Q. What do you do when you get lost in thinking and you are no longer observing?
A. I find my sensations. Attention on sensation brings me into the present and that’s the antidote to obsessive thinking. Sensing can mean listening, looking, touching…any sensing will do.
Q. Can I set some sort of alarm to remind me to sense.
A. You can try but any such alarm just becomes another soon-ignored external trigger. For me, lost in thought has its own sense of being disembodied, weightless, not located anywhere. When I catch site of that, I suddenly enter myself and the physical place where I am. Coming to myself is a spontaneous event triggered by noticing I am lost and disconnected. Years of observing my automatic functioning have made it possible for me to see it in operation. This falls under the general heading of using sleep to wake up. I think that’s when it becomes possible to change.
Now, being lost in thought is generally not as innocuous as it sounds. As the thinking apparatus turns over in its habitual rounds, there are also sensations that support those thoughts. Thought and sensation travel together, reinforcing each other and reducing attention to a thin whisper. Attention is enslaved. The habitual rounds of emotional conditioning are energy drains. The small amounts of higher energy available to me are lost.
Perhaps you think that observation of self is so you can describe your behavior precisely and objectively? There is a benefit to this but it is secondary. Attention itself slowly releases the emotional conditioning held in the body. Attention itself is a catalyst for transformation.
Suppose I have the sensation of anger. From past observing, I know how anger tends to unfold in me. I know the kind of thinking that this unfolding train of sensation attracts and supports. When I see all this, can my attention withhold and contain the expressions of anger…the words, the gestures…without judgment or justification? If anger can’t continue its habitual movement through the nervous system and the thinking apparatus, it may give up its energy for other uses, like being conscious. This is transformative. It requires an active impartial attention.
The aim of observing self is to enter an attention space where everything is there in the presence of attention, where inside and outside me are all together in the attention space. How is this achieved? An observer separates and divides a space between observer and observed. In an attention space, attention is the observer and everything is held in its embrace. This is a very deep form of release. I cease to be a bully to myself and my environment. You did know, did you not, that I am my biggest bully, moment by moment, shoulding and coulding and woulding, not seeing what is really there.
When we don’t have an observer, presence steps into the emptiness, and there is the will to be in attention space where all things are possible.
October 18, 2021
Q. What do you do when you get lost in thinking and you are no longer observing?
November 14, 2019
Have you noticed how little we depend on sensing? The headbrain is the tireless translator of my experience. I have replacement thoughts for just about everything I experience in my senses.
I see the vastness of the sky filled with stars and I think about how far away the stars are, that the light I see was emitted billions of years ago by stars now long dead. The sensing lasts only a moment, if at all, and then it is replaced by thinking. Instant translation to the mental sphere. My ancestors had far less ‘knowledge’ of these things but they had a much greater possibility of being in relationship with the heavens.
Perhaps you think this is not important, that what matters are the facts? Perhaps you think that realism is based in knowing the facts? In my view, this is an enormously limited understanding of our capacity to know and the potential of knowing through sensing.
My observation is this: sensing engages me in a relationship with what is sensed and that relationship does not arise from thinking. In my sensing, I can relate to phenomena outside of my limited location in time and space. And the extraordinary added benefit to entering into sensation, penetrating it with attention and holding it without mental translation, is that it also opens up the realm of feeling…higher emotions as they are sometimes called. Thinking rarely provides this bridge to feeling unless it first engages sensation.
Try this at home. Watch an insect or small animal. Sense in yourself how it moves. Notice that it very often responds to your attention if you do not get caught in your thinking.
How does sensing engage feeling? In my view, sensations have parallel feelings. The sensation of lowering the head may invoke humility. The sensation of remorse may invoke compassion. The sensation of beauty may invoke ecstasy. Can I learn to fill my senses with these sensations? In my experience, learning means to not let thinking interfere. This is a skill that opens many doors.
April 11, 2018
You have recently talked about pondering as a three-centered activity requiring conscious energy. What do you mean by this?
Ordinarily, we are not able to engage in three-centered activity. The body is automatically moving and adopting gestures and postures while the mind is home to a chattering thinker whose content is habitual and associative. These two tracks are only related to the extent that the activity on one can cause reverberations in the other. I have a passing thought of something unpleasant and my body contracts in a predictable way. I sense being cold or tired and my thinking adopts a loop of negative self-talk. Otherwise, I am a house divided against itself, thinking one thing while doing another.
In my ordinary state, I am not aware of the content of my experience except in the most general way, and intermittently at that. This is evidence of a low energy state. In fact, both centers…thinking and sensing…are operating on what we can call automatic energy which is sufficient only to power habitual actions. Most of the time, I am not even aware that I am immersed in trivial, useless thinking. I can walk home form the supermarket without knowing it and suddenly ‘come to my senses’ when I mysteriously find myself at home. Of the feeling center, which we call the heart, there is not a trace.
Obviously, pondering is not possible in this state. Even sustained thinking along the same line is not possible without frequently forgetting and losing the track, mostly arising from the interruptions of thought associations or random sensations.
There is a second, higher level of energy which is possible for the thinking and sensing centers which we can call sensitive energy. This is what we mean when we say that we have ‘come to our senses’. This energy enables me to be aware of my sensations and thoughts on a more or less continuous basis, while the energy lasts. I am sensitive to my environment. I am aware of my reactions and those of others. I am able to order my thoughts based on my wish to communicate. However, I’m not able to be aware of sensations and thoughts simultaneously. I still do not have access to feelings but I notice my emotional likes and dislikes as they occur…a kind of similitude of feeling.
There is a third level of energy, called conscious energy, which opens up another realm of experience. When conscious energy is present, the heart can operate. Feelings can be accessed. Also, this is the energy of multi-tasking. Now I can think and sense and feel simultaneously and these three functions can be co-ordinated. When they co-operate, they re-enforce each other. The natural result is a state of ecstatic pleasure.
Three-centered being is living in an Imaginarium. Thoughts, sensations and feelings are real experiences…more real than ordinary physical reality. Contemplate a whale and you are a whale, a bird and you experience flight.
I am not telling you all this to fill your heads with more theory. These three energies are directly observable as they operate in you. Knowing this makes it more possible to shift your state.
Is it possible to access conscious energy intentionally?
Yes, but intention is not the only way. The universe may present you with shocks to waken you…shocks of distress as well as shocks of beauty and grace that trigger being-attention and offer you higher energies. Accept them. Use them.
One of the great laws of alchemy says that the higher interacts with the lower to create the middle. The higher is being-attention. The lower is sensitive energy. Attention is the catalyst which digests the sensitive, transforming it to create the conscious.
Invoke attention. Allow it to take hold of whole body sensation as a kind of food offering. As conscious energy arises, the process gains momentum and effortlessly continues itself without the intervention of a thinker. This is an example of the second wind of attention. In this way, become more conscious.
Then what? Then you may see what is possible for a human being.
What is being-attention?
Attention that is not funnelled through the head brain, not intermediated by the thinker…attention by which the universe beholds you. Find out. Inquire into the nature of attention. You may find that you are not the source of attention, not its center, but the object of a greater attention that calls you to be.
April 4, 2018
I know that I must have walked home from the supermarket because I find myself at home with the groceries but I can’t remember how I got there…I was obviously lost in my thinking.
Is it possible for you to notice the process of falling out of observing self and falling into identification with the thinker? As it happens? Can we do this now, as we are listening, thinking and speaking to each other?
Yes. This seems to be possible. Observing self, there is a sense of experiencing what is happening inside me but then I become the thinker and I do not have this experience. Everything is on the surface. Also, as the thinker or the one who is speaking, I am contracted. Attention narrows down to my thinking and I have very little sense of what is happening around me.
It is very important for you to notice this narrowing of your experience as it occurs. It is a real experience, fully sensible, not just a concept. If you know it in this way, you can do something about it.
When you have become the thinker, does it seem that thinking is taking up all the attention? Can this narrowing be prevented or reversed? Is it possible to have thinking without becoming the thinker? What is required?
I guess it would be helpful to remain aware of sensations.
Yes. As you sense yourself falling into being the thinker or the speaker, you could grab onto other sensations. Perhaps you could continue to look at the person you are speaking to. Perhaps, while you are thinking, you could continue to ‘see’ the line of your thought, the logic of it and its resonance in your body, perhaps even the feeling of it; these experiences anchor attention outside the thinking process. Perception is an antidote for identification.
What is needed is voluntary attention. Falling into identifying as the thinker is involuntary attention, which we call sleep. That’s how people in our culture fall into ambulant sleep…they identify with their thinking. They think they are the little voice in their head.
How does this relate to pondering?
This is an interesting question. Did you just come across this term accidentally? Pondering is a technical term in this work. It means a three–centered questioning or consideration of an issue. The issue is simultaneously penetrated by sensing, thinking and feeling. This is quite different from our usual thinking which moves mechanically from one thought to another by association rather than staying on one point. Pondering is not possible if I am identified with the thinker. There is not enough attention and not enough space.
Pondering in this sense is real thinking. It requires voluntary split attention and a different level of energy from the lazy, associative, reactive mental process we refer to as thinking.
Not falling into thinking requires intention, does it not?
It can arise from intention but if I have to depend upon my intention to access voluntary attention it will not happen very often. Many things around me can call me to be voluntary…my conversation with you, my wish to eat, my need to get to work on time. These demands could engage a conscious response…they are rich in sensations… if I do not continually fall asleep. What is critical is to notice that I am continually falling asleep. I need to know this process intimately. When I do, perhaps I can use the events of the world around me to be awake.
August 28, 2017
It was an ordinary Sunday morning in a coffee shop known for its new age inclinations. The server wore a t-shirt with the following message: “Limitations only exist if we let them.” Magical thinking.
Limitations are what make life interesting and challenging. We have limitations everywhere…of time and space and resources of every kind. As destructive as we are in a world of limitation, how much more so would we be if not subject to limit? We are dull enough with the benefit of limits that force us to shift and change. If our every wish could be fulfilled, would we be more awake or less?
What’s so bad about limitations anyway? Limitation is finding what is right for me among the many things that are not. Limitation is knowing something well: to find water, you must dig in one place.
Can I really be whatever I want, have whatever I want, if I just want it enough? Does my thinking really have such power?
I know that negative thinking destroys creativity and takes away energy, closing me to what is possible. Does positive thinking have the reverse effect? Can I guide my life to my chosen goals through affirmations? It seems to me that my best responses to life, the moments less troubled by what I lack, are moments of silence and space, not wordy affirmations.
When I want what I want, then it seems I am most powerless and ‘dry’. When I am at the center, I am most alone and unaided, least able to proceed. If there are moments of magical thinking, when more seems possible and new openings surprise me, it is when I am dancing with the universe, when it leads and I follow, no agenda in mind.
Yes, I need my aims and understandings to begin. I take the steps I know and can. But then the world intervenes and I am moved. My agenda, my conceptual staircase to somewhere, is dislocated, shot through with light and shadow and air. What makes what I want the right thing or the best thing? What makes my constructed aims important when they are only made from the fluttering of insubstantial thought?
When thinking has weight, it is grounded in sensation, why else do prayer forms have movements and postures of the body? When thinking invites feeling, it develops wings. Then there can be magic, but not mine.
The universe is inherently uncertain. It will always be so. Can I embrace it?
April 20, 2017
My issue in this work is that my thinking takes over and dominates. Not thinking that has any real purpose or value but just endless chatter. It’s like a voice in my head that never stops. I don’t even know what it’s saying most of the time.
This is the basic challenge in any spiritual training. Our head brain has become the ‘thinking’ center. We identify with the little voice in our head, allowing it to assume the role of ‘I’ when it is far too small to carry such a burden and responsibility. Isolated from sensation and feeling, operating on low-wattage mechanical energy, this I rattles on associatively, one thought triggering another. Its compulsive quality comes from its isolation from the wider range of possible experience.
The first step in dealing with this phenomenon is to bring it to the surface. It is not random. The constant commentary has some thematic continuity…perhaps self-judgment, criticism of others, physical or emotional discomfort and so on. If we catch glimpses of our mental content over time, we should not be surprised to find that it actually forms repeating loops.
Can you capture enough of what this voice says to enable you to write it down? Putting the ‘vocalizations’ in front of you and making them visual objectifies them, allowing you to break your identification with the voice. The voice has more power to continue if it is hidden in the background. Can you expose it?
In addition to the content, note the mood. There are likely to be several repeating loops…more than one voice… each depending on a particular mood. The loop and the mood reinforce each other. These loops may even include snatches of music…a specific song that we habitually associate with the mood and the thought-loop.
What do you mean by mood?
A mood is an ongoing, sustained sensation/emotion…anxiety, guilt, self-pity, anger…that has been repressed and therefore does not fully discharge. A mood is sustained by circular thinking and posture. Posture is important because it locks breathing into a particular pattern. As we have discussed before, breathing has an enormous impact on emotion and thought. So, what we have is a tightly wound self-perpetuating pattern of thinking, sensing, posture and breath which is difficult to unravel. We cannot simply decide to change our thinking because it is tied in to other factors which also need to shift. To put it simply, our thinking cannot change our thinking.
You have talked about the importance of the rhythm of breath.
Yes, but there are many different settings of the breath. It is not simply a right way or a wrong way of breathing. The rhythm of breath should be free to adapt to our engagements. When it cannot shift because of a locked posture and mood, you can impose an artificial rhythm temporarily until the lock is broken. Then allow the breath to assume the pattern that is needed to respond to the needs of the moment. This is one way of dealing with ceaseless head brain chatter. One method would be to breathe in to a count of four, hold to a count of four and breathe out to the same count. Do this four times. Counting is a deliberate redirection of attention. This may free the breath and that will help to break a fixated mood. Singing and chanting are also effective.
Voluntarily attending to sensations is another way of breaking the chain of circular head brain thinking. Attention is a major power source for thinking, sensing and feeling. Involuntary attention is dragged into sustaining mood and associative thinking. Voluntarizing attention and attaching it to sensation, at least temporarily, can pull the power cord on head brain thinking.
You can also change your posture in order to unlock and relax head brain thinking. Walking, dancing, tai chi, yoga and other such activities can help to free up fixated thinking by breaking locked postures and shifting the rhythm of the breath.
These suggestions are mostly what I would call antidotes. They are effective but they operate at the same level as the difficulties they address. They are not transformative. At another time, we can inquire into homeopathic remedies which rely on the law of similar to shift fixations.
There is another path that may enable you to gain control of thinking. This is the path that leads to the place of no thought. Where is this place to be found? Where attention attends to itself, presence cognizes its own presentness, seeing perceives that it sees and emptiness realizes its innate clarity. Capacity transcends content. We will explore this path at another time.