The question Shastro posed himself today; from the series, Insights from the Cushion.
If you have been practicing sitting meditation – or mindful sitting on the cushion, to use a more cutting-edge definition – you are aware of how much energy is absorbed by compulsive thinking.
Let’s first define this expression: in compulsive thinking I might re-think the same thought hundreds of times with very little variation, over and over, like a broken record, receiving no real benefit from it. This is to distinguish it from voluntary thinking, for instance to plan an event that has to happen in a particular way and at a certain time, or a project that requires the useful or creative use of my mind.
Compulsive thinking we do during the day can easily be divided in two simple categories: thoughts about the past, or thoughts about a potential future.
I am specifying during the day because in the night we fall into the subconscious mind that not only expresses itself via images – not via concepts/words (the main form of expression used by the conscious mind) – but also has a much wider spectrum of movement, expanding into the realm of what we can call fantasy, that does not fit into the narrow definition of past-related or future-related thoughts.
We could also define dreams as our night-time thoughts, and thoughts as our daytime dreams.
Recently, during my morning sitting sessions, I put these future-related thoughts under a deeper observation. I want to share with you my reflections, because I believe that is where the majority of us usually dwell.
By examining these thoughts, the first thing I notice is that one of the reasons it is so difficult to let go of them is that, while they are appearing, every thought feels VERY important (in a way it suffers from a superiority complex!)
The thought carries in itself an unspoken sense of salvation, success, improvement or resolution and gives me a sense that I have some kind of control over the unfolding of my life.
In a subtle way it always feels like: “Just let me finish this one thought because it is very important – it’s really going to make a difference!”
In most cases this over-thinking will not make any difference in my life, not only because that particular hypothetical future will never unfold that way, but also because after half an hour (or half a minute!) I will have already forgotten that great thought that was going to save my day!
So, where does this sense of wanting control come from? And why is it so important to the mind?
I see a few different reasons…
– The future is uncertain and I want to make sure I will succeed:
Thinking gives me the impression that I will be safer and that I will get the most out of a situation. This is the egoic mind’s modus operandi; to look for ways in which to succeed and gain something – either in subtle ways, like for instance in peers’ recognition, or in more obvious ways, like gaining money or other material things.
I think in order to guarantee a successful outcome.
– I want to control through planning because there is an underlying sense of insecurity:
This insecurity is the very nature of the egoic mind. Deep in its foundations the ego knows the weakness of its own existence that comes from being just a shadow. The ego is just a human construct, a fabrication that is not rooted in the ultimate reality of our true nature and therefore it could collapse – or vanish – at any moment, like a castle of playing cards.
As Osho used to say, the ego does not have real substance, therefore fear and insecurity for its survival are its basic qualities. To try to prevent this collapse, the egoic mind is always searching for ways in which to strengthen and confirm its own existence: one way is through being ‘in control’.
– I want to control because I cannot trust that everything will unfold the way it should:
This is another shade of what I have previously said… the ego, being a shadow entity, makes me believe that I am separated from the whole. This separation does not allow trust. If I considered myself as part of the whole, not only would I allow trust in existence to arise, but also the ego would no longer have a reason to exist.
Or, in another example: in relating with friends whom I love, I naturally feel close to them and it’s easy to trust in them, but if I do not know someone, I tend to feel the distance and the separation. It’s therefore easier (and safer) not to trust them because I don’t know if they would care for my well-being.
In the same way, if I feel separated from life I am unable to feel the loving embrace with which existence is holding me – and that leaves room for insecurity and doubt.
I see control and the sense of separation very much linked together; the more I feel separated the more I need to control. I can then cope with the uncertainty that comes from not trusting that what is going to happen will be good for me.
– Control through thinking and planning ultimately allows me to survive:
I heard Osho speak about this one day and it made a lot of sense to me…
Since early Homo Sapiens – if not earlier – man became aware that even if he was physically weak and vulnerable among the many animals that were populating his surroundings, he had a strength that other animals didn’t have: he was able to create tools. With these he could hunt, wound or kill.
He could hunt alone or in groups, multiplying his own capacity and strength – to the point that a bunch of little humans could hunt down and kill a much bigger animal like a mammoth – and eat it. All this through the use of the thinking mind.
Later on, man could use the mind to find ways to protect his territory, or kill other men that threatened him or had something he needed or wanted. He could also figure out ways to grow crops and get food from them. And on it goes… we are all aware of the extent to which the mind developed itself, both in creative as well as destructive expressions.
So the mind, from the very beginning, was a tool to secure our survival, and to gain power over other men and nature. Somewhere deep in our DNA, and in the dark corners of our subconscious, we must still rely and trust in whatever the mind says – as if it was a matter of survival.
So what to do with this understanding?
Well, the bottom line is that it’s the identification with our thoughts that fuels our egoic mind and keeps us entangled with it.
For me, a way that helps me move away from that is sitting on the cushion every morning and observe what arises. It helps me to understand the sometimes hidden nature of emotions and thoughts, to demystify them, and eventually dis-identify from them – on my path to a greater understanding and freedom.
Chaireveti, chaireveti… (Keep going…)