Some Thoughts on Thinking About Thinking (#881)

Last week, I pre-recorded a couple of radio shows to air in August while I’m away on sabbatical. In one of the shows, (which airs this Thursday), Dr. Aaron Turner and I talked about why it was that we seem to spend so much time trying to “do something” with our thinking instead of allowing it to flow freely and bring with it all the gifts of thought – fresh new ideas, inspired wisdom, and a rich, ever-changing parade of experience.

It occurred to me in the midst of our conversation that how much time we spend thinking about our thinking is largely a function of how real and solid our thoughts appear to us in the moment. In The Inside-Out Revolution, I share the analogy of a glass elevator of consciousness. The higher up we go, the more we can see what’s really going on; the lower we are, the less we see and the more fantastical the view from the higher levels sounds to us.

If we step aboard the glass elevator in relation to our thinking, we can notice four distinct levels of understanding, each one of which will point us towards getting more or less involved with the content of our thinking as we go:

I. Ground Floor: Patterns of thought are deeply embedded character traits

When we view our thinking from near the bottom of the elevator, it really seems as though who we are is little more than the fruit of our thinking.  We’re an anxious person, or a sad person, or an angry person, or even a happy person, and the fact that we habitually feel those emotions as a direct result of habitually thinking those kinds of thoughts is lost on us.

At this level, it makes perfect sense to do absolutely everything we can to change or control the content our thinking so we can turn our selves from anxious, sad, or angry to stress-free, happy, or calm.

But what’s missed at this level is the fact that we are not our thinking – we are the space inside which thoughts arise and pass away.  The recognition of which takes us up a bit higher on the elevator…

II. Lower Floors: Thought is Like the weather

In Coaching from the Inside-Out, I use the analogy of “being the sky” to contrast what it’s like to experience thought/feeling as if it’s happening to you with what it’s like to experience it a something happening inside you.

And when we begin to see that thought is like the weather, we notice that not only are our thought preferences somewhat arbitrary, (i.e. some people like rain, other people like sunshine, some prefer a bit of both), but also that in the same way that it wouldn’t occur to us to spend too much time trying to control exactly what weather happens when, it doesn’t make much sense to try to control exactly what we’ll be feeling and thinking in any given moment.

However, we still spend an awful lot of time thinking about the weather, taking it into account, trying to predict it, and even planning what we will or won’t do with our time based on the forecast for the week ahead. So if we’re willing to look a bit deeper, we find ourselves going even higher on the elevator…

III. Higher Floors: Thought is like a dream

The great thing about dreams, or so it’s always seemed to me, is that when they’re done we wake up and get on with our lives as if nothing happened.  We can go on a grand adventure with wizards and dragons, have love affairs with glamorous stars and starlets, die in a blaze of glory or all alone at the bottom of a well, and then simply wake up to reality without ever having to face the imaginary consequences of our imaginary actions.

In the same way, our thinking is like a dream – when we’re caught up in it, it seems all encompassing and all consuming, but the moment we come back to ourselves, we’re right here in the present moment.  While I have picked the odd fight with my wife for her behavior in some of my more sordid dreams, on the whole we know that what happens in our heads while we sleep doesn’t need to be dealt with on the physical plane.  And yet…

People still analyze their dreams. They search for hidden meanings, and like anything we search for with the creative potential of the mind, they invariably find them. Some people have rituals for creating more positive dreams and avoiding nightmares. And so even when thought looks like a kind of a waking dream, people often still have a lot of thinking about and preferences for one kind of thinking over another, which fills their heads and limits their access to the deeper clarity, wisdom, and well-being which is always waiting for us underneath the noise.

Which is why as we continue to ascend the glass elevator of consciousness, we occasionally catch a glimpse of the view from the highest floors…

IV. Highest Floors: Thought is like a shadow

When we really reflect on the infinite variability of thought and the constant mind inside of which the game of life plays itself out, thinking begins to appear as no more or less than fluctuations in energy and form, like reflections in a kaleidoscope, particles in a physics lab, or shadows in a playground. And because we recognize that every shadow is just a side-effect of light, we would be extremely unlikely to spend much time studying their patterns, reading meaning into their presence or absence, or trying to avoid the “bad” shadows or create more “good” ones.

In fact, when our thinking appears to us as ephemeral as a series of random shadows, our eye is drawn more and more to the light that creates them. We spend more time resting in the peace of our nature and listening to the quiet wisdom of our mind than getting caught up in the shadows of our thoughts.

Of course, from time to time a particularly beautiful or horrific looking shadow might catch our eye and we’ll watch it shift and change with the delight of an arctic explorer seeing the Aurora Borealis or a sailor watching the liquid dance of St. Elmo’s fire. But when it’s run its course, we’ll continue on our way, unaffected by the content of our thinking but deeply touched by the the gift of thought, the consciousness which allows us to experience it, and the ever-present mind inside of which life continues to unfold.

Have fun, learn heaps, and remember – shadows are the inevitable result of living fully in the light!

With all my love,
Michael

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