When you pay attention to your mental behaviors, you will notice an underlying motivational theme: seeking. That seeking is motivated by a sense of lack, whether it be lack of certainty, security, lack of connection, lack of love. This lack instigates a process of seeking, which is our attempt to gain something; to gain or achieve a state generally characterized by the absence of the seeking process, which is another way of saying a state of plenitude.
To satiate this urge to fulfill ourselves, we seek out many things: relationships, objects, skills, hobbies, experiences, knowledge, pleasure, behaviors, environments, concepts or ideologies. All of these are things we seek to gain. Whether it be shopping for clothes, or meditation every morning and night, the motivation is the same – to feel fulfillment. We seek to stop seeking. The person who meditates, yet judges the shopper, is only fooling themselves – all activities are materialistic in concept, in the sense that materialistic gain is neither permanent, nor fulfilling (except perhaps very briefly), nor substantial. The spiritual practices are the same, in nature, as the materialistic practices. Those who say differently have not yet realized that their spiritual practice is possible only because of many environmental conditions falling into place, and if these conditions were to end, they would soon find themselves unable to practice, and also miserable. It is like running out of money to purchase one’s drug of choice. Whether that drug is meditation, books, video games, shopping, thinking, self-care, or positive attitude, it’s still a drug, and it’s purpose is still to free you from yourself. It won’t work.
The truth is, none of this will work. Anything that comes as a result of change is subject to further change, and thus, anything you do or achieve in order to be free from this suffering and seeking, will in fact perpetuate the cycle. This includes any realizations, epiphanies, or mental habits. Mental actions such as thoughts, beliefs, memories, experiences, etc. are actions, and thus they are changing – they are transient. They may be enjoyable, but they are lacking the ability to be sustained.
What I’m saying is that the desire for certainty, security, and freedom from your own suffering selves is not achievable. Why should human beings desire such an unachievable outcome? It’s as if cruel humor is ingrained in our psyche.
To answer this question, we need to first define truth (you’ll see why, soon). Truth is a condition of a relationship between two facts, namely a subjective fact called an idea and any other fact (be it subjective or ‘objective’). A fact is anything with ontological truth (meaning it exists). For something to be a fact, it must exist. That is the only condition The truth that we are typically referring to when we discuss truth is called logical truth, as opposed to ontological truth (and I will be referring to logical truth simply as ‘truth’). Truth is a particular type of relationship between the specific fact called an idea, and any other fact(s) wherein the meaning contained within the idea accurately represents the properties of the fact the idea is about. In other words, the idea corresponds to the fact. This is called correspondence theory. There are some objections to correspondence theory, namely, that in the idea itself there is no truth. Truth is a property of the idea’s relationship to some other fact, and because of this, there is no clue as to whether a belief is true in the belief itself. We can only determine the truth of a belief if we examine the fact which it is about. The objection, then, is this: truth should be discernible within the idea itself, if the idea is what we call true or false. Truth should not be a property only determined by examining the empirical object which it is about. This objection is borne due to the mistaken assumption that we can accurately discuss facts without discussing other facts that exist. Just because we speak of two facts, an idea and an object, does not mean they are as separate in reality as they are in our language. Categorization and division is practical, but to mistake our practical divisions as authentic divisions is a mistake. Reality is a system, and to isolate facts and talk about their ontological truth as if it is not related or dependent on other facts’ ontological truth is absurd. In other words, facts depend on each other to exist, and also depend on each other to define the specific nature of their existence. To speak about them as completely self-existing is a mistake. The theory of correspondence is actually the beginning of an improved version of the theory of coherence, wherein the idea must be not only internally coherent, but also coherent with reality as a single, unified system of facts.
We cannot think about a fact without creating a representation of it. When we think about a cup, we do so by recalling the properties that make a cup, a cup. But thinking of a cup does not create a cup. We cannot think up a cup which we can then use; the cup that is thought about is confined to the thought.
So, when we think about reality, or even ourselves, we are creating a representation within that thought. When we try to think about a thought, we create a thought which contains the representation of a thought. When we try to think a thought that is itself about itself, we cannot. This is illustrated with the analogy of a photo. If a thought is likened to a photo, then what the thought is about is liked to the image contained within the photo. When we think about our life, the thought is the photo and the memories are the contents of the photo. If we attempt to think about a thought that is itself about itself, it would be like having a photo which contains itself within itself. The best we can do is have a photo whose contents is an image of itself – a representation. An image is not the actual object, though. The photo can never completely contain itself, only a limited representation. The photo itself contains properties that are uniquely its own – spatial, temporal, causal, interactive, etc. and these properties cannot be contained within the image – they are uniquely the photograph’s itself. In this way, the photo is a substratum for the contents which it contains. Although we can have a photo which contains within itself a pixelated representation of itself, there is still a difference between the photo itself which is the substratum, and the pixelated representation which is a stratum within and dependent upon the substratum.
When we look for something permanent, secure, and certain, these concepts occur within the substratum of thought. This substratum is similar to a “sandbox” environment on a computer. In other words, it can contain within it content that may not be compatible with a second thought. This property allows us as much freedom as it does contradiction. It allows us to transcend the limits of our own dialectic, but also enables us to hold two or more contradictory beliefs. The content within the thought is its own little world, and thus, even concepts of eternity can occur within the momentary sandboxed thought. However, the thought itself – the photo itself rather than its pixels – has a particular property to it (or constraint) that the content does not have. While the content can be about any amount of time or even about past or future (and in fact past and future only exists within these sandboxes of thought) the thought itself occurs only in the present. The thought itself has the constraint of being in the present, because it is only in the present that facts can both exist and occur.
It is easy to identify (“I am that”) with the content within these thoughts. The thought can contain within it dimensions and qualities nonphysical and ineffable. When the thought occurs ” I am that” or even “That is real” what happens is that the content of the thought has a new addition to it: real-ness or me-ness.
The way in which this happens holds the answer to our question. When we have a thought, say, the concept of a human being, that is a thought filled with content. Now we have the thought “that is me”. What happens is that a new thought (or photograph or sandbox) is created, within which a representation of the thought “human being” is contained. Whereas before the thought of human being was all there was, now the thought of human being is contained within a larger box or photograph characterized by the thought “I am that”. Identification, then, is a thought that one can say acts on the first thought. Of course, thoughts are not actually little objects floating around in mind-space, but analogies that use the physical world to describe the psychic are the easiest to grasp.
We can see how thoughts can grow in complexity; representations within representations. Although we talk about them as if they are objects, the boundaries can also be described by processes, where the word “about” would take place of each boundary or level of thought. This would actually be more accurate because these boundaries can interact with each other, which is unclear when speaking about them as isolated sandboxes or photographs. In other words, rather than the thought “human being” contained within the thought “that’s me”, it could be described as an action: Identifying about remembering properties of human being. In other words: one is identifying with the memory of what it means to be a human being.
If we can become caught up in the content of these thoughts, how do we escape? Well, humans can think about thoughts, and since thoughts about thoughts are themselves thoughts, we can think about thoughts about thoughts about thoughts, etc. Whenever we think about a thought, we are adding a new level or layer upon the first thought that is “larger”, thereby creating for ourselves a larger context within which the first thought can be thought about. Whereas before the metacognition, we were thinking an idea, now we are thinking about thinking about an idea, turning the behavior “thinking about an idea” into the object of thought. So then, we can reduce a thought we find ourselves “in” to a thought we are looking “at” by adding another level of abstraction. When we meta-cognize, there is a phenomenological sensation of going from within the thought to outside of it, looking at it objectively. This is due to this process of adding a new layer to the current level of thought. Instead of “identifying about remembering the properties of being human”, it becomes “Observing (or recalling, or thinking about) identifying about remembering the properties of being human.” We have created a broader context within which the first process of thinking, rather than being the entirety of thought, changes to only the object of thought.
So, we can think thoughts which contradict beliefs, contradict experience, and contradict themselves. Specifically, this means we can search for a certainty or permanence outside of the present moment, despite its impossibility, causing us to fail as soon as we’ve started. The way out of this is reflection upon thoughts, as described above, otherwise called mindfulness of thought. When a thought occurs, one recognizes it as such, thereby creating a context outside of the current thought-boundary, turning the current thought boundary into a boundary within a larger boundary.
Who can practice mindfulness? Well, anyone who can think about thoughts can practice mindfulness. Every time a thought occurs, notice it. It’s that simple. The simple act of noticing turns the act of thinking into the object of thought.
Yet, after a while of practice, one will have a peculiar experience wherein this act of thinking about thoughts in order to create a larger context, collapses. At this point, there is no thinking about thoughts, there are only thoughts, and there is also freedom*.
This is why this happens: Suffering occurs when we think about thinking, because this is what is required to identify with or resist a specific event or experience (both of which are activities that cause one to suffer). There is, in suffering, the primary and secondary layer, if you will. Mindfulness adds a third layer, reducing the resisting or identifying to a mere object of a larger thought which adds the context “noticing”. This is the source of the “objective” quality of mindfulness. In practicing mindfulness, at some point, it occurs to the observer that they are merely adding another layer, and then there is the attempt to observe even this third layer, thereby creating a fourth. Yet, every outer layer is unobserved, because it is the “location” from which the observer is looking in, i.e. the context of the content. To look at the outermost layer (which is the context) one must reduce it to content, thereby creating a new, unobservable, broader context (i.e. an additional layer). This can go on infinitely, and at some point during the attempt to get to the “outermost layer”, thinking will collapse. There wasn’t really anyone looking in, there were only more and more complex thoughts, and once this process collapses, this becomes clear.
Important: I speak of thoughts as if they are things, and even compare them to things in order to explain them. I speak of layers as thought as if they are dimensions to these “things”. This is for simplicity’s sake. When I speak of thought, I mean to communicate any type of subjective behavior. In this way, attention is thought, noticing is thought, feeling is thought, analyzing is thought, imagining is thought, identifying is thought, remembering is thought, believing is thought, etc. Thought is subjective action.
A brief phenomenological description of mindfulness will clarify this:
The intent to watch thoughts as they come and go, observing them silently and non-judgmentally occurs as I close my eyes. Soon I realize that even this intent is thinking that should be observed. As thinking moves and appears, I watch it all. I am constantly reasserting my intention to watch thinking as it occurs. When thinking catches all of my attention, soon, the memory of my intention to watch appears, spontaneously, and I remember to watch the thought. So I watch it, and in watching it, it soon disappears. At some point I realize that my intent is merely another level of thinking, acting on other levels of thinking. Movement upon movement. This silent, nonlinguistic intention is something I can observe, but I observe it only because it is present. The intention to observe, at some point, demands that it itself is observed, yet immediately upon observation, I realize that what I am observing is a memory of the intention, while the intention acted out is still pushing around my attention. The intention rids all thoughts from the mind, until all that is left is itself. Yet, if the this intention is held onto, upon observing the intention, it is clear that it is impossible to observe it completely, because to observe it completely would require one to get outside of it, and to get outside of it would cause the attention to no longer be directed by it, thereby causing no observation of it. So as I try to observe the intention whilst still holding it, my attention is completely exhausted until there is nothing.
Now that I’ve spoken of reflection as a means toward freedom from both suffering and confusion, I feel that I should, for the sake of honesty, clarify that there are still some quarrels I have with the practice.
The methods outlined work because they use the same process by which confusion and suffering arise, to annihilate confusion and suffering. Conveniently, confusion and suffering are produced by the same processes that cause them to cease, allowing anyone who suffers to automatically have a way out. Yet, this is not actually a way out in the sense that suffering is escaped. Rather, it is likened to the unraveling of a knot. It is the transformation of a process from a more complex state to a simpler state. It is a phenomenological reversion to a state absent of particular activities, rather than an addition of new activities. A knot cannot form without the rope. In the same way, suffering cannot form without the basic levels of thought that, when layered (when the knot is tied) can form a multitude of various subjective “shapes” or experiences.