A long time ago, someone taught me a simple way of meditation. I was told that thoughts would come, and I should let them go. You can’t stop the thoughts coming, but you can choose not to pick up on them or follow them, to just let them come and let them go. I was taught to focus on the breath coming in and out, to give the mind a simple physical point of attention so that thoughts would not become a central thread.
Thoughts did come, of course. The experience was like sitting on a city park bench, listening to fragmentary snatches of conversation from the people passing by. Most of the thoughts were incomplete or nonsensical. Many were intriguing. If I had chosen to follow them, I could have spun threads of thinking, feeling, or narrative out of them. But I chose to let them go, so they remained disjointed fragments.
I’ve had this experience many times since then. Over time, I have come to believe that the mind does not originate these thoughts, but that thoughts exist in some impersonal mind-field and the mind just perceives them. The mind is sensing thoughts, not generating them. Of course, the mind is not just a sensor, but also a processor, so if you latch onto a thought you can build it into a structure using all the cognitive tricks: emotion, metaphor, narrative, logic. But the seed-thoughts, I believe, come into the mind from outside.
Our sense of a coherent self arises from the flow of our sensations, thoughts, and memories. We identify with what we have experienced and what we think. But all of that is really external. Although it is our only way of perceiving ourselves, it is not ourselves. It is simply the medium through which we move, as water is the medium in which a fish swims.
The world contains every possible kind of sensory input, every kind of experience, all the time. It is a liberation to realize that we have some control over what aspects of this omnisensorium we choose to give our attention to. When we pay attention to horror, the threading aspect of the mind will lead us to perceive more and more horror. Likewise if we choose to focus on beauty or joy or humor. In terms of thoughts, all kinds of thoughts are in the field at all times.
Like radio waves, many streams of thought are passing through us simultaneously, most of them unperceived. If we don’t know how to tune our antenna, we are most likely to pick up the loudest signals, the million megawatt superstations. Unfortunately those signals are mostly vacuous drivel and unfocused emotional urges. Finding the golden strands in the stream of muck depends on learning to withdraw attention from the loudest and most sensational things so we can give our attention to quieter, subtler things.
The drawings in this post are aquarelle crayon on paper, 18″ x 24″ (46 x 61 cm).