Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Types of thoughts
Francis Lucille

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(Dialogue constructed from private emails exchanged April 1995)

It seems to me that 'thinking' is one of the greatest obstacles to enlightenment. All the masters say that there is, in truth, nothing to be done - but manas will not have it so! How should we cope with thinking?

There are three kinds of thoughts:

1. Practical thoughts, which are useful in conducting our business or our daily life, like, for instance, "I need to get some gas". This type of thought should not be suppressed (we don't want to run out of gas!). Once it has been given due consideration and the required steps have been taken, these thoughts leave us spontaneously.

2. Thoughts related to the Ultimate, to our understanding of the non-dual perspective, such as "there is, in truth, nothing to be done". These thoughts come from the Ultimate. If we welcome them, they purify the mind from its dualistic conditioning and eventually take us back to their source. They bring about clarity and give us an adumbration of the bliss which is inherent to our real nature.

3. Thoughts related to the notion of being a personal entity, such as desires, fears, doubts, which includes day-dreaming and other kinds of wishful thinking. Some thoughts of this third kind are apparently innocuous and, for this reason, difficult to detect in the beginning. A strong emotion conducive to suffering and disharmony such as jealousy or fear will be easily detected, whereas I may indulge for some time, without noticing it, into picturing myself on the beaches of the French Riviera with a beautiful companion.

It is a common and frequent error to consider any kind of thought as an obstacle to self-realization. The thoughts of the third kind are the only ones that are obstacles to being knowingly established in the Absolute. There are two ways to deal with these thoughts as they arise:

A. If we are not yet convinced that we are not a limited personal entity, whenever we notice such a thought, we should attempt to find its source, the ego. Of course, our attempt to catch the ego fails, as Ramakrishna points out, which takes us directly to the non-existent center of the onion. At this moment, the ego vanishes and we experience our innate freedom (for what looks like a very short moment). This glimpse at the truth reinforces our conviction that we are not a personal entity.

B. Once we are convinced that we are not a personal entity, the thoughts of the third kind usually keep reoccurring for some time as a matter of habit, in the same way as inertia keeps an electrical motor running after its power cord has been unplugged. In this case, there is no need to investigate the origin of these thoughts; we can simply drop them as soon as we notice them.

One type of thought that we usually regard as necessary is 'planning' but it seems that this is not quite 'being in the present' as we usually understand it. In your terminology, presumably as long as one keeps the thinking clearly in category 1 (practical) and excludes category 3 (desires etc.), then it is perfectly OK?

Exactly. This kind of thinking is not an endless one. After fulfilling its task, it ceases.

Another example that occurred to me is not so clear-cut however. This relates to day-dreaming. On the face of it, it seems that this is always negative, taking one out of the present and into imagination and duality. However, can it not also be creative, as for example with Kekulé, when he realised the structure of the benzene ring during a period of day-dreaming. How exactly does this fit into the structure you have outlined?

The Kekulé example is not one of day-dreaming, but one of a meditative state, in which the thinking process is totally free to evolve and to explore all directions, all possibilities.

We may experience this creative state during the transition between sleep and the waking state, a transitory moment when volition is usually weak. There are numerous examples of creative discoveries or inspirational moments of this kind in the arts and sciences.

For instance, the famous logician Gödel is said to have made most of his discoveries during this kind of "dream". In this state, no notion of a personal entity is involved. We are the witness of a free thinking process which proceeds through visualizations, through geometrical" representations the so-called "right brain mode"), until these images, becoming more and more subtle, finally dissolve in understanding, in consciousness, being and happiness. Coming out of this non-experience, the scientist or the philosopher says "I understand", the artist feels inspired to write a poem or a symphony and the ordinary man has found the solution to a daily-life problem which was haunting him.

This meditative state may appear at first sight to be a dreaming state because the objects that are present to consciousness at that time are of a subtle nature; they are mental images and thoughts, not external sense perceptions as in the waking state. What makes this state a meditative state is the absence of a person. The subject OF this state is not present IN this state as a person acting, enjoying and suffering. The subject is a pure witness, pure Atman.

This state provides us with a natural key to meditation. When we wake up, this transitional state is often still present. If, instead of letting the concerns related to the objects of the waking state gradually take possession of our mind and overpower us, we simply let the fragrance of the transitional state permeate into the waking state, or, in other words, if we remain in the memory of the peace and freedom of deep sleep which is still present at that time for as long as this peace accepts us, it will become more and more clear that the waking state literally "wakes up in us" and that we don't wake up in it as previously believed. At a certain point, we will feel the continuous presence of that background of peace during our daily activities.

By contrast, what I call "day-dreaming" is a kind of mental activity through which the personal entity, escaping the actual and current situation which is experienced as "boring" or "painful", projects itself into a subtle, idealized and illusory world. For instance, while sitting alone at my desk in London on a rainy day, I picture myself lying on a sunny beach in Cannes and flirting with a splendid woman. This type of thought usually gets unnoticed, because, unlike other forms of egoistic thoughts and emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, greed, and so on, it doesn't apparently disrupt the social harmony or bring about any psychological suffering. After all, to take oneself for a person is very well accepted and encouraged in our Western societies, and the type of visualization referred to above is considered to be perfectly innocuous. For these reasons, this form of day-dreaming is an ideal hiding place for the ego, and any serious truth-seeker should be made aware this problem.

Although not quite the same thing, another problem I had was related to attention/ awareness and being in the present. When Manas is functioning correctly, just transmitting data received through the senses and presenting it to Buddhi without any commentary, one is very much in the present in the sense that one is totally aware of all that is going on around one. Even when one gives ones attention to the working surface of the task in front of one, one is normally still aware of other things going on; one just ignores them.

There is a story I have heard several times, however, about an arrow maker who had such 'single-pointed attention' that he was totally unaware of the king's wedding procession passing by outside. This story is presented as being positive, not negative! I understand that it is suggested that one can should?) also experience this in deep meditation but, having been practising TM now for some 5 or 6 years, my experience is that, when total stillness is reached and all thoughts have fallen away, I am nevertheless still aware of sounds outside. Does this mean I am not meditating correctly? I am possibly still being influenced by Ouspensky's teaching, which the School did partly propound back in the late sixties - early seventies. He had a term 'attention captured' which described the (negative) situation where some external event held so much attraction for the viewer that he had effectively lost control of the power of choosing where to direct his attention.

There are two kinds of meditation, meditation with an object and non-objective (or non-dual) meditation. The first kind of meditation may be useful as a preparation. It requires focusing the attention onto a specific object, gross or subtle, such as a statue or a mental image of the divine (path of devotion), various bodily sensations (Hatha Yoga), a series of sacred sounds (Mantra Yoga), a Koan, and so on. In this process, an effort, sometimes very subtle, is necessary in order to remove one's attention from the usual objects of desire and the ego is weakened.

When the goal of this path is achieved, the mind remains quietly focused onto the object without any effort. The mind experiences a stillness, an absence of thoughts and emotions other than the ones that refer to the object of meditation, even in the presence of the King who is not noticed by the arrow maker. However, the samadhi which is arrived at is a mind-created state which has a beginning and an end. Sooner or later, the yogin must come out of his samadhi. Unfortunately, the ego is still present, along with its cortege of fears, desires and pains.

A peculiar form of meditation with an object is one in which the object is a void or blank. In this process, an effort is made to keep the mind free from thoughts or sensations. Sometimes, a tool such as a mantra or some form of pranayama is used to achieve this end. As in any kind of meditation with an object, a weakening of the ego ensues, and the mind experiences for some time a blank state, an absence of thoughts and sensations, or simply an absence of thoughts, depending on the depth and of the nature of the samadhi. However, the samadhi which is arrived at is again a mind-created state which has a beginning and an end.

This form of meditation is often mistakenly believed to be non-objective meditation. This is not the case because the absence of objects (sensations and thoughts) is still a very subtle projected object. Although this state may temporarily bring some satisfaction and even unleash some mind powers (siddhis), it soon turns out to be a barren one; the meditator remains within the jail of the mind, the fullness of the heart remains unknown to him; this state is devoid of the absolute freedom, of the creative joyfulness and of the wonderful immortality of the natural non-dual state (nirvikalpa sahaja samadhi).

In non-objective meditation, our attention is drawn towards the non-objective, the ultimate subject, consciousness. This is accomplished as a result of understanding. At the first stage, the truth-seeker is asked to notice that the happiness he is really looking for is non-objective, which means "not contained in any object, gross or subtle". When this is understood, he is then asked to realize that the mind, which can only grasp mentations (thoughts and sense-perceptions), cannot have access to the non-objective realm. It follows that any attempt to secure the happiness he is looking for through the mind is bound to failure. When this is understood, the mind soon finds itself in a NATURAL state of stillness.

In this natural form of meditation, sensations or thoughts are neither sought nor avoided; they are simply welcomed and seen off. It could be described as a total openness, in which we are totally open to our sense perceptions, our bodily sensations, our emotions, our feelings and our thoughts. We could compare these mentations with the various characters of a play. As long as we find the play interesting, our attention is completely drawn by the actors on the foreground, but, if there is a weak moment, our attention progressively relaxes until we become suddenly aware of the background, of the stage. In the same way, as our attention becomes global, unfocused, open, disinterested, (and this detachment follows from our understanding that these mentations have really nothing to offer in terms of real happiness), our attention relaxes, until we become suddenly aware of the background, consciousness, which reveals itself as the ultimate immortality, splendor and happiness we were looking for.

It is not necessary for the actors to leave the stage in order for us to be aware of the background of the stage; similarly, the absence of mentations is not a prerequisite for awareness of the Self. However, in the same way as, when the actors leave and our attention relaxes, we have an opportunity to become aware of the background, there is an opportunity to "visualize" our real nature when a mentation merges into consciousness.

The inner attitude of welcoming which is the essence of non-objective meditation is also easily and naturally conveyed by "induction", in the presence of someone who has merged with the background, to a truth-seeker who has a genuine desire for it.

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