Lost in thought


I am motivated by two things. One is to do things that are pleasurable in themselves, like eating nice food or watching a good film. These are often activities that I need to pay for. The other motivation is to do things that are likely to bring me happiness in the future, like working so that I can afford to buy nice food or rent a film.

Like most other people I spend a lot of time thinking, and I would put thinking in the second category of ‘Things done to help bring me happiness in the future’. I don’t find thinking especially pleasurable and, unlike eating, it isn’t something I would do for its own sake.

I also think a lot because I have no choice. It seems that humans can’t stop thinking. When I drift away into my own world I am oblivious to how I am feeling. If I am thinking of something nice then I suppose this must be pleasant and I do very occasionally catch myself smiling at some thought. However, I more often catch myself wincing at some imagined event, like breaking my leg in a crunching tackle while playing football. Sometimes I even murmur a sudden ‘NO!’, when a vision of me vaulting over the railings of an 8th floor balcony comes to mind.

Thinking is something we all do habitually and find hard to turn off. Even when I wake up in the morning, or during the night, I become aware that my mind has been having a long and tiresome conversation with itself. This internal monologue has often struck me as a strange thing. Surely if I know something then it shouldn’t be necessary to communicate it to myself in words. Is one part of me speaking to another part of me? Its as if there were not one person in my head but two, one speaker who rambles on and on, and one listener who has no choice but to listen.

Sometimes I become interested in the possibility of gagging this talker for a while. Then I re-read Sam Harris’s articles on Mindfulness to see if the intervening 6 months have given me a better understanding of it. However, my interest never lasts long enough for me to actually give Sam Harris’s suggestions a try. Watching my breath just doesn’t grab me.

On top of this lack of appeal is the fear of deceiving myself. If I spend enough time sitting on my bum and contemplating my navel then I might actually see the light. What worries me is that this light may not be actual enlightenment but my own wishful thinking shining forth. After all, I am just as capable of brainwashing myself as the silliest Californian tree-hugger. Things I read win me over far too easily. The frivolity of my mind is frightening.

Some Buddhist monks apparently become calm by looking at a stone for a long time. Quite how they keep their attention on something so unchanging as a stone is a mystery to me. And isn’t staring at a stone just a little like staring at a TV screen? I’m not sure why one is considered chicken soup for the soul while the other is poison. Maybe it’s because you tend to lose yourself while watching TV, whereas you remain aware of your own presence while looking at a stone. Perhaps it is the very dullness of the stone that makes it a good object for producing calm since it is not interesting enough to lose yourself in.

I think being aware that you are alive is the aspect of meditation that I like. I have often thought how odd it is to spend your life on activities like reading books, watching TV, surfing the internet and writing blogs, activities in which you disappear off your own radar for hours on end. Such a life seems to me more suitable for a brain in a vat than for a flesh and blood person. I suppose if you find these activities enjoyable in themselves then they are worth doing. After all, doing something for the enjoyment must be the best reason for doing anything. However, for me these activities have very little emotional content. I can read articles on the internet for hours and it doesn’t make me particularly happy. The truth is that I am not really aware of what I’m feeling, if anything, while reading.

Occasionally I do become aware that I am actually, physically alive. Last weekend I went hiking with some Japanese friends who spend their working week stuck in an office. While ascending through some woods one of them, only half jokingly exclaimed, ‘I’m alive!’ I knew what she meant. For the first time in perhaps a week she was aware of where she was and what she was doing and both the place and the activity were enjoyable.

Whether the charm of being aware that you are alive can stay for longer than a few moments, I don’t know. Maybe it suffers from the Law of Diminishing Returns and it soon wears off.


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