Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Experience and Thought

flower picture

(from Alan Watts List, Jul. 1998 - the wording has been amended slightly to omit the names of the other participants since I am unable to contact them for permission.)

I don’t think there needs to be a problem with the concept of thought ‘emerging from nowhere’. (Though I prefer the idea of all thoughts being ‘around’ and ‘available’ and us ‘latching on to one or more’ at a particular moment.) A difficulty in seeing this arises from the way in which we view the ego. I do not agree that ‘thought is the thinker’ and ‘the ego, the thinker, is made up of the ideals, concepts, beliefs, essentially the memory banks of the person, and thought is the child of this’. Rather “Thought happens by itself, emerging from nowhere”.

When a thought arises, you have a choice as to whether to pick it up or not (this is where the responsibility for action begins). Habitual thoughts are ones which are firmly entrenched in memory and which we always do pick up. The ego is not an actual entity, it is essentially the process by which we identify with thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. If we had absolutely no preference of one thought, situation, or whatever over any other, we would be ego-less i.e. self-realised (or brain-dead!).

I’m not really organising my thoughts about all of this at the moment, just looking through the material and picking up on points as they catch my attention (a bit like experience really!) and for this I apologise. One point which I don’t think has been raised is that we can never have any experience of objects anyway, only of our perceptions and thoughts about those perceptions. The actual ‘reality’ of the objects themselves must forever elude us ( à la Kant and Schopenhauer). Accordingly, when someone says that he is interested in ‘the actuality’ of ‘my experience’... not its secondary symbolisation or interpretation’, the experience (in so far as subject - object interactions are concerned) is, in a sense, already secondary. Perhaps the only experience we can ever have of anything ‘real’ is in meditation, where there is essentially no object (when “thought has exhausted itself”).

It has been claimed that we are profoundly ignorant. This is of course a normal and reasonable stance. However, it is another idea to which we are laying claim. We think we have to acquire knowledge (by reading, discussing, listening to those wiser than ourselves etc.), as though we have to continue collecting bits of information for all of our lives in the hope that, at some point (preferably before we die), this will somehow reach a critical mass and we will become wise. On the contrary, it is the contention of Eastern philosophies that we have to get rid of all of these. When all of the ideas and thoughts have been dropped, then we will realise that true knowledge was always available and, indeed, is an aspect of our true nature. So yes, perhaps ‘shutting up and observing’ is the best we can do.

(Incidentally, it is sometimes said that we should ‘deliberately stop thinking’ during meditation. This is not really possible. What should be done is just give the thoughts no attention. Rather as you don’t rush outside to see who’s in every car that passes by your house, you don’t pick up each thought and play with it. This is not active but passive.)

A musician might speak about melodies emerging and flowing through his fingers without his control. Yes! As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “I do nothing at all; all action is only the senses moving amongst sense objects.” Fantastic though this seems at first impression, it is possible to see for oneself the truth of this. How could a pianist do what he does? We do not even know how we move a finger. It happens, but are ‘we’ doing it? Watch yourself making a cup of coffee - really just watch, with a totally empty mind and full attention - and see.

I agree with the analysis of the ‘nano-second when the pristine energy of the universe enters the body etc.’ It is not intellectual enlightenment; it is beyond thought, beyond ego; it is the Self recognising itself. As Eliot puts it,

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

(Four Quartets: Dry Salvages V)

Return to list of topics in Messages from the Past .

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012