Sunday, 29 May 2016

Is Thought an Illusion?

How much of what our mind tells us is accurate? 

One day in 1978 before I left UK for good I was visiting a friend who I respected very much. He was the first person I'd met who’d actually spent some time following a spiritual path. He seemed very wise. On the shelf in his room he had a picture of a very kindly face. One day I picked it up and asked who is this. He told me Ramana Maharishi. 

I didn't think much more about it until some time later when, after a few quick decisions, I had arranged to go traveling with some friends in India. When I told my wise friend about this he just laughed and said, "You… in India?" Of course I found out later what he meant by that little laugh. But he said, "…if you're going to India then you have to visit…" and he gave me the address of Ramana Ashram in Tiruvannamalai in southern India.

This is how I was introduced to the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent some time in the ashram, in southern India. I didn't really understand anything very much at all but someone inside seemed to be listening and absorbing. And as it turned out from then on my life changed and seemed to take a course of its own.

All thought is illusion


A year later in Australia I stuck a sheet of paper on a wall in my room with the words "All thought is illusion", and added at the bottom in smaller letters as an afterthought, "Isn't it?" - assertion, question or challenge? I can't remember exactly how it came to be like that, but I know I had given some thought to it and written it down and put it up on the wall as a conclusion of the thought process. There was no connection I could see between this and Ramana. But as it turned out it was a way to begin a practical approach to his teaching.

I had learned rudimentary meditation techniques, but from the very beginning I had always tried to work it out for myself. So I made many mistakes, in the course of time every one in the book I would say. I have never felt able or willing to intentionally allow the influence of any other point of view unless I had internalised and verified it for myself. This included meditation. The natural result of this is that you do try everything. And if you're lucky you work it out, see whether it works or not, and if it doesn’t, get quickly back on track. Or alternatively spend time going down some interesting but ultimately distracting detours. But you do have to find out for yourself, don't you?

A rough time


A little time later I was going through a difficult personal period - creating a lot of turmoil, causing pain, many contradictions, erratic thinking, wildly fluctuating emotions, continual uncertainty, etc etc.

One day when it all seemed particularly dark and intense, and having forgotten all about it, I happened to glance at the sign on the wall and began to think about what it said. It was comforting just to think about it. But after some time it seemed to generate its own force, which was independent of the usual thought process. So observing from outside as it were, perhaps these thoughts are an illusion - not meaning that they're not real, but that they're not what they seem to be… They have an impermanent, illusory quality about them. 

So I let that settle for a while. And seemingly out of nowhere there arose a substratum of calm and stillness and peace that must have been there behind the mental chatter and emotional turmoil all the time. And following that, apparently a choice, a choice of identity: Am I my thought/emotion, or am I this strange mysterious stillness?

I remember thinking this can't be right - it’s too simple, too easy. It has to be more difficult, more complicated; I don't have the right to this, or I don't deserve it, etc etc. But these thoughts didn’t overwhelm, so maybe it was possible to transfer the sense of identity from the thought/emotion matrix to the stillness itself. Much to my surprise that's what happened. And at that moment you can see what you might call the illusory nature of all things that continually go on forever changing. 

So there’s a choice?


There is always at least the potential to discover where identity lies; there’s a choice: the mind and emotions, or extend the search to include the stillness itself. After all, the stillness is the place where the awareness originates and eventually returns to. It makes sense, because perfected awareness is simply being fully present but untouched, uninfluenced by any experience.

Think of it this way. By practising awareness as we understand it, we are effectively duplicating as best we can the same quality in our sphere of individual experience as the perfect awareness of the natural state at our own centre. There it is called drashta, the knower of all that needs to be known. It’s where the individual meets the universal through perfected awareness.

If you follow the awareness that you practise and know now it will eventually find its way back home. Then all activity of thought and emotion can be observed from there. And one day when all judgment passes the mind too can find peace. In the meantime while we are so active, so much of our life goes on in the background, unperceived, unknown, but nonetheless having a massive influence. But what if you turn your full attention to it? 

The journey continues


Anyway, that little insight lasted just so long, but the old nature soon returns and I forgot about it... for about 25 years. During that time, I explored every avenue I could find in the inner life and made every mistake. It’s just the way it is - might be the way it’s supposed to be. One day that same idea returned and left a more lasting impression: this is worth focussing on. So it seemed like an end of a beginning, as well as the start of something new, and everything up to then had led up to it.

Because, let’s be face it, the mind isn’t going to clear up its act all at once, and quickly find everlasting peace. It will go on behaving the way it’s used to, maybe for a long time, until all the residual latent impressions have been dealt with and cleared up. But that needn’t prevent you from trusting the substratum of peace and stillness remaining ever-present in the background, even if it doesn’t always show up on the radar. 

Experimenting with the mind


I use the expression "All thought is illusion", but it's not meant as an absolute, it was just something that spontaneously worked as a catalyst, to put some perspective between thought/emotion and some other quality that is already independent of everything it observes. This is a beautiful notion and worth thinking about. 

Because strange as it may be, it can also be effective when the mind is very active and the emotions are running high, because you don’t have to fight the mind or suppress the emotions. The only thing that really stands in the way is when you refuse to experiment. If you don’t experiment with the mind, you effectively say to yourself, I choose to not see it different from the way I’ve always seen it. And there you stay.

The experiment is simple: As you watch them arise, take place, and pass, suspend the automatic belief in the validity of your thoughts and the justification of your emotions for some time. It’s not suppressing anything. It’s allowing everything, but just observing and not reacting. Give everything its due - let it be as it is. But give it its place - just watching and waiting… waiting and watching.

This idea is counterintuitive to received wisdom, from education, from culture, even from the mind itself and the way it thinks it’s supposed to be - is the mind in control or are we in control of the mind? So some effort needs to be made to manage the conscious thought flow. Because it is possible (this is the choice) to bring the thinking mind onside with the thoughts we generate, how we talk to ourselves in our inner dialogue. We can choose to generate a more inspiring thought pattern which helps arrange a better inner environment, like tidying a messy room. It’s only a matter of rearranging the priority. Otherwise we are at the mercy of any thoughts that arise.

Organising it


There are also external conditions that help connect with the inner environment. In normal daily life it is not impossible, but still very difficult, to suspend the mind's total belief in itself while fully involved and active. Because in daily life it is supposed to be active in that way; and of course in that activity it should trust itself, in the same way you trust a computer. But the mind cannot actually get to know itself in the same way - like a computer, however efficient, does not have an insight into itself. 

It is this 'being accustomed' which makes it difficult to see any way differently than usual. The mind likes to search for something familiar to depend on. But we also find that any growing familiarity inconveniently keeps on changing. So for the purpose of deeper knowledge of my self we have to step outside the mind's comfort zone.

Ideally what practically guarantees at least a shaft of light between the mind and your self - you have to put something between mind and self - is when you can let go of the external life so completely that you can focus on the inner life exclusively and continually for a period of about 5 to 10 days. Meaning the ideal is to attend a meditation course dedicated to that purpose. Doing that for the first time is stepping out of your comfort zone.

Back to the start


Grace is everywhere and always perfect, no doubt… There are times and places where if you are able to stop still for a moment you can actually realise that you are not alone with just your mind and that there is support and guidance. If you ever go into any form of serious introspection, like meditation, the inner world is a fascinating place. Gradually it reveals itself, in its own language, with all its contradictions; but how else can we know without looking, without choosing to look? It’s like a brilliant journey back to the Self, which due to some ancient misunderstanding we seem to have misplaced somewhere. But it’s not so far off, not so far off…

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