Thinking about thinking
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
The French are well known for their love of thinking, although they have no monopoly of this. They are prone to quarrel, too, over ideas as the bone of contention. It was Pascal, the French mathematician and religious philosopher, who said that man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but that he is a thinking reed. Voltaire, the laughing philosopher, held that liberty of thought is the life of the soul. Descartes, went even further and ascribed man’s essence to the very fact that he thinks. He asserted: I think, therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum). It is thus upon the activity of thought that man’s whole existence is anchored.
The American transcendentalists also put a premium on thinking. Thoreau said that what a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather, indicates his fate. Emerson said that living is what a man thinks about all day. He further maintained that thoughts rule the world. Proverbs 23:7 of the Old Testament, KJV, states that as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Put another way, man is what he thinks; he becomes that which he thinks. Similarly, the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture, declares by way of introduction, thus: We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
All this is evidently true and we can multiply authoritative statements to support this truth. But we all have learned to take this for granted or else have forgotten it. There is no denying that man’s superiority to the other species in the animal kingdom lies in his ability to think, or to know, and to know that he knows. In fact the scientific name, Homo sapiens, which is appended to him, characterizes him chiefly for his intelligence and wisdom.
Humanity’s evolution has been largely propelled by the unique power to weave ideas. Needless to say, the progress of human culture and civilization as we know them today could not have been possible if not for the force of thought. It enabled us to traverse outer space or dive into the world of the infinitely small. Specifically, such unprecedented achievements like the landing on the moon or the splitting of the atom or the cracking of the code of life (the DNA) are marvelous breakthroughs that can only be achieved by thinking beings.
Consider such a contemporary electronic gadget like the computer. As it evolves across time, the technicians and programmers are bent on making it increasingly powerful in terms of capabilities and speed so that its uses are almost limitless. You can do practically anything even with such a small modern marvel like the laptop—word processing, page design, making calculation, drawing, playing games, listening to music, viewing a movie, instant messaging like chatting, or talking to somebody across the continents in full view and in real time—you name it!
Truly, as Hamlet soliloquized, what a piece of work is a man! We have not even mentioned yet other man-made wonders like the Great Pyramid of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, or such a World Heritage Site like our Banaue Rice Terraces. If the imposing cathedrals in Europe could not take your breath away, I don’t know what can. Your heart of course cannot but be touched by the melodies of Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, or Wagner? Or stirred to tears by the tragedies of Sophocles or Aeschylus? Or amused by the comedies of Aristophanes or Moliere? Or deeply impressed by the thought systems of Plato and Aristotle, Hegel and Kant, Heidegger and Sartre, Shankara and Sri Aurobindo? Or transported on cloud nine with lines from Yeats, Neruda, Rumi, Tagore and Pasternak? All these and more are monuments to man’s genius thanks to his thinking ability.
It is no wonder that then and now schools, colleges and universities are all committed to fostering right thinking as an all-important skill in academic training. All academicians worship at the shrine of the cerebral faculty as a tool in the ascent of man. In the repertoire of competencies, critical thinking is at the top of the list. That is as it should be if we are to carry forward our much vaunted technological advancement and progress which can even overwhelm us now with the knowledge explosion.
For all the paeans accorded to thought, there is nevertheless a downside to it. At first blush this assertion sounds preposterous. To even hint at it goes against the grain. Taking issue on thinking or thought as such is a Herculean effort; and only one who has spent a lifetime delving into its nature and with a consummate desire to make sense of our human problems will undertake such an apparently nonsensical attempt. To begin with, it is not hard to concede that had our thinking not been quite sloppy sometimes, many of our costly human errors could have been avoided.
Here, then, in a cursory way is the gist of the teaching on the limitations of thought and its debit side. Thinking and thought as understood here are more or less the same, but in a finer distinction thinking is taken to mean as the active process while thought denotes the end product. Broadly, however, both may refer to the process of mental activity or even to the faculty of mentation itself.
Thought is the response of memory. It works very much like a PC disk which stores data that is given a filename for later retrieval.
For example, when asked a question, the brain searches the files in its memory for the pertinent data recorded on it. If the information was registered there, it is automatically drawn as the answer. The brain is the storehouse of the individual’s memory—his experiences, knowledge, remembrances, images, feelings, conditionings, his entire background. Evidently, no thinking operation is possible at all without memory.
Now, understanding the distorting factor of memory-based thought in our perception is of supreme importance. We never really doubt that we see the tree out there. But in all likelihood we don’t. Why? Because something stands between us and the tree, which we do not notice, and that is our prior knowledge, our impression of the tree. When we look at the tree it is our image of the tree that screens us from it, that is, from its stark reality. To think of the tree, which entails having a name or image of it, already puts us in the stream of time, in the grip of the past. To suppose that we are seeing the tree just as it is is therefore an illusion.
This is so because there is a time lag between the moment of vision, of actually seeing the tree as it is, and the arising of the thought that we have seen the tree. Thinking or thought is always of the past. Pure seeing, clear perception that is, is timeless, beyond thought, beyond time. The minute we think of the tree as magnificent and name it, we have already lost contact with it. The whole operation is extremely subtle in the same way that we do not notice the opening of a rosebud until a time-lapse photography reveals the whole movement to us. What we must do is learn how to see without the interference of thought, or to look with absolute clarity.
Obviously, thinking in its ordinary functioning is necessary in the practical activities of daily life. Otherwise we cannot drive a car and find our way back home. Nor can we engage in creative pursuits nor conduct laboratory experiments. In this sphere of human endeavours, thought is imperative as we have charted earlier on.
Thought or the thought process, however, can prove to be fatal in the psychological realm.
Individuals, for instance, do not relate to another as a friend, a wife or a husband in a real way. There is self-deception involved albeit unnoticed. In fact it is the impression, whether positive or negative, that one has of the person which separates him or her from the other. So, no true contact or communion of the actual persons concerned exists as it becomes an affair of images or between images. When I keep on regarding you as a renegade because of a previous betrayal of trust, I do you wrong because deep within you have already undergone a sea change of character. So, I should not look at you with the eyes of the past, with the burden of the past. I should meet you now, in the present fact of your renewal.
Hence, to understand the origin and structure of thought being rooted in memory as time requires our utmost attention and observation. It is the awareness of the operation of the entire thought process that contains the seed of our liberation from its clutches. Thought is always old and never free, contrary to Voltaire’s pronouncement. The expression “liberty or freedom of thought” is thus a contradiction in terms.
The great modern sage Krishnamurti, who for more than sixty years expounded on this matter, put it pointedly: “To live with thought is like living in a room with a snake.” Thought is that dangerous snake. It is awareness or being totally watchful of its movement, of its whole activity that holds the key to the door to freedom.