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How to Think About Thoughts

2017 April 23
by Ian Welsh

I wanted to title this “The Thoughts Are a Lie,” but it wouldn’t be true. Not entirely. Some thoughts are a lie, some thoughts aren’t, many are half-truths.

To mangle a pair of modern metaphors, thoughts are context-sensitive help combined with auto-correct, and both are based on emotional charge and salience.

For example, my mind, on hearing or even thinking the phrase “My name is…” will automatically fill in “Inigo Montoya.”

In the 70s, when I was young, dinosaurs still—-I mean, scientists announced that cholesterol was bad, mmmmkay, and margarine became a thing. Not only was it “better for you” than butter, it was a heck of a lot cheaper.

The butter producers struck back with an ad, and as a result, whenever my brain hears “butter” it automatically fills in “tastes better, naturally!” (My search engine fu has failed to find a copy online.)

Thanks, Brain. (Also, as best I can tell, margarine is probably worse for you than butter, just like most artificial sweeteners are worse for you than just chowing down on sugar.)

This same process is at work with all sorts of stuff for everyone. (The following examples aren’t necessarily personal.)

At the personal level, we may see a friend’s face as cold if it passes over us and think he’s angry at us. On inquiry, he’s just having a bad day. A pack of boisterous young men may trigger non-verbal fear; or a black man. Or white men with buzz cuts, depending on our history and politics.

We may see someone with long hair and think “damn hippy.” Or we see a man in a suit and think “fucking suit” or have feelings of deference (or both). If you think most people don’t defer to men in suits, you’re quite wrong; I used to amuse myself by dealing with the same person dressed up and dressed down. Not only was the treatment almost always completely different, most of them didn’t even recognize that they’d dealt with me before.

The people who impressed me were the ones who treated me the same no matter how I was dressed.

Thoughts are conditioned. What has been impressed upon us in the past plays out in the present and the future, whether it is appropriate or useful. The worst of this is when the original conditioning was mixed. The word love is like this for most people. Their parents told them they loved them, then punished or mistreated them, sometimes horribly.

They love their parents, they also hate them, and they are scared, and love brings up all of these feelings and chains of thought which have nothing to do with the current relationship, and everything to do with the relationships where they learned to love.

Thoughts are, thus, best regarded as information before the senses, like any other information. The same is true of feelings. They may be true and valid, or they may be crap–prejudices or emotional battery from the past, completely inappropriate to the current situation.

The thoughts, and often the emotions, are a lie.

There’s a strain of modern “thought” which says that all emotions are valid. Well, they’re all real, they aren’t all appropriate or accurate. (That said, if you feel scared around someone, I’d generally obey that particular emotion and get the fuck away, especially if you aren’t sure you can take them in a fight.)

This is true on a personal level, and it is true on a political level. People’s political opinions are conditioned reflexes in almost all cases: They have not spent time carefully thinking them through. Someone they respect told them something, they identify with that person, they adopt that belief. Or they read it somewhere and never thought about it, or it’s the most common belief in their peer group, and if they want to be liked (and they do) they’d best say it; and after a while they believe it.

Heck, often immediately. If you like someone, you tend to accept their beliefs as valid unless you have strong reason not to. In fact, one of the core functions of being a friend is validating the other person. You may occasionally push back, but it tends to be occasional. (The sort of teasing relationships many people have don’t contradict this.)

Humans are bundles of conditioning, and we run with that conditioning most of the time, not thinking about it or challenging it. That conditioning manifests as thoughts and emotions (which are just feelings in the body), and we take them as valid–even true–most of the time, because they are our feelings.

But very often they aren’t. If they are, it’s by chance, we sure haven’t validated them.

Most thoughts don’t require us to believe them, and we’re happier if we don’t. In most cases, if we treat thoughts as if some random dude had just spewed them, we’d be more likely to judge them, or dismiss them, properly.

And, frankly, most people are happier that way.

One of the secrets of suffering is that you suffer for anything you identify with. If someone says “favorite politician is a corrupt bozo,” you only care if you identify with that politician. You’re only bothered.

You think thoughts are “yours” and you identify with them, and you suffer because of that identification, when if some random bozo said the same thing, you might well laugh it off.

Reduce your identification, don’t assume validity, and thoughts lose a lot of their power to harm you, to control you and to misdirect you. Given that most of your thoughts are just conditioned reflexes, from conditioning you did not choose, that is the correct way to treat them.

The same, in general, is true of feelings, with a partial exception for fear (if you fear someone in your life, you’re probably right and shouldn’t take the chance you aren’t, get out).

Treat thoughts and emotions this way, and you’ll be far happier, too.


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13 Responses
  1. April 23, 2017

    in “The mind illuminated: A complete meditation guide integrating Buddhist wisdom and brain science”, Culadasa gives a picture (3 pictures, really – figure 57, pages 411-413) of the changes in worldview he says can be produced by practicing the program of development he delineates. There are a lot of circles and arrows in the illustrations. Here are the captions for the three stages:

    p. 411 Three assumptions – that I am a separate Self, that I live in a world of relatively enduring and self-existent “things”, and that my happiness comes from the interactions between my Self and this world of things – are shared throughout the subminds making up the mind-system. They provide the foundation for our sense of meaning and purpose in life.

    p. 412 The “true” nature of reality, as revealed through Insight experiences, directly conflicts with all these assumptions: there are no “things”, only process; all we ever really experience are the fabrications of our own minds; the Self I think I am is as impermanent and empty as everything else; the world can never be the source of my happiness. When these truths are realized by the deep unconscious minds, it is severely disruptive.

    p. 413 As Insight matures, individual sub-minds reorganize their internal models to accommodate the new information. This transformation brings about a completely new worldview, life takes on a new and deeper meaning and purpose than ever before, and there is a much greater sense of ease, regardless of what may happen.

    The thought balloon on page 413 states, “I am not separate. Everything arises and passes away due to causes and conditions. This body and mind are not things, but causal process. Having arisen due to causes and conditions, they are causes and conditions in their turn Ultimate truth is knowable, but not through ideas and concepts. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

    On January 13, 2017, Culadasa/John Yates tweeted:

    “A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World” by David R. Loy. I purchased it after one of his talks. This is an excellent work. Here he clearly explains why the emerging global culture needs the Buddha’s teachings, and why Buddhism needs Western culture and science. With the proper combination of both, humankind may even survive its successes and excesses.

  2. Mel permalink
    April 23, 2017

    “The same, in general, is true of feelings, with a partial exception for fear (if you fear someone in your life, you’re probably right and shouldn’t take the chance you are, get out.)”

    Well, maybe. I feared dentists in my life, based on some credible evidence from I formed the fear. But that fear led me to ruining my teeth. Looking back, there were times between episodes when I could have evaluated that fear, and maybe have abandoned it and gone on to live better. It happens that I didn’t.

  3. Willy permalink
    April 23, 2017

    @mistah charley, ph.d.

    Abraham Low preached something similar, emotional control by using mental discipline. The idea was to allow inevitable initial emotional flareups to just happen, then pass without letting the mind get wrapped around them to intensify them. He believed that by practicing on trivial situations one could eventually strengthen themselves to be able to handle the tough stuff.

    But whenever I’d see Clinton or Trump doing the Dale Carnegie, trying to earn my vote by claiming to be my new best friend (and their opponent my worst enemy), I knew full well it was bullshit and I would get emotionally worked up knowing that millions of others would be conned by this. Maybe that’s the tough stuff.

  4. April 23, 2017

    There is a thinkload of zen, and the reverse, here.

  5. April 23, 2017

    Good post.

    In the second line of the paragraph below the video, you probably meant to write “butter” instead of the second “margarine.”

    In the second line of the next to last paragraph, you probably mean to write “the chance that you aren’t,” not “are.’

  6. Ian Welsh permalink*
    April 23, 2017

    Thank you Philip. Corrected.

  7. Tom W Harris permalink
    April 23, 2017

    Come on everybody, do The Metathink Shuffle!!!

  8. Tom permalink
    April 23, 2017

    Looks like a 2nd round showdown between Macron and Le Pen. Macron is the most likely to win.

  9. Kevin permalink
    April 23, 2017

    Is what you are describing not the elementary functioning of ideology?

    A lack of imaginary identifications, in terms of psychoanalysis, can lead to a psychotic breakdown. I’m not sure that this would be a happy path, but it would probably be a more authentic path. Other schools of thought suggest that sociopathy is associated with a total lack of imaginary identifications.

    On the other hand, I know people who are totally consumed by the imaginary identifications that you describe. They are rather happy and clueless. But they are pure products of their environment – not-entities as such.

  10. V. Arnold permalink
    April 24, 2017

    mistah charley, ph.d.
    April 23, 2017

    One who understands the Dharma needs no explaination or clarification; it will come or not, but never by intellectualization…
    One knows it in their gut or not at all

  11. DMC permalink
    April 24, 2017

    There’s a case to be made that Existentialism is fundamentally the Dharma come west. Of course one might argue it had been coming west since the “Milindarepa” and Pyrrho of Elis but its taken the west this long to find philosophical Essentialism unsatisfactory. We so wanted to live in a universe where everything that existed proceeded from God’s Will, rather than one in which we had to admit that any meaning phenomenal existence has is imposed by the mind.

  12. Willy permalink
    April 24, 2017

    It’s about controlling obsessive thinking for the sake of one’s own inner peace.

  13. Rich permalink
    April 24, 2017

    I imagine Obama found serenity in this manner when he ordered the execution of the 8-year old daughter and 16-year old son al-Awlaki, albeit amply and simply choosing not to identify in order to achieve some wretched level of Zen serenity or cold indifference whatever or whichever conditioning, reflex, reaction apply.

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