Triggers that help you most are the ones that make you think the most…
The Dhammapada says: ‘You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts you make your world.’
So all we need to do is to change our thinking, and so will our life. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If it were that easy all of us would have done it by now. But apparently it is not all that simple. There seems to be something that prevents us from changing our thoughts. Moreover, if we had the power to change our thoughts whenever we wanted to, there would be chaos in our lives. Only thoughts that are dysfunctional and destabilizing need to be changed.
- We are not just thoughts; but feelings and emotions, instincts, desires and impulses, and these are more resistant to change. Some emotions come from deeper parts of our brain over which we have no control. When in the grip of emotion our thinking goes astray. Without emotion our thoughts will be dry. We need emotion for action. But the kind of thoughts we think determines the kind of emotion we generate. Unless we become aware of our emotions, work backwards and change the thoughts that drive them, we will be at the mercy of our emotions.
- Thoughts have some characteristics. One of them is tenacity. Thoughts don’t take our permission to enter our minds. Once they enter they rarely want to leave. They want to make our minds their home. They then keep attracting their friends, other like-minded thoughts, to reinforce themselves. Over time they become strong and begin dictating to us. They develop an identity of their own and take centre stage. This is especially true of superstitions, political ideologies, and cultural, social and religious beliefs. Unless we spend sufficient time analysing and understanding them, we will not be able to prevent such thoughts from becoming our masters. In fact, we would not even realise that our lives have been taken over by such thoughts.
- There are different categories of thoughts. There are facts, opinions and stories. We often mistake one for the other, leading to friction in relationships. Many a time they collapse into each other. ‘I like that movie’ is an opinion masquerading as a fact. We can argue over opinions, but not over facts. But when opinions are believed to be facts we have endless disputes. Most of us believe our opinions to be facts, the ultimate truth, and the last word on the subject. We think that our likes and dislikes are the truth. If we don’t like some people we are surprised how others like them. If we like a place we are again surprised how anyone can dislike it. If we can get this one realisation, that our opinions are not facts, it will go a long way in harmonizing relationships. This means that we are comfortable with anyone expressing any opinion. We may try to convince them that our opinion is better than theirs, but if we fail to do so there are no hard feelings since our opinion is only an opinion, however dear it may be to us. The opposite opinion may also be valid, which we will never be able to see, blinded as we are by our own opinions.
- But there are exceptions to this rule. We have to convert perceived opinion to fact in certain circumstances for it to make an impact on our lives. If someone tells you that you will make it big in life don’t think that it is only his opinion. Believe it to be a fact that will come true. Believe that he is predicting your real future. When your mind tells you that you are not very smart, that is an opinion. If you take it to be the truth you will get depressed. It is not an unchangeable truth. If a truth can be changed then it is not a truth. How do you distinguish a fact from an opinion? Facts point to the truth. Fact is one. Opinions are many. Opinions can be altered, can change over time. Truth cannot. To seek god is the purpose of life is someone’s opinion. If you take that to be the ultimate truth, go and join a monastery you may be miserable, if you are not cut out for a monastic life. Maybe your calling in life is to be a dancer or a scientist. Your monastery is the dance floor or the lab.
- We have abstract thoughts and concrete ones. By superimposing abstract thoughts onto the concrete ones we enrich life. Purpose and meaning are abstractions. When we try to find purpose in concrete objects, like this universe, we can turn this universe into a divine space. Otherwise this universe will be empty and meaningless. Thoughts are also classified as negative and positive depending on their orientation. Negative thoughts also serve a purpose. Some of them protect us. They also point us in the direction of positive thoughts. They tell us what not to think. We also have higher thoughts and lower thoughts. We need such a classification to direct our thinking.
- Most of our thinking happens at the subconscious level. Thinking happens to us. Thoughts appear and we immediately make it personal. We think that we have thought the thought. In reality we just usurped the thought that appeared from nowhere and made it ours. We claim ownership of thoughts as though it were our personal property. New thoughts come to us, we don’t go to them because we don’t know where they are. We don’t know how our brain produces thoughts that we never thought of before. But we need to create the conditions for these new thoughts to emerge. All we need to do is pose ourselves questions and wait for answers. If the question is intense enough the answers will come.
- To unlearn we have to relearn. We have to overwrite the programs already written. We may not be able to erase the old programs. But as long as they are in the background we are safe. To push them into the background we have to create new thoughts and through repetition strengthen them. They will be attacked by the old programs, which will try to dislodge them. It is not wise to fight with the old thoughts. It’s better to focus on strengthening the new ones. We have to starve the old thoughts of attention. The more we attend to the new and ignore the old we will act from the new thoughts. Trying to erase an old, unwanted belief is to dwell on it, which will only give it strength, since attention is focused on it. We are not endowed with the capacity to erase memories, since that would threaten our survival. We cannot forget, but we can weaken the thoughts we don’t want by not paying attention to them. Once weakened they will not have the energy to come to the surface of our consciousness, feed on our attention and attack us. If we ever have a severe negative thought attack, it would be wise to get outdoors and exhaust ourselves physically before the negative thought takes us over and makes us powerless.
- There are certain beliefs that are very tenacious and will take considerable time to be free from. Take the example of caste. We think we belong to a certain caste. That is only an idea that is believed to be the truth by a certain group of people. The rest of the world does not believe in it. There was no such thing as caste ten thousand years ago. Where did it come from? It is only a thought. But it is no ordinary thought. It gives us an identity, albeit a false one. It seemingly tells us who we are. Such thoughts trap us. But, if we truly want to escape from their clutches, we can. When we become aware that it is only a thought and not the truth about who we are, and that we don’t need it for an identity; gradually we can come out of its tight, vice-like grip.
- Thinking is the key in transforming the mind. It is the precursor to doing. A shift in perspective comes first. If your perspective on life is about becoming famous then your feelings and actions will follow accordingly. If your perspective on life is that service is the highest good then your actions will be in the direction of service. Action follows feelings, which emerge from perception. That is why we need to change our perception first. This will allow the feelings that support the perception to arise, which in turn will lead to action.
- We need conceptualized thinking to guide us. Without having an idea such as honesty we cannot live an honest life. We wouldn’t know what an honest life means without having a word for it. Without the idea of non-violence we cannot have a non-violent world. We see life through our thoughts. They act like screens through which life is filtered. So the quality of our thoughts matters. But to relate to the world through concepts and ideas is only one of the ways, not the only way.
- The intellect has taken over our lives. We live more and more in a world of concepts and ideas. The mental world is unlimited, unlike the physical world. But to live most of our lives in a conceptual universe will create imbalance. We are not mere minds, but bodies and spirits too. We are not just thinking machines, but also feeling beings. To be able to relate pre-verbally, without thinking and labeling, to the physical universe, including our physical body, is a skill we need to develop. Non-conceptual relationship is a mystery we need to explore as it is not a mind-based relationship. We then relate more from an intuitive space without the intermediation of thoughts. The feelings of oneness with the universe, which some people experience, come from such a relationship. Concepts take us away from the mysteriousness of this relationship. To experience life without conceptualizing, labeling, naming, understanding or finding meaning will take us closer to that mysterious space.
- Conscious thinking is not natural to us. Life is designed for minimum expenditure of energy. We think only when it becomes necessary, as the occasion arises. It is not something that we enjoy doing for its own sake. Most of our thinking is at the workplace since that gives us our bread and butter. Even if we decide to think about our life, soon we get bored as thoughts do not come easily. It is easier to read other people’s thoughts and agree with them. We have to coax the mind to yield its treasures. It will do so grudgingly at first, but becomes generous as we show more and more genuine interest. For thoughts to emerge from within us we need enormous patience. We have to learn to wait. Waiting is testing time. If we pass this test we will be rewarded with insights. We have to keep the question alive as long as it takes. Perseverance is the key. It requires a certain force for deeper thoughts to emerge from within. This force is generated by the focus we have on the question. This means we must be deeply interested in the question. The deeper the spaces from where the questions come from, deeper the answer will penetrate within us.
- Strength of character requires certain thoughts to be stronger than other thoughts. A weak-willed person is one who is not able to resist certain powerful thoughts. The will is also composed of thoughts and feelings. We can be weak-willed in one area and strong-willed in other areas of our life. We cannot keep on using willpower to overcome negative thoughts in the long run, as it consumes high levels of energy. It is less energy consuming if we could strengthen the thoughts that are beneficial to us, so that they can resist the unwanted ones, instead of fighting with the unwanted ones all the time.
- We are attached to thoughts that come from within us. We believe them to be true. To believe every thought that is produced by our mind is folly. Unfortunately they are very convincing. There is no guarantee that thoughts that emerge from our minds are necessarily true. We must test them for their veracity in the same manner we test another person’s statements. The mind is a great con man. It can make us believe that which is false and disbelieve that which is true. The mind is highly suggestible and is capable of believing any kind of nonsensical thoughts. To be able to discriminate between the false and the true is a lifelong endeavor. That is what maturity is all about. We have to learn from the wisdom and experiences of others. Learning by trial and error alone is a costly process.
- The mind sometimes resembles a battlefield. Hordes of negative thoughts will pitch tent and periodically make their onslaught. We need to first accept them as part of the design of life and then take steps to protect ourselves. For this we need our own army of thoughts that are strong enough to repel the invaders. During peaceful times we have to train this army and equip them with the latest weaponry. They will then be able to act as a protective shield and respond instantly when attacked. We also must know the invader’s tactics and strategies and the weapons in his armory. Once we recognise the attack patterns we can devise standard operating procedures to deal with them. The greatest danger is when these invaders come disguised as friends. It is during such times that we let our guard down and the fortress is breached. It is a cat and mouse game and we need to be one up on our clever opponent, who is not to be despised, but treated as a worthy warrior to battle with. Despise is his weapon, not ours. We cannot use his weapons to defeat him. It will only strengthen him.
- Finally and the most important is that the kind of thoughts we get depends on our identity, of who we think we are. Identity restricts our thinking and thereby our actions. It will present before us only those thoughts that are consistent with our identity. If we think we are intelligent, our mind will produce intelligent thoughts. If we identified ourselves as being average, our minds will give us average thoughts. The thoughts of a leader will be different from that of a follower, due to their identifications. An artist cannot think like a scientist and vice versa. To get thoughts on business you have to identify yourself as a businessman. If you think you are a small-time businessman you will get small-time thoughts. The self-image is critical to the nature of thoughts that the mind generates. As your identity, so your thoughts. As who you think you are changes, so will your thoughts.