Here’s a quick thought experiment to get us started:
You are a prisoner in a room with 2 identical doors and 2 identical looking guards.
You know two things going in:
1. One of the doors leads to freedom; the other door leads to death.
2. One of the guards always tells the truth; the other guard always lies.
You’re allowed one question to safely navigate your way out of the prison – what question do you ask?
(I’ve put my answer to this at the bottom of the blog under the signature line!)
While I hope you’ll find this an enjoyable conundrum, here’s why I’m using it to begin an exploration of the nature of thought…
Earlier this year I was teaching alongside my friend and colleague Dr. Dicken Bettinger when he shared a story that really struck me. Apparently he had been struggling to sort through his thinking so that he could better follow the “wisdom thoughts” and ignore the personal, egoic ones.
When the fruits of his labors turned out to be more of a sense of stress and pressure and even less clarity than before, one of his mentors said this to him:
Don’t you see? Every thought is a lie.
I don’t honestly remember the rest of his story, as I was struck to my very core at the radical new possibility that had just opened up for me. After all, if every thought is a lie…
- I don’t need to choose which thoughts to follow and which thoughts to ignore
- I don’t need to try to foster only “positive lies” or eliminate negative ones
- I can ignore the content of my thinking, knowing that whatever it contains is made up
- I’m free to navigate the world without first having to look for motives (motivation), rationales (rational thinking), or reasons for what I do or don’t do
While on the one hand, that might sound like a recipe for disaster, in my own experience I know that the less I care what I have on my mind, the better I seem to do and the better things seem to go. So to stop believing in my own thoughts, no matter how compelling a case they may seem to be making (often of my imminent demise or the impending loss of everything I hold dear), is a breathtakingly liberating course of action.
If every thought is a lie then I don’t have to take any of my thinking seriously. Because I don’t have to take it seriously, I’m free to enjoy it. But if I’m not enjoying it, I’m also free to ignore it altogether. This is not “denial” – it’s the natural fruit of understanding that, in the words of the physicist David Bohm, “Thought creates our world and then says ‘I didn’t do it’.”
Does that mean that there is no objective truth, or that there is but it’s impossible to know it?
Not at all. One of the biggest revelations in my work as a psychological teacher was the moment I realized that “subjectivity” was an objective fact. In fact, at the heart of my coaching and teaching is the understanding that some things are just true, whether we know them or not or can articulate them or not. And each time we touch a deeper truth, we know it somewhere deep in our bones – beyond the words and before whatever thinking we have to explain it.
Perhaps the most simply powerful way I’ve ever heard it put was in a passage from the shaman Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Voice of Knowledge:
You don’t need internal dialogue; you can know without thinking.
For me, I’ve come to find that the less I worry about the content of my internal dialogue or indeed the content of my thoughts, I’m able to live more and more of the time without a story and without a character to call my own. Rather than leave me feeling lost or hopeless, it leaves me without much of a “me” to feel anything.
And while that may sound a bit scary, the reality of it is delightful beyond measure and surprisingly effective in the world…
With all my love,
Here’s my answer to the thought experiment:
If you ask either guard “Which door will the other guard tell me leads to freedom?”, you can safely choose the opposite one to walk through. If you asked the liar, he’ll lie and tell you that the truthful guard would send you to your death; if you asked the truth-teller, he’ll tell the truth that the lying guard would send you to your death!