will be better able to survive and have progeny’.


But thinking is always changing, never still. I think one thing now, and something different tomorrow. I am always searching for the thought or idea that will justify what I do, that will explain what I don’t understand, that will help me satisfy my desires. And as my thinking changes, I suffer. Nothing is entirely satisfactory or unchanging. Nothing I think has permanence or is quite good enough.


The Heart Sutra has only 270 Chinese characters, yet it claims to contain the answer to this problem of why thought is limited. It contains a great deal of negation, statements of what the mind is not. In its view mind appears full of things and thoughts, but is in fact originally empty. The nature of the human mind cannot be described in words, indeed is originally empty of words. Words and language have been very useful in helping us achieve evolutionary objectives, but they cannot help when we look inward, when we try to understand what is closest to us, namely the nature of our mind before thoughts arise in it.


All thinking leads eventually back to the self, to the thinker of those thoughts, and in doing so reinforces that self and our sense of being selves. But if, in the Zen tradition, you take hold of the diamond sword and cut off thinking, you will also cut off the self. Hence, the Diamond Sutra counsels, ‘do not be attached to any thoughts that arise in the mind’. In particular, it emphasises living without attachment to thoughts of self or persons. All conceptual thinking is attachment to form. Viewed in this way words lose their magic.

The twentieth-century visionary Jiddhu Krishnamurti held a similar view. He wrote that ‘…thought comes to understand itself and comes naturally to an end’. In his view thought is fragmentary and bound in time. Action born of thought is always fragmentary, contradictory, leading to further problems, creating further divisions. All thought has direction, a purpose. But if attachment to thought is put aside a new energy arises, the energy of intelligence. The mind is freed from its content. For intelligence to be present there must be no attachment to thought. Thought cannot change anything because the thinker is the thought, the observer is the observed. Yet intelligence can function in a way that thought cannot, because it is founded in a view of the whole. When the observer, the knower, has disappeared there is no time, no space and no causation; and thinking recognises its own limitations.

(Jiddhu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, p.88 and The Second Talk at Saanen, 1974)


One way of experiencing this would be to live without attachment to the inner dialogue that we all pursue. When there is no attachment to inner speech there is no self that is addressed. Everything encountered is just what it is before explicit thought comes to manipulate it. In that way our thoughts are simply allowed to come and go. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov captures this experience when he describes one of his characters as experiencing the 'heavenly void in which his transparent thoughts floated…' (Nabokov, The Defence p. 125).


Once we are free of our thoughts, free to think them or not think them, we are free of the limitations of self. We can still use those thoughts to help make our way in the world, to make a living, to solve our problems, and help others. But we will not mistake the mind that has them with a self which has always to be right, cherished, promoted and defended. We will have stepped outside the boundaries of the self and glimpsed the true wonders to which the mind enables us to bear witness.

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