The fetishization of thought

24Apr14

Most of us grow up encouraged by a society which places a naive faith in the powers of thought. Which is to say that we believe that in large part the way to achieve happiness or any of our ostensible goals in life is best accomplished by merely thinking our way to our desires’ ends, as if life were perhaps merely a series of math problems or engineering problems to sort through. One obvious hole in this assumption is that even the world of math and the so-called hard sciences do not rely strictly upon analytical thought. Intuition and other irrational and even completely inexplicable methods are used to arrive at solutions to problems in these fields. We are all familiar with the story of James Watson dreaming of two intertwined snakes which subsequently led him to the idea of the double helix… or simply of our own realizations while taking time away from a problem and stepping into the shower, or taking a long walk.

Nevertheless we have been made to believe that rational thought is somehow the summum bonum of human activity and that the ideal approach to most any seeming problem is to think our way through it. Obviously this may be true in many instances. If I am heading across town and want to get from point a to destination b in the quickest way possible, then it behooves me to consult the time tables for the train or bus and then to puzzle out which route would be the most efficient one for me to take. However, even in so straightforward-seeming a case, irrational elements invariably will come into play. For instance, maybe we will remember that a friend had a recent awful experience on the train which would provide the shortest journey, and so we will be inspired to take an alternate route which will involve a longer time in transit. Or maybe we will have a strong intuition to avoid a certain bus route, and in taking an alternate one we end up running into an old friend that we haven’t seen in some years. These things happen on a regular basis, but I think we tend to downplay our own native gifts of intuition and the degree to which our psyche meshes with the apparent external world “out there”.

I think (ironic using that phrase here!) that any spiritual practice inevitably involves a progressive realization as to the limits of thinking and the powers of the rational mind. While we are conditioned in our society to champion the virtues of the type of intelligence we associate with IQ measurements, and to regard such intelligence as being one of the most valuable and important traits that we can have as human beings, in reality such an emphasis on immersion in the purely cerebral ignores and also presents a limiting viewpoint of so much of what makes us valuable as human and spiritual beings.

For instance, although I suppose in theory one might be able to think their way towards love, based on a theological treatise, or say a Buddhist text which reasons out just why we should be compassionate and practice loving-kindness, in reality love is causeless,and in the end has very little to do with any thinking process. In fact, the thinking process merely gets in the way of and poses obstructions to the divine current and its all-surrounding healing power and energies of love. As it turns out, all of the things which block love are based in thoughts — e.g., resentment, stubborness, reluctance to forgive ourselves and others, and so on. At the same time, when we actually experience Love on a deep level, our minds feel at once calm and peaceful — precisely because our thoughts, our activity of mind has begun to slow down and space has opened up in which we may experience our inherent peaceful and loving nature.

The experience of faith is obviously another one that is hampered by thinking, or at least by over-thinking. Doubt is an activity of mind which never really serves any good, at least when applied to the issue of belief in beneficent spiritual powers. Doubt is a basic saying of “no” to life, to the paths of our lives, to the idea that we are at bottom supported by a beneficent universe. And Doubt’s partner Worry similarly serves only to obstruct healing forces in our lives. The healing force of love is not something that can be stopped; however it can be temporarily blocked. One of our tasks as sādhakas is to remove the blocks which prevent us from being open to the energies of love and healing in our lives. Somehow thinking our way along this task will not quite get us there. We need to love our way there, and to let go of our constant flurry of unnecessary and unhelpful mind activity, and to begin to open to the love and grace that is always present.

A common reaction to downplaying or even discouraging the role of too much (supposedly!) rational thought is to fear that one will end up as a jellyfish, or a piece of driftwood. How will I be able to make decisions, to formulate a coherent shopping or laundry list or to solve problems at work if I am not thinking? For starters, eliminating thought is not the idea here. We will always be perfectly capable of performing necessary life tasks and of having interesting conversations, or doing just about anything else we care to have our minds help us do. The idea here is to recognize and surrender to the realization of the limitations of the mind, and to realize just how much of our thought is unnecessary or downright unhelpful. As this process continues, the more egregious and repetitive nature of our mind’s chatter will gradually subside, and we will naturally begin to sink into a more peaceful place while we go about the day performing our life tasks. In fact, we will be able to take care of our obligations even more skillfully, precisely because our minds will no longer be as chaotic or cluttered.

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