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November 16th, 2018
Let’s try a little experiment together.
What is the next thought that you are going to have? Purple Elephant.
Of course in this case, the sudden mention of purple elephant almost certainly invoked a strange and unexpected image in your mind. Perhaps a different thought or two was capable of sneaking in before hearing the words ‘purple elephant’.
But this is the forceful example of the experiment. And it exhibits the fact that we are not really in control, nor can we well predict what sensory inputs are going to arise as objects in consciousness – plainly speaking, we can’t really be all that sure about what we are going to experience.
This is likewise true for our internal life. Let’s try the experiment again, but with a less intrusive twist.
What exactly are you going to think after your current thought and after that thought, and the following one?
Whatever thoughts occurred during this small space of time, can you look back at them and honestly claim that you authored them in some sort of predetermined way? We might be able to claim that actions that we take in the real world are predetermined based on a swirling crescendo of related thoughts contemplating that action, but can we claim that kind of predeterminedness about the thoughts themselves? Where exactly would this predetermining take place?
Suddenly unanswerable questions about free will and destiny and fate start cropping up in potentially very controversial and unsettling ways. But this is not really the point of the exercise.
The hope here is simply to engage in the act of noticing one’s own thoughts. Undoubtedly, millions of people, potentially billions have passed through time on earth without ever having this experience.
The first undeniably powerful gift of this act is that it can also be applied to emotions that are arising in our experience. It’s been said many times before that the angry mind that notices it’s anger ceases to be so angry. This act is the virtuous compliment to the often touted direction for compassion to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes.’ This act of noticing your own thought is in effect taking you out of your own shoes.
Let’s put this in more pragmatic terms. Imagine for a moment that someone is filming you. Now imagine that every time you get really angry, the feed of that camera gets suddenly rerouted into your eyes so all that you see is yourself getting angry in the larger context of whatever room or situation you are in. Extremely few people would not be self-consciously effected by the embarrassment of such a perspective.
As Winston Churchill once apparently said, ‘a man is about as big as the things that make him angry.”
Imagining this camera filming our anger is almost always guaranteed to put the object of our anger into proper focus, into a proper context, revealing it to be fairly petty.
The act of noticing one’s thoughts and emotions in this way is effectively like building an internal camera that we have focused on the actions, emotions and thoughts we see our self having or experiencing. Such a self-referential remove allows our executive brain to have more input on which thoughts we’d like to see propagate again, which emotions should perhaps not be entertained so faithfully and which actions had the best impact on the reality we are experiencing.
This is in essence a first vital step towards mindful wisdom. Wisdom has been defined in many ways both simple and complex, but if we regard just one here and claim that wisdom is simply not making the same mistake again, this mindful ability to notice what we are doing instantly raises the probability that when we are making a mistake again, we will be able to notice it and stop ourselves from continuing in such Rut-like behavior.
Whether there is some kind of indivisible self that is the auteur of our experience or if it is merely a phantom that is helpful to imagine, or some kind of self-referencing that cancels out the necessity of some faux phantom, doesn’t matter. We would do best to consider useful questions that we can actually make productive strides with, such as, would efforts to notice what I’m thinking or feeling or doing be beneficial to my wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around me? Regardless of the curious and potentially eerie paths of thought such practice might open up, the answer is without a doubt a resounding yes.
This episode of Tinkered Thinking self-references a larger context of Tinkered Thinking’s current complete cannon by specifically referencing Episode 125: Rut, Episode 35: You are not All of You, and Episode 23: Pause.