“The mind is everything…We are shaped by our thoughts, and we become what we think… Every human being is the author of their own health or disease.” – Buddha
We become what we think. Can anything be clearer? How did we come to be the person in the world that we experience ourselves to be? How did our place and roles in the world come to be? How did we come to experience the world the way we do with all our opinions, attitudes, belief systems, and behaviors? Really consider these questions and you will realize that we think it all into existence. Human beings were graced by evolution with a miraculous capacity – the capacity to think – but this capacity has taken us over, creating an imbalance that comes with a terrible cost to our harmonious, natural, and sane place in the world, both individually and collectively.
We all have a sense of ourselves and a sense of the world that is a kind of narrative, a story of “me in the world.” Chapter and verse of this story has been written over our lifetime, the themes and particulars arising from many sources. Our families, our abilities and limitations, our physical features and capacities, our cultural and social influences, our affiliations, our education (formal and informal), our belief systems, our personal and interpersonal experiences – all these influences come together into our ideas about who and what we are and manifest as thoughts about ourselves and the world. All these impressions and conditioned ideas and concepts go into the creation of this story of “me” held together in our mind as thoughts, and, as The Buddha said, we are the author, moment to moment, of this story. We are a story in a constant state of editing and rewrite, but the general story and themes remain mostly constant over time. Like wagon wheel grooves carved into a hard dirt road over time, the thought patterns we habitually engage create and reinforce habituated neural pathways in our brains requiring special effort if we are to break free into new paths, into the untrodden limitless potential of the open field of our mind.
This problem arises because we typically approach each experience projecting a judgment, a preconception of our attitude and beliefs created by repetitive energizing of our preestablished thoughts about it. This is our “rut in the road.” We THINK we already pretty much know what an experience will be before we experience it. When we THINK we dislike a particular experience before even experiencing it, so the dislike will be the filter over the experience, confirming the dislike. When we THINK that we like a particular experience we project this attitude upon it and so will generally have our attitude confirmed. In example, those who live with the thought-story that they hate winter can even experience a kind of low-level depression through the season, while those who live with the thought-story that they love winter for the crispness of the air, the beauty of snow, the way the trees get naked showing their limbs, opening vistas that are covered by foliage in the summer, that there is even a unique beauty to winter’s grey skies; such people are happy with winter. Example after example can be found of situations people think they dislike and so are unhappy while people who think the opposite or are neutral about the very same situation are OK.
When we think with angry thoughts, we are in great turmoil. When we think with anxious and fearful thoughts, we feel very insecure. When we think our story is sad, tragic, or we are the victim or loser in this story, we are despondent. When we think we are the victor, the benefactor of fortuitous events, we are happy. When we think we are entertained or satiated, we are content, our mind filled with pleasant thoughts, and so-on. It is not hard to see that from our thoughts, our emotions are generated as resonations of these thoughts. When we think self-confident thoughts, we are strong, and when we think thoughts of self-doubt, we are weak. When we think thoughts of resentment, we are in hell, and when we think thoughts of gratitude, we are in paradise. We are thinking our emotional landscape into existence constantly.
It is also not difficult to see how thinking in particular ways creates patterns of perception over time. It is important to realize that the style of thinking we develop over time becomes projected upon nearly all situations, turning the situation into the stimulus for our way of thinking. We get caught in a feedback loop of thinking style leading to pattens of perception that reinforce the thinking style, resulting in habitual attitudes and outlook. Some people look for the good in most any situation while others look for the bad in most any situation. A person whose mind is habituated to anxious thoughts will look for danger, limitation, and loss, and because the world is everything, they will see what they are looking for. Likewise, a person whose mind is habituated to negativity will look for, and find, the negative in most any situation and an angry person will find reasons to be angry, while a person who looks for reasons for grievance will find it. These kinds of thought patterns will invariably bring negative emotional experiences, forming a kind of thought-prison of unhappiness resulting in what psychiatry calls neuroses or personality disorder.
Conversely, persons who develop patterns of thinking that move toward confidence, positivity, appreciation, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and kindness will have very positive emotional experiences. It is so clear. It is as Buddha said, “we become what we think.” It is no wonder that The Buddha in his prescription for overcoming unnecessary emotional suffering emphasized using the mind and its capacity for thought in a wise manner, a manner that will guide us out of suffering and into happiness and personal peace. Yet people are so careless about what they think; though, of course, it’s not their fault – there is no understanding within our culture that tells us we have the capacity to shape our thinking. We non-self-reflectively think what we think and even have the unstated belief that these thoughts are who we are. We can get very defensive about what we think about things, our opinions, not realizing that these thoughts are generally not really even our own, but the product of many influencing sources telling us what to think. So many factors, all stirred together with our personal experiences and personality traits making up a story of “me,” causing us to live our lives compulsively streaming this story all held together with thoughts. Yes, “we become what we think,” and it is very hard, as the saying goes, for us to think “outside the box,” or, as I’m suggesting, outside the prison of our thought patterns – for these deeply ingrained patterns of thought become like a prison for us, very difficult to break out of.
There is an image in Buddhism called the “gateless gate,” and this aptly applies to this metaphor of the thought-prison, for this prison isn’t a particularly secure one except that part of the thought-prison is the thought that we cannot break out of it, that we are what we are, and the gate to this prison has a very secure lock on it. Buddhism, however, tells us otherwise – that this gate is in fact not locked at all. You CAN break out of the prison; it only requires realizing you are NOT the thoughts that comprise the walls of this prison. It’s just that we exist in sort of a hypnotic trance, believing what the hypnotist, in this case our conditioning, commands. It tells us to believe every thought that comes into our heads.
Buddhism tells us to “wake up!” It is the snap of the fingers to awaken the true being within us, the being that HAS thoughts and their resonant emotions, but IS NOT the thoughts and emotions. Buddhism points us to a deeper self, what it calls our original-self, before the thoughts have been programmed into us. The master consciousness teacher, Eckhart Tolle, uses a little exercise in which he directs us to “watch for the next thought” to cause a koan-like jarring of consciousness into realizing that in WATCHING for thought, thinking stops. There we are – consciousness looking for a thought.
So now, who are we, the thought or the consciousness that looks for the thought? This realization is Buddhism’s great liberation. The moment we realize we are the consciousness, the silent field of awareness beneath the thoughts, and then further realize there is an intelligence that is not thought, but rather is the energy out of which thoughts arise, we begin to gain the ability to break free of our prison and begin reshaping our experience of mind, and with it, our experience of life. As everyone experiences, our thoughts can be about practically any silly or awful thing, the egoic mind preferring to dwell on the trivial or negative in support of its perspective of self-inflicted separateness, and with that in mind, some good advice comes from Eckhart Tolle when he suggests that a very important and liberating practice is to simply stop taking our thoughts so seriously.
Buddhism and its practices of meditation and mindfulness teach the special effort needed that takes us into a training and development program exploring consciousness, recognizing our original or awakened-self as the field of silent awareness, a vast potential and intelligence beneath our thinking mind. Buddhism teaches us with meditation how to see the mind’s habituated patterns of thought and to realize our true-self in this silent awareness that has the insight and capacity to shape our story of self-in-the-world in much more peaceful and positive ways. Through mindfulness practice we begin to form new perceptions and associations by developing our capacity to be non-judgmentally present, to be sharply, calmly, intelligently aware, to experience freshly any situation in its deepest and subtlest manifestation. We grow in our ability to recognize and integrate thoughts of wisdom as we recognize our own nature as a reflection of the balance and harmony of Universal Nature. This is Buddhism’s Dharma, its teachings leading to wisdom, compassion, and to knowing things and ourselves as they actually are. We learn to let awareness and wisdom guide our thinking and begin to experience the beneficial results of taking charge and responsibility for our thought and emotion patterns. It is simple to validate this premise. Look at something and see what you can find wrong with it and note how this causes you to feel. Now, looking at the same object, see what is good about it and how this causes you to feel. Likewise, create a thought, a happy thought, a thought of gratitude, and see how it causes you to feel, and then create a thought of resentment, or anger, anxiety, or despair, and see how this causes you to feel. It becomes quite clear that how we direct our thoughts about something or our situation in one way or another completely determines the quality of our experience in that moment. So, why would anyone choose to stay locked in some negative thought/emotion prison, when they have the key to their own liberation? Stop. Look about you. Realize that you are the one who is the consciousness, free of any thought, that is looking. Choose to see what is beautiful, compelling, and worthy of loving about this moment. Experience yourself as intelligent consciousness prior to any thought. Feel the peace and sanity of this perspective and then allow your thoughts to flow from the resulting peace and gratitude as you dissolve your systems of thought-prison and emerge into real freedom. Could anything be clearer?