Do I think a thought or does the thought come to me?
In the ashram on a Sunday after the morning’s duties the afternoon was often free. It was my habit to retreat to my room, rejoice in not having to answer to anyone or anything for a few hours and maybe read a little. But what I was really after was to find my way into a peaceful inner space where I could just watch my own thoughts. If it didn’t happen straight away a little yoga nidra relaxation was usually enough to get it started.
In that space time starts to bend. Short times can seem longer and a long time can become surprisingly short. Einstein was right, time is relative. A good afternoon and it could pass by in a flash. What made that happen? If you let your mind go completely free and yet remain with it as an interested observer sooner or later it will sort of open up and reveal and express itself. It is your own presence and lack of judgment of it that sets it free. In this way you can learn interesting things about yourself you didn’t know before.
One Sunday I was doing this and things were going well and the attention to what was going on in my mind was pretty good. I began to become aware of time bending in a very specific way. At a certain point the thought process slowed right down until I knew I was observing just one thought in very very slow motion. And it took on a cartoon-like quality.
Imagine a hundred numbered balls suspended in a row (like in a TV lottery). When that one particular thought arose it triggered the release of the hundred balls in a sequence, which was a visualisation of the thought taking place - the thought in the process of coming into being as it were. As the balls are released they drop. As they are dropping you don’t actually know what the thought that they represent will be. Only when all the balls hit the bottom do you know what the thought will actually be. You know the thought is there before you know what the thought will be. Like, wow.
Thought is not that you think!
What I learned from that was not what I expected. The thought itself was nothing significant, long forgotten. What was interesting was that the balls dropped in a random order which was maybe why I did not know what the thought was going to be until all the balls had arrived at the bottom and assembled themselves so to speak and hey presto I know what I think. Now maybe the balls dropping randomly like that was a particular feature of my mind. Do they normally drop in numbered sequence 1 - 100, or randomly, I don’t know?
But just watching the balls drop actually revealed the really interesting part, which was that that there had been an entirely separate quality just quietly observing the whole process taking place. The observer me had no part in how that thought had come into being, took place as a thought, and passed on. Remember this usually happens so quickly that thought is rarely seen as a sequence but as a single cognition, and so we possess it and make it mine.
Is there more than one of me?
At first it seems like there must be two people, one having thoughts arising randomly and another that is entirely separate from those thoughts, just watching. What became absolutely clear (at least to my own satisfaction) is quite simply that a thought, any thought, does not represent me. Even the aggregate of all the thoughts in the mind do not make up who I am, have nothing to do with me, if I remain a distinct and discrete observer of them. In that slo-motion moment I knew that for sure. If this turns out to be true, who actually is thinking? Just think of the implications.
Thoughts, ideas, opinions, philosophies are like guests passing through - there for some time, but their residence is only ever temporary. Sometimes they may stay a long time, seeming to take up permanent residence. And then they can take on the attributes of a personality. And then it’s only a short step to seeming like that is who I am. But that is illusory. A powerful illusion to be sure, which is why it takes a certain seriousness of intent to manage the powerful forces that lead to all kinds of self-deception. Try this for a few possibilities:
If you look around in the world the capacity for self-regulation - which is absolutely not possible without self awareness - is a very rare quality, yet most corporations, companies, governments, institutions, and of course people, everyone in fact, will claim that capacity for themselves. But it is rare indeed to see it maintained constantly and consistently. As a historical example, that much was understood by the Founding Fathers of the United States, when they built the checks and balances into the three divisions of government - executive, legislative and judiciary - of the American constitution.
Change of metaphor
Imagine a large country house. There are many guests staying there. The host has a different relationship with all his guests, but in the tradition of hospitality is unfailingly attentive and generous to all the guests equally. They are honoured guests. Now obviously some of these people are going to be very welcome; some will be neutral, part of a more formal relationship maybe; and some the host would really rather not have to entertain but there they are.
Invariably the welcome guests will know the appropriate behaviour and will know also to a nicety the appropriate moment to leave. Whereas unwelcome guests will invariably be the last to leave. With these people sometimes the host is able, without in any way losing hospitality - like attentiveness, politeness, tolerance - to make it clear in a certain reserve of manner that the time has come to depart. It is essential that parting should be honourable between host and guest or there will almost certainly be repercussions later. In every case the parting should be clean no matter how difficult the last guests can be.
The host represents the awareness and the guests represent all the different thoughts, ideas and opinions that crowd in around us in the social gathering of our mind, taking up the host’s time and attention. Some are most welcome, some neutral and some distinctly unwelcome and maybe drawing a lot of attention to themselves. But the awareness remains hospitable but knowing, friendly but detached, wise but modest.
There has to be that separation somewhere in being a knower of oneself, that there is some time between a thought and the observer of the thought. All else follows from there. And we can become first class hosts to all our guests until it's time for them to leave, which they will when they come to understand that they are just guests and the right time has come.