"Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don't take your thoughts too seriously" - Eckhart Tolle
I received a letter from a friend asking me for some clarifications about what I meant when I said recently during a class that ‘not all thoughts are created equal’. (A bit of a joke coming from a famous quote from the American Declaration of Independence that says ‘all men are created equal’.)
To understand what this means we need to understand some things about thoughts in general. Where do thoughts come from? How are they formed?
Thought is what gives a name, a definition, a meaning to the senses experiencing the world and that definition depends both: 1. On the nature of the experience; and 2. On our conditioning, on what we are taught, on the way the society that surrounded us while we were kids experienced the world.
For example, our thoughts about touching fire. Is it bad? It is painful. The thought ‘it is painful’ is an attempt to explain the result of the experience of touching fire and it is directly related to the experience. The thought ‘it is bad’ is based on conditioning: it is indirectly related to the experience but directly related to, for example, the way my mother talked when pain was involved. That pain is bad is a conclusion that does not depend on the experience of the pain. Under different circumstances, it could also be said that pain is good because it teaches us what not to do. To say that pain is good is also not directly related to the experience but directly related to a useful attitude that one can take in relation to pain.
The thought that tries to define an experience without any further additions I call ‘direct thought’.
The thought that does not depend on the experience but on conditioning I call ‘indirect thought’.
Direct thought does not affect our sense of well being. If I burn my hand with fire, the thought ‘it is painful’ does not makes me feel happy or unhappy. I will feel pain, which is not pleasant, but an unpleasant experience does not create unhappiness.
It is only the interpretation of the experience, other than direct thought – indirect thought – what has a bearing on our well being, on the way we experience the world, on our sense of happiness or unhappiness.
If after the direct thought ‘it is painful’, the indirect thought ‘how stupid I am’, or ‘it should not have happened’ or, ‘they will laugh at me’ appears, I will create unhappiness.
But instead, if after the direct thought ‘it is painful’, there is no other thought or, for example, the indirect thought ‘I’d better not put my hand there any more’ appears, a sense of contentment and confidence is created, which in the long run creates the sense of living a satisfactory, happy life.
Direct thought relates (mostly*) to things as they are and it is free of emotion: ‘It is hot’. ‘It is cold’. ‘Today is Friday’. ‘I am 49 years old’. It does not affect our well-being, and so it does not need to be touched.
Instead, indirect thought is a story, a belief, a conclusion that I create – that is created – based on my past, on my conditioning: ‘It should not be so hot’. ‘I hate cold’. ‘Fridays make me happy’. ‘I don’t want to get old’. Indirect thought IS the creator of my sense of happiness or unhappiness with which I will experience my life and the world, and because of this it’s very useful to pay really good attention to it. As Epictetus said 2,000 years ago: ‘It is not what happens to me but what I think happened that matters’. What I think happened is indirect thought.
When I say that not all thoughts are created equal I am talking from the understanding that one of the most important aims for my life is to be happy. (Happiness, in my vocabulary, doesn’t mean a ‘high’, but a continuous sense of harmony, balance and contentment with the whole of life.)
Because my aim is to be happy, then to say that not all thoughts are created equal means that not all thoughts have the power to bring me to my aim, and in my understanding all thoughts that are based on truth (however pleasant or unpleasant they may be) will bring me to my aim, to happiness, to a sense of harmony with life.
And so, to say that not all thoughts are created equal means that not all thoughts represent truth. Of course we all know this, but what we don’t know is: 1. That I AM NOT MY THOUGHTS; 2. That thoughts are an ‘energy’ that appears in the head; and 3. That if I am AWARE ENOUGH I can have the POWER TO CHOSE between my thoughts.
To make this last paragraph more clear, I will use a situation as an example:
Sitting at a bar, waiting for my date, a thought appears: ‘He/she is late’ (direct thought). The fact that he/she is late has no bearing on my state of being.
Then, a few minutes later (or a few milliseconds later) another thought appears in my head: ‘He/she does not care for me’ (indirect thought). This thought obviously will have an impact on my state of mind, on my well-being; in this case, it will create depression, sadness and/or unhappiness, etc. But an indirect thought is ONLY a conclusion based on my past experiences. It is not necessarily a reflection of what is actually happening. If I have ENOUGH AWARENESS**, I will not consider the thought to be me, which means that I will have the space to ask myself: Is it true? Is it really true that he/she does not care for me? How do I know? How can I be so sure?
Just because a thought appears in my head does not make it true.
Then, another thought appears: ‘I will wait another 5 minutes and then I will give him/her a call and see what happened’ (also an indirect thought, but one based on truth; a thought that will bring me closer to a sense of harmony with life).
– Not all thoughts are created equal.
– I am not my thoughts but I am the intelligence that can choose between them.
– All true thoughts will bring me to happiness.
* I say mostly because none of these statements are completely true. The statement ‘it is hot (or cold)’ is relative to my experience: hot and cold will be very different for somebody coming from the Northern countries compared to somebody coming from Brazil. The statement ‘Today is Friday’ is true only from the point of view of the planet Earth. The statement ‘I am 49 years old’ is true only if I take myself to be the body. So, going deeper into the study of thoughts, even direct thought is actually indirect thought, and it can be questioned. As Socrates said: ‘I only know that I know nothing’… but I will leave this for another time.
** Enough awareness, a deep understanding of this truth and lots of practice. With some intention, it is not so difficult to understand what is written here, but to actually put it into practice is really quite difficult and it needs lots of dedication and patience and desire for truth. But the result is much more than any effort; the result is harmony with life.