In the current paradigm of being human we are trained to think of ourselves as independent achievers. That means we imagine that we are isolated individual beings who run around with brains processing information that inform our decisions.
In this paradigm we see ourselves as the initiator of the actions we take. We are choosers and actors making independent decisions. This belief gives us a strong sense of freewill, personal power and self-determination. We feel like doers.
What we miss in this view is the fact that we are part of a larger process of life. We are not the beginning of things. We arrived in the middle of a process that has been in operation for longer than we can imagine.
Let’s use the common example of thinking to illustrate the point. When we think we most commonly think of ourselves as being the originator of the thoughts. Thinking thoughts means creating thoughts in our minds.
But if you reflect on it you will find that this is not really the way it happens. When you think are you really creating thoughts? How do you do that?
If you really stop and look you actually don’t know where your thoughts are coming from. During the activity that we call thinking we turn our attention inward and look at a process of ‘thinking’ that is already in process.
We have been taught to see ourselves as thinking (which means generating) thoughts and then choosing among them the most appropriate to act on.
So I ask again, how do you think a thought? Do you really know where your thoughts are coming from?
Here’s an experiment to do. Think a thought right now and watch what happens.
Do you really think the thought or do you look for it?
When I do this experiment I find myself looking for a thought not thinking it. What I seem to do is move my attention inward. I stop looking at the the computer I’m typing on or the coffee shop around me and turn my gaze toward the inner world of thought and feeling.
I seem to scan around my inner experience until a thought appears and I never know exactly which thought it will be.
When I looked just now I saw this thought: “That tree outside is a magical shade of yellow.”
The tree outside was the last thing I had seen before I decided to think a thought and when I look inside I saw a thought about the tree.
You see, thoughts don’t appear out of nowhere. They come attached to things. I could decide that the thought I just had was created in my head, but it is just as accurate to say it emerged out of the tree. Maybe thoughts are not created in our minds. Maybe they emerge out of things.
Thinking is not something we do. It is something that happens. We appear to direct our attention toward the thought stream in our heads, but thoughts are not things that we manufacture. They appear spontaneously in relationship to other aspects of our experience.
The whole world – inner and outer – is constantly leaking thoughts.
Here is another experiment. Look at something near you. Keep your attention on the details of whatever thing you are looking at and see what thoughts start to emerge.
I am looking at the building across the street and I see thoughts emerging about bricks, and the people living in the building, and about how warm it is inside on this blustery day. I don’t look at the brick building and have thoughts about penguins.
Ha! you might say, I got you. You just did have a thought about penguins.
Yes, I did have a thought about penguins while looking at that building, but the reason I did is because I was not just looking at the building. I was looking at it in the context of thinking about the point I am trying to illustrate.
So while I looked at the building I also looked for a random thought to use in the sentence above and whenever I think of randomness I think of penguins.
I think of penguins in relationship to randomness because when I was young I used to play a game called ‘random thoughts.’ Me and a friend would take turns saying a word and then the other person would spontaneously come up with a word that had no relation at all to the one they had just heard.
My friend was so great at that game and I loved playing. Once in response to something I said he shouted out penguins so fast that I was in awe of his creative mind. I never forgot that moment and so I always associate randomness with penguins.
The point here is that thoughts always grow out of preexisting aspects of experience. They emerge out of sights, sounds, feelings and other thoughts. They are not produced independently in isolation and they are not manufactured in our heads by us. In Buddhist philosophy this view is known as ‘dependent origination.’
When I think I am not creating thoughts I am looking for them. Thoughts spontaneously appear in the mind constantly all by themselves. When I think I simply direct some of my attention toward an inner stream of thoughts that is always there.
We are trained to imagine ourselves to be beings that think by manufacturing thoughts and using them to make decisions.
But if you look, it is just as accurate to say that the thoughts in your head are emerging out of the objects in your experience. All of the objects in the universe whether they be inner objects like emotions, memories and thoughts, or outer objects like trees and buildings, are all constantly leaking thoughts that we become aware of when we think.
Our minds don’t think thoughts. They see thoughts that are emerging out of things.
In the current paradigm we have been trained to see most of the universe as dead and unconscious and ourselves as alive and intelligent.
Maybe it is the other way around. Maybe the world and everything in it is alive and intelligent. Maybe everything is constantly thinking thoughts that we then see with our minds. Maybe we don’t think. Maybe the universe thinks and we are seeing the thoughts of a universal mind.
This way of thinking about the world is reminiscent of the worldview of the shamans of indigenous cultures. These holy people would listen to the wisdom they could hear emerging out of the world around them. To them everything was a living being that had wisdom to share.
This is also the way the German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe envisioned doing science. You see he had a competing view of science from that of Sir Issac Newton. Where Newton wanted to understand everything by describing them in measurable and quantifiable terms, Goethe wanted to do science by observing things so deeply that they revealed their true nature to you. Goethe’s way of doing science was much more like the science of the shaman.
Perhaps we need to go back to the wisdom of the shaman and the science of Goethe and see if we can shift the way we experience the world. Perhaps we need to retrain ourselves until we see that intelligence belongs to the universe not only to human beings.
Perhaps if we didn’t see ourselves as a living and intelligent thing in a mostly dead and unconscious universe we would find it easier to treat our planet like the living being that it is. This shift in paradigm is at least worth trying and it might be essential for our future.