In a previous post I said that we are fully capable of recognizing and then accepting or rejecting thoughts or even whole trains of thoughts. In this post I want to explore that some more.
To be able to monitor and manage our thoughts, we have to interact with the world from a different internal perspective than the one we evolved with. Like other animals, our normal, everyday stream of thoughts concern our immediate experience, i.e. whatever is going on right at this moment. We can and do think about what’s going on in a way that other animals can’t, but that extra processing tends to be noise in the background. For most of us the default point of conscious awareness for dealing with the world is pretty much the same as it is in the other higher animals. When nothing at all is going on, we replay experiences or conversations or plan ahead or just let our imaginations wander from one thought to the next in a self-stimulating stream of consciousness until the traffic light turns green and our attention moves back to the mundane world.
That distracted thought stream, which we tend to follow when nothing is occupying our immediate attention, is unique to humanity. Contrast that with your dog or cat: when nothing is going in their world they curl up on the sofa or stretch out in a warm patch of sunlight and contentedly drift through the day completely free of the uniquely human feeling we call “boredom.”
The first step toward rising above this is actually to go deeper within. As you’re reading this, a part of you is thinking about it as you go. You may be thinking that its all nonsense but you are in fact monitoring your own thoughts as you absorb these words.
Understand that you can also monitor your feelings about those thoughts in the same way. Maybe you’ve heard this before and if feels like familiar territory, or else you’ve heard stuff like this before and feels the same as it did when that wacko with the beads and the tie-died t-shirt was blabbing about it through a haze of pot smoke back in college. Generally your thoughts about something are associated with a feeling of some sort, and as you read or interact with others you are generally vaguely aware of these thoughts and impressions going by in the “background,” so to speak.
What I’m leading up to is this: there is a relationship between thoughts, feelings and daily events no matter how minor, and the connection between them is generally made “for us” in some part of the brain that is outside our normal conscious awareness. In the previous post I discussed a bit how our reaction to an event seems to happen instantaneously, outside of our control, and that our thoughts about the event come afterward.
That is because how we react to an event depends entirely on its meaning. Everything within your internal framework of the world has some kind of meaning for you, no matter how trivial, and it is entirely subjective. In the previous post I used a sports example: if I hear the score from a basketball game and learn that my favorite team lost, that means something entirely different to me than it will for a fan of the other other team who hears exactly the same information. The same information can and does have unique meaning to every individual, and generates unique thoughts and unique emotional reactions.
How you interact with the world arises from that zone where meaning is made. “Meaning” is in a large part a relationship between a thought, an emotion, and a context (or better said, the situation in which that thought, emotion or event occurs). The part of your mind in which “meaningfulness” is made is the part of your mind that determines everything about how you interact with the world. One might go so far as to say that this meaning-maker is your personality.
If we are to live as humans who are making full use of evolution’s gift of intelligence, we need to learn to interact with the world from that part of the mind where meaning is made. We need to live at a deeper level, to identify with that part of ourselves rather than the part of ourselves that just experiences the endlessly flowing stream of impressions and impulses and instinctive reactions that is our everyday state of awareness.
To be fully human is to live a little deeper. Not subject to the meaning-maker, but to shape it, to manage it. And that starts with submerging a bit in order to see the surface more clearly.
How do you do that? This being a blog about Christianity I will say that the term “prayer and meditation” is a common enough phrase from Christian pulpits, but as far as I can tell there is no actual Christian tradition regarding meditation as being an activity distinct from prayer. I am a firm believer in prayer, but having also practiced various types of meditation on an off for many years, I’ve always wondered why meditation doesn’t play a bigger role in Christian life than in actually does.
The first and most important step in almost every form of meditation is to silence that endless stream of thoughts, such that they can be observed as independent things as they go by. Our thoughts are things that we have, like the watch on my wrist or the glasses on my nose, not things that define who we are. If anyone is going to define who I am it should be me, and it should be done with my full awareness.
One must learn to consciously manage our thoughts before we can even think about influencing where meaning is made. And for many of us that is even harder to do than it is to describe. But I feel I should try to do so. Meditation has been a tremendous blessing in my life both psychologically and spiritually, and nothing I’ve said in this post or the previous can be truly understood without having some experience with meditative states.
I will post more on this topic later. It is important to me and to my practice of Christianity, but as with most things psychological it can be difficult to accurately articulate what I mean. But I hope this is fairly clear.