Thoughts without a Thinker

The following is another example of the things I write in my Morning Pages. Sometimes, it’s amazing what streams forth when the space and time is offered.

Another morning, three more pages… What to write today?

It’s interesting how many thoughts and feelings flutter in a quiet moment. I suppose the point is that they’re always fluttering by, but usually, we collude; we run along with them, often at breakneck speed. However, if you just sit for a moment and close your eyes, not “thinking”, thoughts will come rushing in of all types. Perhaps, part of the lesson to draw from this is that many (all?) of our thoughts are thoughts without a thinker. The mind whirs along, churning through content, but that doesn’t require an “I” to be there, actively making it happen. You might point and say that these are the products of the Unconscious. However, there are problems with that. Positing the Unconscious is saying that there is an unknown/unknowable puppetmaster behind much of our psychic life. First, the unknown/unknowable problem is one that is never clearly analyzed in the psychology and philosophy I have read. There’s a big difference. If unknown, it’s possible to be known, and we merely have to find the right way to approach it. If so, the mysterious nature, nigh on supernatural, fades precipitously. If unknowable, the Unconscious stands supreme at the same level as the supernatural. It is something that cannot be approached by any epistemological means. You may as well say that God has put these thoughts in your head in this case. It amounts to the same problem–the ineffable. F’ that.

Here’s an alternative–a way out of the fly jar, perhaps. Both of these are taking thought and thinking as having a thinker. It’s almost a grammatical necessity to have an agent at work with these terms. The Unconscious merely becomes agent when the more familiar conscious agent cannot be said to have “thought”, i.e. actively crafted these thoughts. However, what if thoughts arise without an active creator involved? What if they simply pop up and grow from the soil, water, and air, the ecosystem, of the mind? Then, “the unconscious” and thoughts themselves become radically different. Now, the problem is no longer to find the thinker behind the thoughts and unmask him/her/it. Rather, it is to learn to sit with the myriad thoughts in the mind and no longer water the nettles and weeds with collusion, attachment, and reaction.


Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed. –Henepola Gunaratana, as quoted in “Wake up to Your Life” by Ken McLeod

May this help you sit calmly with all of your thoughts–without collusion, attachment, and reaction.


Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

– My shortened mantra of the precepts

“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.

Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.


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