Found Your Thoughts Yet?

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The Buddha

Or, more properly, have you found the source of your thoughts yet? Again, the question is not the source for the content of your thoughts, which is the culture you grew up in. The question is, how do thoughts get into your head? Where do they come from?

Maybe you have an answer that makes sense to you. If so, please let us know what it is. I have no idea.

One of the more puzzling and controversial ideas in Buddhism is no self. The Buddha refused to answer a direct question on this topic. A useful discussion is here. (The source at that link is an excellent place to look for concrete, specific, well informed answers about any question pertaining to Buddhism. Go there.)

Buddhists mostly believe in rebirth. If there is no self, what gets reborn? Someone asked Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan master, that once and he replied, “Your neuroses.” He liked to use “neurosis” as a shorthand explanation for the human condition. A “neurosis” is a very minor instance of mental illness — something that is clearly nonsensical and somewhat dysfunctional, but not incapacitating. We all have them.

Recurring to our distinction between mind in the sense of “monkey mind” and consciousness as the seat and source of everything, we might say that mind is the locus of neuroses, and consciousness is where we end up when we eliminate our neuroses. We can call that nirvana, awakening, enlightenment — the word is not the important part. The experience is.

The inability to specify where your thoughts come from, how they get into your head, is perhaps the best evidence of, argument for, not self one could imagine. The idea of a self, in the modern United States, anyway, is a more or less coherent (you hope) sense of your identity, who you are, where you came from, where you want to go, think you are going. LinkedIn is the home of people who are very convinced that they have a self, or Self, and very into actualizing that Self. Good for them.

From a Buddhist perspective, the fact that we are human shows that we are not in control. If the goal is complete awakening and, as many Buddhist teachers like to insist, awakening is always possible right now, is only possible right now, but we can’t get there immediately (if you have, good job — please tell us about that), then you are not in control of your life in some important sense. A disappointing reality.

If your Self were as clear and coherent as you might wish it were, if you know exactly who you are, then you should be able to achieve your goals easily and consistently. So sit and meditate. How long can you maintain control over your thoughts? If you set as your goal having no thoughts at all, can you make that happen? If so, for how long? I can, but it doesn’t usually last very long. I’m getting better about noticing my favorite thoughts (?) and letting go of them.

That points to the constitutive bifurcation. I don’t actually have any favorite thoughts. I would be just as happy to have no thoughts at all. My most common thoughts are also my most neurotic thoughts. I don’t want them, but they still show up very reliably.

I’m a pretty determined person. I quit smoking in my mid 20s. I spent six years earning a Ph.D. I published two articles as a graduate student. I published two books as a historian. I earned a J.D. I wrote onto the flagship law review in law school and published my comment. I have published seven other law review articles. I don’t find much in this world that motivates me, but when I do, I go get it done.

But I can’t control my own thoughts. Huh. Where is this alleged self? Maybe you have a better explanation.

I’m going to continue to follow the Buddha, who left the only solution I can find, and keep meditating.

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Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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