What’s Really Going on in Our Minds

October 23rd, 2006

Most of us live with the vague delusion that we know what we’re thinking about. My wife and I used to make a habit of asking each other what we were thinking or feeling, many times a day. We’d then share our thoughts. It wasn’t until we embarked on some serious meditation practice that we discovered that we had no idea what we were talking about.

What we were describing to each other were our most ‘tangible’ thoughts – the really loud ones that can’t help but be noticed. If you pay attention to what your mind is doing on a regular basis, however, you soon discover that your mind is up to a lot more than you think.

Our thoughts are actually composed of many ‘layers’ – now, it’s true that we can only think of one thing at a time, but some of the layers are so subtle that they take only fractions of a second to deliver their message.

Let’s take a real example. A few years ago I recorded 10 seconds of mind activity while I was driving on a country road, just about to approach a curve. Here’s what happened in those 10 seconds.

Scan the ditches to observe ‘swerve-escape route’ in the event oncoming car loses control– pretty autumn leaves over there– wince as grasshopper hits the windshield– we’re almost to junction B– I wonder if my sister-in-law is going to be in a good mood when I see her, or stressed out from working too much– I wonder why she works so many jobs– am I being judgmental about her and the way she lives?– we’re about twenty miles from her home now– it’s going to be pretty crowded in there– hopefully the food will be good– not like last time, I think I felt sort of sick afterwards– the suggested speed for this corner is 25 miles per hour– I should slow down a little bit– wow, that person’s crossing into my lane– you’d think people would be more careful around narrow, blind corners like that– I’m hitting the gravel– lucky we have all-wheel drive– what a nice little car this is– it’s good we have new tires, too– I used to drive on bald tires as a teen– open road ahead now . . .

A lot to read, I know. Note that the only ‘visible’ thoughts were the thoughts about my sister-in-law. Everything else is usually invisible, going on ‘under the radar’ of my usual level of awareness. So here’s what I thought I was thinking:

I wonder if my sister-in-law will be in a good mood when I see her, or stressed out from working too much. I wonder why she works so many jobs.

The point here is that it takes an ENORMOUS amount of energy to upkeep our usual mind activity. Given any situation, we project into future possibilities, remember lessons from the past, and make innumerable judgment calls. Even our visible thoughts can sometimes exhaust us, as when we’re stressed out thinking about an upcoming test or interview or meeting or performance. People even lie awake at night, unable to stop their visible thinking! And that’s nothing to say about all the ‘invisible’ thoughts our mind is having to come up with.

When we wonder if it’s easier to just keep our usual model of reality (the Standard Dualistic Model) or to switch to something more effective, it can sometimes seem like it would be too much work to make a switch. What we’re missing is how much work it is to stay in our current mode of thinking!

One of the symptoms of non-duality is a quiet mind. Both visible and invisible thoughts ease off to almost nothing, and your mind becomes clear, peaceful, and quiet. ‘Visible’ thinking only occurs when you do it deliberately. And you discover how visible thinking is relatively useless. Really, it only needs to be invoked in special circumstances. As your mind quiets, you develop the ability to be aware of all your mind activity – your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings – and it becomes much easier to guide your mind activity to positive uses.

The sad fact is that our minds are usually on auto-pilot, and the auto-pilot is set on self-destruct. 95 % of your mind activity is actually detrimental to your health, happiness, and the happiness of everyone around you. And you’re needlessly exhausting yourself with all that self-destructive thought! Why continue?

The way out of this cycle is easy – all it takes is a switching over to observing what’s actually going on at any given moment. That’s all.

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