In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle suggests a little thought experiment. He says close your eyes and say to yourself I wonder what my next thought is going to be, then become very alert and wait for that thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole, waiting to see what thought is going to pop out.
The first time I tried this experiment, I made it about one pico-second before a thought arose. The second time, about the same. Over time I learned to just keep asking the question over and over. Each time a thought arose, to immediately ask myself what the next one would be. After a dozen or so attempts over a few days, I finally began to experience a few seconds of walking or sitting in peace with not a thought in my head.
Never too long, though, as I’m a most obsessively compulsive over-thinker. I torture myself with my own thoughts. Self-criticism. Anxiety over unpaid bills or social slip-ups. Saying the wrong thing and being unable to forgive myself. Or sometimes even saying the right thing and constantly replaying the audio in my head, relishing my moment of glory. Which is exactly why I was so interested in this experiment. I need help. And the more I tried to stop thinking, and actually started to succeed a little bit, the more I started to wonder where all these thoughts were coming from.
Most of us associate ourselves with our thoughts. That is, we don’t put any distance between ourselves and our thoughts. We often don’t just fail to see ourselves as the thinker of our thoughts, we completely confuse our identity with our thoughts.
But when you challenge yourself to still your mind, to recognize when it is racing out of control, you find yourself stepping out of the wind tunnel of thought, and you realize it can be quiet in your head. At least for a moment.
Then a thought will arise.
Where do they come from? Why do they come?
If you think about it, thought is a lot like breath. You can control your breath if you choose. You can take a deep breath, or a shallow one. You can hold your breath. But when you aren’t focused on your breath, when you’re not thinking about breathing, breathe arises on its own. You don’t have to do anything.
Thought is similar. You can focus your thoughts. You can choose to think about something. You can choose to not think about something, and fail. (Try now to not think of a hairless pink monkey). You can solve a problem, plan your day, choose to place your fingers on a keyboard and type some words. But when you aren’t focused on your thoughts, thought happens anyway. It just happens.
Where do these thoughts come from?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. And here’s what I’m thinking. Are you ready for this? You’re not. But I’m going to say it anyway.
What if… just what if… what if thoughts are perceived?
See? I knew you weren’t ready. But bear with me. What if thought doesn’t come from the brain? I know that’s a crazy thing to say. But no one has ever sliced open a brain and removed a thought. Just like no one has ever sliced open a brain and removed a sound, or a feeling. Or a sight. You can damage an area of the brain, and this will impair its ability to perceive, or process what it perceives. But these perceptions are not coming from within the brain. They are processed by the brain. They do not arise in the brain.
The sound of a dog barking is perceived by the ears. The feeling of silk is perceived by touch. The sight of a cloud is a perception made possible by the eyes.
What if thought is another type of perception? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. You’ve had great ideas before and not known where they came from. They just came to you. Scientists have made some of their greatest discoveries in dreams. Musicians wake up in the middle of the night with a song in their head and grab a guitar to record it.
Now, whatever it is that’s out there generating those thoughts that are perceived is another question entirely. It’s probably some sort of universal consciousness. Or maybe a hairless pink monkey with a dipping stick, blowing invisible thought bubbles.