Witnessing Thoughts: You Are Not What You Think!
One night, many years ago while a graduate student at a prestigious University in England, while suffering incapacitating depression and anxiety, the great spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle recounts that he had the thought, ” I can’t live with myself anymore.” Then another thought arose, “Who is this self I can’t live with?” If there is an “I”, then who is the self that I can’t live with it? By witnessing thoughts, the absurdity of his identification with this construct of a fixed and permanent self became so apparent, that all at once the whole structure shattered and he had an “enlightenment” experience. In other words, his sense of self was no longer limited to the transient contents of his thinking mind and the little “I” or personal “ego” opened to incorporate an infinitely larger and universal perspective.
Well… let’s face it, most of us, including myself, will probably not experience such profound spontaneous awakenings in this lifetime…though it certainly is possible. For most of us, it will require many years of training in meditation or other disciplines. For whatever reason, Eckhart Tolle was “ripe” for such an awakening, possibly as a result of the tremendous suffering that he underwent. Regardless, for the rest of us, it is imperative that we start to at least recognize that our own personal suffering, largely emanates from our close identification and attachment to transient mental phenomena that traverse our mental screen….thoughts, feelings, internal dialogues, recollections, anticipations, judgements etc.
In recent years, modern western psychology has increasingly embraced philosophies and techniques that originate from a 2500 year old tradition dating back to the teachings of Sidhartha Gautama Shakyamuni; the historical Buddha. Most notably the practice of mindfulness has emerged as a pragmatically useful approach that can have the effect of helping people to pay attention to contents of mind. By learning how to watch one’s own mind, one comes to gradually dis-identify with mental phenomena. In other words, a gap begins to open between the observer and the observed such that one can learn in effect, to not take these phenomena so personally. This also implies that one comes to learn the limits of control. If there is any doubt, ask yourself, what will you be thinking in five minutes?? Of course, you cant know since for the most part, thoughts rise and fall of their own accord. They just happen. There is no little person situated at a master control module deciding what thoughts to think. And if that was true, then one would have to ask, who controls that little person?
In the Kwan Um Zen tradition of Korean origin, of which I am a practitioner, we contemplate the question, “Who am I?”. One quickly exhausts all answers that arise from the rationale mind since any answer is subject to transient conditionalities and one cannot find any self that exists outside of some relative context. So if my answer is I am Dr. Jerry Duvinsky, clinician, author, father, friend or anything else…all of answers are things about me that are limited in time and certain conditions. They don’t come close to defining in essence who I am. Who am I before I was born? A Zen master might ask, “Before thinking mind appears, is your mind the same or different from mine? If you say “same” I will hit you thirty times, if you say “different” I will hit you thirty times!” How would you answer?? Your rationale mind would be sent reeling since nothing you could say could provide a meaningful answer. You have arrived at what is called “Don’t Know Mind”. A brief crack between thoughts. The practitioner is exhorted to maintain this don’t know mind. Of course while it sounds so easy, it is very difficult.
As a clinician, it is not my intent to train my patients in Zen doctrine. However, my patients are exhorted to watch contents of mind from a perspective of detached interest, non-judgment and open acceptance. And so if a difficult emotion arises, simply label the feeling, and watch it ebb and flow. Pay deep attention to the conversations that emerge from those feelings, hopefully without becoming ensnared in the drama of mind (see previous post Mindfulness and Shame. With continuous practice, one increasingly becomes able to stand apart from their experience without control or resistance…simply watching. And ultimately learning there is a much greater awareness that is not tarnished by the dust that so desperately wants to cling to the mirror of the mind.