Follow by Email

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Conditions of Thought

Conditions of Thought

Much of what we do in meditation practice is about breaking our patterns of thought.  In my view, spiritual growth comes through recognizing the limits of our thinking, and transcending these limits.  When we do, we experience the gift of awareness, unencumbered by thought.

In meditation classes, I'm often asked, "why is it so hard to clear the mind?  Why is it such a challenge to stop the incessant stream of thinking, or, at least, to stop being taken over by thought?" The answer to these questions comes from understanding the mechanisms of thought, and how our thoughts are conditioned.  When we understand how our thoughts work, we are better able to make choices in our use of thought.

The first key to understanding is to be clear about where thought comes from.  In the west, the popular idea is that thought originates in the brain.  This is untrue.  Thought originates in the same source of all the gifts we receive - divine consciousness.  The gift of thought is a subtle energy that is offered to us to help us comprehend our existence in this world.  The brain is the physical anchor for thought, the receiving mechanism.  I think of the brain as a complex sensing organ, like the eyes.  Our eyes sense electromagnetic energy - light - and the visual cortex processes the eye inputs into images of what we see.  But we know that there is a vast spectrum of EM energy that we don't see.  In fact, the visible light that we can see is a tiny slice of the entire spectrum.  What's more, the processing of the images by the visual cortex adds another filtering layer, further limiting what we perceive.  This process is necessary, to avoid sensory overload.  What we need to remember is this: we don't see most of what is there.  Much of the spectrum is invisible to our eyes, and most of what is visible is filtered out as unimportant, so we don't see it.

Our thoughts work by a similar mechanism.  Thought is another energy spectrum, analogous to, but not the same as the light spectrum.  Thought energy is all around us, and thought energy comes into the space in our awareness we call the mind.  But, not all thought energy can be received and processed by the mind.  Some thought energy lies outside the range of our minds, just like some electromagnetic energy is outside the visible range of our eyes.  Many more thoughts simply don't pass through the mind's filtering mechanism.  These thoughts are accessible to us, but we remain unaware of them.  Many thoughts that pass us by unawares would not be useful to us anyway, so no harm done.  Yet, some thoughts that are filtered out may be creative and useful - we simply never know.  What's more, when our mind is crowded with conditioned thinking, new ideas are blocked, limiting our access to creative thought.

The challenge, put simply, is that the filtering process happens automatically, unconsciously, and as a result of our conditioning.  Where does this conditioning come from?  Many sources: thousands of years of human evolution have conditioned us to think as we do.  Early humans lacked the physical strength and speed to survive in the natural world.  Only by outsmarting predators and creative use of resources did humanity manage to thrive.  So, naturally, much of our conditioned thinking patterns are survival-oriented.  For each of us, our cultural and family influences have conditioned our thinking, in ways we barely know.  And the individual circumstances and experiences in our lives, especially in childhood, have a powerful impact on our thought-filtering processes.  All of these conditioning affects - human evolution, cultural norms, and childhood experience - combine to create a set of filters that determine what thoughts enter our awareness, and which do not.

We should note that this conditioning has a physical basis, too.  Neural scientists tell us that, over time, our thought patterns become 'wired' into the neural network.  The network of connections between neurons determines what thought signals our brain is most likely to receive, and conditioning over time causes some connections to be very stable.  The brain, as a sensing organ, is more able to capture and process thoughts and ideas that match these more stable neural connections.  Thoughts that don't match are less likely to get through.

So, is our thinking just a product of our conditioning?  No.  While it is true that much of our thinking happens automatically as the result of unconscious conditioning, it is also true that the brain is highly plastic, and we can break the patterns of thinking.  Through the gift of awareness, we can observe the stream of thoughts that enter the mind space, notice the patterns, and change them.

The gift of awareness expands beyond the limits of thought.  In meditation, we become centered in this gift.  It then becomes possible to notice the thoughts that pass through the mind-space.  Centered in awareness, we aren't controlled or defined by thought.  We simply observe them.  Is this always possible?  No, of course not.  Meditation is a practice, and with practice we become more awareness-centered, and more able to observe the stream of thought.  Meditation is not the only path to awareness, but it is very powerful.

Take time each day to be silent and observe the thoughts as they enter and pass through the mind.  Notice the patterns, the conditioned thinking.  With practice, you begin to see the spaces between thoughts.  And, you begin to be able to choose what thoughts you dwell on, and what thoughts you let go of.  Choose to dwell on thoughts that empower and evolve you, and let go of the ones that are not useful.  In this way, you re-condition you thinking to support and nurture your self.