Over the past few days, I’ve found myself fascinated with the mechanism of thinking and how it affects our lives and our destinies both individually and collectively.
With that in mind, I’d like to share my nascent thoughts about different levels of thinking that we can observe within ourselves or infer about other people’s way of thinking by talking to them directly or reading biographies about them.
Ordinary thinking is primarily negative thinking, which is merely running a continuous stream of words in your head that judges, criticizes, or condemns whatever you are thinking about.
If you are thinking about an image that has arisen in your head about a past event, then you turn negative thinking against yourself, upbraiding yourself for failing to live up to some imaginary ideal you have about yourself. Sometimes, it can turn even worse. By accusing yourself of doing something horrible or experiencing something terrible, you use thinking as a way to punish yourself by obsessively repeating the distressing thought.
If you are thinking about someone else, you turn the spotlight on them and dissect, without mercy, everything you dislike about them. Over time, you may actually begin to find ways to passively or actively attack them with your words or actions.
If you are thinking about an abstract idea, then you evaluate all its shortcomings and struggle to imagine how it could be better.
Most people spend almost all their thinking energy in this mental space, and most people are miserable all day long, regardless of how well their lives appear based on the resources they have managed to secure to take care of their physical well-being.
Negative thinking can be broken up into two subtypes: negative destructive thinking and negative constructive thinking.
Negative destructive thinking is all about pursuing a self-centered agenda regardless of whom it hurts or what it damages.
Negative constructive thinking is all about trying to figure out why something is broken and what to do about it. You will find this type of thinking in the great works of Western philosophy. Over the ages, great minds have puzzled over why a great idea like civilization appears in danger of self-destructing.
Negative thinking, then, is base-level thinking. Below this level, you are not able to function in the world without the help of other people.
While negative constructive thinking is far better than negative destructive thinking, things get far better when you rise above negative thinking or at least limit how much of it you permit. The upward leap starts by cultivating positive thinking.
Occasionally something of extraordinary beauty or charm or exception pulls you out of negative thinking. It might be a flower; it might be a warm person whose company you enjoy; or it might be a lady walking on a tightrope in a circus. In other words, when reality presents you with some extraordinary event, your mind often rises to the occasion to take it in.
Unfortunately, this type of thinking is rare, and while people often make a strong effort to think this way more often, it usually slips away the minute they aren’t controlling their thoughts anymore.
Still, there are those who have trained themselves to think above the normal volume of negative thinking. Although they may still lapse toward negative thinking, they have a higher-than-average level of positive thinking. As a result of their dedication to seeing the world in a more beneficial light, they usually have extraordinary lives because they are able to win people over to their ideas and because they are disciplined enough to master valuable skills that make incredible goals possible.
Yet there is a higher level beyond positive thinking. It is thinking about thinking.
When you can think about thinking, then you start witnessing your own interaction with your inner world of ideas and your outer world of sensory experiences. This acute awareness will lead to a deep, philosophical, analytical mind.
You can pick out somebody who does this type of thinking based on the fluidity of their thoughts. Sometimes you see this when contemplative people give talks. Their mind ranges over subtle themes with great ease. You also see it in artists and scientists, who understand things in mesmerizing detail.
This mental acuity arises because they have left both negative and positive thinking behind and have learned to observe their inner and outer world with keen interest.
Yet there is a final level of thinking that even transcends thinking about thinking.
If you can stop your mind completely, then you can experience reality directly.
If your eyes are closed, you become acutely aware of numerous sensations in your body and even any emotions that you had not noticed before.
If your eyes are open, you become acutely aware of the beauty of everything you see. You notice the form, color, shadow, and hues of objects, and you also notice the aliveness, movement, and stillness of living things.
If you can sustain this suspension of thought, you will experience a deep bliss about being alive, and even feel a spontaneous, free-floating lovingness toward all sentient beings.
Unfortunately, few humans can do this because the compulsion to think is almost overwhelming. Those who can sustain non-thinking have already transcended humanity.
A non-thinker can witness all that exists without any sense of attachment or aversion. He or she often feels that subject-object duality has dissolved and that they are what they perceive.
Since this is such a delectable state, the practice of meditation has persisted for centuries to reach it. The aspirant hopes to get enlightened, a state where they realize unitive consciousness with everyone and everything.
This state should not be confused with the pre-egoic consciousness of animals, where thinking has not arisen. Instead, it is the state of those who have had an ego, somehow managed to dissolve it, and can now access the beauty of reality without the interpretive filter of thinking.
Negative thinking, which is what most people do, keeps the world locked in a deadly clash between those who are trying to push the human race forward and those who are doing their best to hold it back.
If negative, destructive thinking gains the upper hand, the world could collapse. If negative, constructive thinking wins, then we will be able to edge forward, with human life continuing to increase in complexity and sophistication.
Both thinking about thinking and not thinking at all raise you above everyday mental states. These are not easy forms of thinking to acquire but knowing that they exist may help you find your way to moving closer to them.