Exploring the Nature of Thought

The following article by Richard Witteman is from the Fall 2003 Newsletter

Sunlight streams in through the window. Half of the desk is brilliantly lit, my left hand glowing in light, while the right hand is in shadow, muted. A plastic scotch tape dispenser is lying on its side in the sun, with light reflecting intensely off the center of the roll, jewel-like in its transparency.

It is morning and very still, with the murmuring sound of a back hoe some distance away, resonating through the walls of the office. In the time it has taken to write these paragraphs, the sun has started to move behind a tree. The whole atmosphere of the room is changing, becoming softer.

In the silence of the forest, trees are growing, birds glide between branches, our house sits in its clearing, making soft sounds as it adjusts to the heat from the sun. There is a subtle flow of life on the forest floor, as ferns ripple in the breeze and little insects and animals go about their daily movements.

Trees dance in the wind, fingers move across keys. Words are born, reading takes place, there is movement of images and ideas. Symbols are appearing on a page, this article is taking shape, a complex exchange of thoughts is occurring.

This activity of writing does not seem separate from the life of the forest. Amidst the miracle of trees and animals, of sunlight and moving fingers, thought, imagination, speech, and words also arise.

What is the nature of this energy that we experience as thought? How can thinking be investigated, what words can be used to explore its character? These questions have been alive for me.

We mostly know of thought by what occurs when it arises. When imagination manifests within the consciousness of human beings, a profound transformation takes place — the silence of presence becomes filled with an array of captivating images and subtle thoughts which have the ability to weave themselves into elaborate tales and complex stories.

Whole worlds can be born in the blink of an eye, worlds which are so believable that the vastness of silence is forgotten, worlds where new realities are created and lived. There seems to be no limit to this imaginative power — from practical, physical creations, to bizarre and wild virtual realities that can take entire human populations into their vortex.

I find this realm of thought and imagination to be as remarkable as modern physics, as mysterious as quarks and quasars, as black holes and parallel universes. And each of us is in a perfect position for doing our own original research.

We are here, right in the heart of these energies — day and night, they flow, they stream, as ever-changing imaginative realities modulate our moods, our emotions, our dreams. Seen and unseen worlds come and go, directing our behavior, creating our decisions, defining our identities.

Even though suffering arises with the manifestation of thought, this energy is not negative — thinking does not represent the intrusion of an alien force into an otherwise pristine awareness. Imagination arises within the same silence as growing trees and scurrying animals.

But thought is powerful.

To be unconscious of imagination’s activity is to be taken for a wild ride. To be hard and judgmental to thought’s presence is to create an enemy — and a new story of conflict and suffering.

In the grace of loving spaciousness, it is possible to explore the moment to moment nature of this energy. With awareness and patience, the movement of imagination can become transparent, its influence discerned. We can become wise about the ways of thought, wise about its quicksilver power.

What is our own experience of how thought arises, and how it subsides? Is it possible to see this, as it occurs — not the story which thought weaves, but the dance of imagination itself? Is it possible to see thought’s subtle tracings within this bodily experience?

Is there a difference between the arising of thought when it generates stories of identity, separation, and suffering, and when it is useful and creative — allowing us to have a conversation with a friend, or in driving a car?

Exploring these questions, sharing them with friends and in meetings, what has emerged is that people’s experience of the arising of thought seems to vary widely, and each of us must investigate this territory for ourselves.

Here are some of my own explorations and experiences:

Sitting in open awareness, I begin to notice bodily sensations of muscular tension. There are subtle waves of stress which rise and fall, a winding and tightening which begins in the lower back and moves up into the neck and shoulders. As tensions rise, there is a corresponding generation of emotion — an undercurrent of uneasiness, of concern and worry.

Beneath this physical layer, thought seems to arise in a watery way, fluid, flowing. I experience this energy as a kind of moving collage — like a current of liquid holograms, arising for a moment and flashing in the light, then dissolving, each saturated with thought potential, ready to blossom and flower. There is a gossamer dreamlike quality, malleable and ever changing, modulating, transmuting.

In a flash, these energies can come alive, flowing in cascades of imagination, forming, combining, changing, subsiding. Thought possibilities unfold and bloom, as they fill the senses with all kinds of stories and images and sensations and emotions.

It is these flowing thoughts that generate the muscular tension — there is an unseen imaginative creation, a story murmuring in the background. This is felt in the back muscles as an undulating pulsation, almost a quivering. A moving thought collage is being created, made of bits and pieces of responsibilities, problems, self criticisms, efforts to get somewhere, hurts, angers, fearful possibilities — will I be loved, is this good enough, will I be rejected?

These thought energies have a charge around them, they invite attention, they are like little newspaper headlines saying, “Read the details — ignore at your peril!” As they flash in the light and dissolve, there seems to be a subtle response in the body, a trace of fear, which lingers, an emotional tone of unease.

If one of these headlines is picked up, the holographic imagining expands in a flurry of thoughts — and stories fill the silence. The entire body is involved, breathing changes, tension increases, the emotions are more severe, worry multiplies.

This rising and falling of thought, tension, and emotion has a familiarity about it. A pattern, an emotional tone which is recognizable. How the body feels, how the muscles are held, how the eyes are seeing, the sensation of looking through a veil — this is all familiar. It seems closer even than an identity, it is simply what has come to be known as myself, a seemingly natural state of being.

There are many strands in this bodily holding of thought and emotion, threads of habit and conditioning with diverse roots and unfathomable beginnings. Ancestral journeys, cultural identities, family secrets, a lifetime of hurts and humiliations, tears wept long ago, longings for love — and many other sources beyond imagination.

Each day, these stories blossom anew. As the song of uneasiness is intoned, the muscles weave themselves into a pattern of subtle tension, and the body experiences what it feels like to be “me.”

In the discovery process, a moment came when it was clear that these stories of identity have no real significance — they are but a habitual way of being. There is no inherent truth here. No matter how strong the emotions, this pattern of held muscles and worried tension is nothing more than a loose weaving of habits and customs which have become associated with the illusion of a permanent identity.

These understandings are very helpful. Seeing the malleability and variability of the arising of thought, tension, and emotion, seeing this as movement, as waves, as a kind of silent music, this bodily exper-ience doesn’t feel so fixed, so stuck, so mon-olithic. It is more like an ever-changing sky on a spring day than a sack of stones or a chiseled monument.

I find it is often possible to see and relax these woven threads of thought/tension/emotion as they emerge — to become aware of areas of holding and experiment with releasing them. When a “button is pushed,” the first hints of a developing emotional story are often revealed by the arising of bodily sen-sations and muscular holdings — a churning in the stomach, a raising of the shoulders, a tightness in the jaws.

In being with these emerging sensations, it is possible to allow the holding to be fully what it is, to develop and change, to flow, to move, to reveal itself, to soften. In this way, the whole quivering complex, the held muscles, the emotions, the tension filled story — patiently, together, they can relax, dissolve, let go.

There are other times when something deep is triggered, perhaps long submerged fears or childhood humiliations, and a whole thought storm blows in, a hurricane of emotion and feelings and thoughts moving through the body. When this occurs, allowing it to blow in, to blow through, to experience the whole movement, to learn something of its nature.

And when the storm abates, presence is still here, open, as it was before the clouds gathered.

When habitual stories of identity manifest in the spaciousness of open awareness, when they are not picked up, when they are allowed to relax, when not taken so seriously, there is room for other possibilities. Thought seems to arise freshly within presence, and can move in more fruitful ways — in friendly communication and insight, in writing poetry, in doing what needs to be done, in building houses and paying bills, in cooking a meal, in finding ways to live together on this beautiful planet.

The purpose of exploring the nature of thought is not to endlessly catalog and track the many variations of imagination’s creations, attempting to root out and find the sources of its many strands. It is rather for each one of us to discover, for ourselves, how thought moves and operates, so that these powerful manifestations of imagination can be put into perspective — to break the spell, to make them less enthralling and consuming.

To realize that for all its power, thought is but a movement within the vastness of being. Rather than being dragged from story to story, attention can be with what is larger than thought, with the unfathomable intelligence that permeates all of life. In open awareness, we may see that thought itself is nothing other than loving spaciousness.