Thoughts are not things.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body.  Every second of our life, cells in the brain called neurons make millions of connections with each other, forming new pathways while old ones of no further value are extinguished.  Although areas of the brain are associated with certain activities, it would be a gross oversimplification to suppose that each thought has some direct relation to specific neurons firing in the brain.  There are no neural pathways that can be identified with specific thoughts.  Nevertheless, thought as specific neural pathways firing in the brain is a useful model when seeking higher consciousness or recovering from trauma.

Thought dominates and defines experience yet how often does anyone question the validity or reality of his or her thoughts?  When presented with new ideas we typically make an immediate judgment and believe it to be the correct one.  When meeting someone new our first impression, typically formed in seconds, determines how the other will be seen from then on.  When people were asked to memorize some ten or more symptoms of various diseases it was found physicians typically made a diagnosis after only three symptoms were presented.  Not hearing the rest, they ended up making the wrong diagnoses!  These are but two examples of how our thoughts about reality have replaced our direct experience of reality.

We all mistake our thoughts for reality.  In so doing we live and react to thought rather than the immediate experience presented through the senses.  Now most times our thoughts are in general harmony with the material of the senses.  But eventually our thoughts run afoul of reality and a crisis invariably ensues.

A typical mistake of the mind in crisis is to try to solve the dilemma on the level of thought.  It is common in cognitive therapy to have individuals question their false beliefs with the aim of altering their dysfunctional behavior and thinking.  Although somewhat effective such therapy fails to address the underlying problem that all thought is in some manner or another false, i.e. only relatively true. In meditation we aim to see all thought as emptiness and in so doing transcend thought altogether.

For some time I had difficulty changing my attitude toward thought until I started to see thought as nothing more than neurons firing in the brain.  This placed my thoughts as directly in the brain, having no existence in the outside world at all.  The result of this was a gradual lessening in the belief of the reality thought presented.  It also gave greater control over thoughts and the emotional storms they sometimes brought.

A major problem with believing thoughts exist outside the brain is that they are seen as something real that needs attention or fixing. A sufferer of PTSD, for example, may see danger everywhere and devise numerous strategies to avoid that danger, but if he or she were to view that imagined danger as just neurons firing in the brain, its power to terrify would diminish.  (Note, a significant element to the PTSD response is its intricate tie-in to the brain’s survival mechanisms of flight or fight.  This gives a greater biological urge to the belief that imagined danger is real.  Nevertheless, retraining to see PTSD as just neuronal discharges that have no referent in the real world can have great benefit.)

In meditation one can also be bothered by thoughts that arise as visions, hallucinations, fantasies, revelations or illusory sensations.  Known as makyo in zazen, these may impede the seeker who believes they exist outside their brain as something real.  But if makyo are seen as nothing more that neuronal discharges these distractions can more readily be overcome.

Treating thoughts as neurons firing in the brain with no real existence can aid in meditation and healing from trauma.  If this process is faithfully applied it will eventually arise that your beliefs about yourself, too, are nothing more than a conglomeration of thoughts.  You will begin to see that the ego, or sense of self, has no permanent or substantial existence.  As this realization deepens you will be closer to letting go of the self as a point of consciousness, and realizing the no self of unlimited spatial consciousness.

Notes

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