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The Nature Of Thought - Part 3
Suffering is made of thought.
On this page let’s shift our focus a bit towards aspects of thought which can have practical usefulness in out everyday lives.
Let’s talk about suffering. Please note that I’m not referring here to physical pain in our bodies, but to psychological disturbance, mental anguish in all it’s many forms.
Suffering Is Made Of Thought
The experience “I am sad” is made of thought. The phenomena “I” or “me” refers to a complex array of thoughts. And the emotional experience of sadness is also made of thought. We say “I am sad about X because of Y”. I, X and Y are all thoughts.
We aren’t sad because of some particular situation, but rather because of what we think about that situation. As example, if our boss yells “You’re fired!”, that’s the situation. Whether we become happy or sad depends on how we regard that situation. If we really need the salary from this job, we might be sad. If we were going to quit anyway, we might be happy that the matter is settled.
We can test this claim that suffering is made of thought by putting ourselves in situations where thinking is impossible.
As example, imagine that you’re a surfer flying down one of the monster waves at Nazare.
Every neuron in your brain is laser focused on surviving this experience. As you fly down the giant wave you’re awake, alert and conscious, but your attention is entirely on the real world in front of you right at this moment, and not on the abstract world of thought in your mind. And without thought, it’s not possible to be sad, because thought is what sadness is made of.
The fact that psychological suffering is made of thought offers us a useful way to approach this experience.
Typically we address our suffering by focusing on editing the situation that has inspired it. Such a procedure is often required. If I’ve lost my job and I need money, finding another job is obviously necessary.
Or, we may try to analyze and edit the content of our suffering thoughts. This works sometimes, and whatever works is good.
In some circumstances analyzing and editing the content of our thoughts may not be the ideal path forward, because this analyzing process involves more thinking, that which suffering is made of. By thinking about our suffering we may sometimes actually be fueling it.
Sometimes it can be useful to convert that which can seem very complex, the content of out thoughts, in to something far simpler, the fact that we are thinking.
Suffering is made of thought. Less thinking equals less suffering.
Not always easy. But simple.
Managing The Medium Of Thought
Here it is helpful to consider thought as just another mechanical function of the body. Doing so greatly simplifies our suffering, and offers methods of direct intervention accessible to almost anyone who is at least a little bit serious. To illustrate, let’s take a quick look at how we manage other bodily functions.
When we’re hungry, we eat.
When we’re sleepy, we rest.
If we’re out of breath, we slow down.
Simple, right? We don’t make managing these other bodily functions in to a complicated puzzle. Instead, we treat them as mechanical processes subject to mechanical management.
So let’s apply the same simple direct action to psychological suffering.
Suffering is made of thought. Thus, if we think less, we’ll suffer less.
Obviously we can’t stop thinking all the time, because we need thinking to survive. We can’t permanently escape thinking any more than we can escape eating. So sometimes we’ll be physically hungry, and sometimes we’ll be psychologically hungry. These experiences are just part of being human.
And so, we probably shouldn’t be seeking some permanent escape from suffering, just as we don’t go looking for some kind of food that will forever end our need to eat. When it comes to our physical hunger we accept that routinely managing our food intake is a life long job that’s an inescapable part of being human. And so it is with thought.
If eating too much is making our body fat, a solution is to eat less.
If thinking too much is making our mind hurt, a solution is to think less.
We can go on a food diet if needed, and go on a mind diet as needed too.
We can learn ways to lower the volume of thought, which will in turn lower the volume of our suffering, because….
Suffering is made of thought.
There are countless ways to lower the volume of thought, and the best method is the one that works best for you. There’s meditation of course, and fishing, walking, sitting by the fire, watching it rain, hugging your kids, and so on.
If you’re looking for some way to get started, here’s a simple exercise which I’ve found useful.
Go for a walk. Some place quiet and beautiful is ideal, but anywhere can do, and whatever works is good.
As you start off, walk any way you want.
Watch your body in action. Feel your feet hitting the ground, your arms swinging back and forth, your breath going in and out. Pay attention to your body.
And when you become lost in thought as always happens, just return the focus to your body.
After you’ve been walking for awhile, tap the brakes and slow down just a bit. Now watch your body moving at this slower pace. Go with that pace for awhile, and keep watching.
After a bit, tap the brakes again, slow down a little bit more. Keep watching.
Over some period of time, keep repeating the above so that you’re gradually walking slower and slower.
A goal to shoot for is to eventually be walking as slow as is physically possible, without stopping. This requires a lot of attention. And while you’re paying attention to walking really really slowly, you won’t be paying much attention to your suffering, because your mind will be busy elsewhere, in your feet.
Reaching The Mind Through The Body
The theory behind the above exercise is that the mind and body are not two things as the words imply, but actually one thing. And so, the pace at which our minds are moving can be affected by the pace at which our bodies are moving.
What this approach can accomplish is to take what seems to be the very complicated phenomena of all of our many different thoughts going endlessly round and round in our minds, and simplify the situation substantially, by replacing the psychological with the mechanical. Instead of what we’re thinking, the question becomes, how much are we thinking?
Why Do We Suffer?
One way to answer this question is to observe the following:
We are made of thought.
Thought operates by a process of division.
That which we are made of psychologically is continually dividing the single unified reality in to conceptual parts.
And so we experience a division between “me” and nature. We experience a division between “me” and other people, which sometimes leads to personal conflict. We experience divisions like “my religion vs. your religion” and “my country vs. your country”, which sometimes leads to larger social conflicts.
We even experience division within our own minds, which is perhaps the engine fueling all the other conflicts.
As we continue with this series we’ll see ever more ways in which the divisive nature of thought sets the stage for the human experience.
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