Don’t believe everything you think

by Jack on January 2011

One of the ideas that I’ve been exploring lately is the nature of subjective experience. Perhaps you’ve thought about this too – the fact that everything about our experience of the world occurs to us after translation into thought. Internal experience – thoughts and feelings – and “external” experience – sensory impressions of the world outside, all of it ultimately occurs to us as thought. When we’re asleep and dreaming, we still see, hear and feel things, and when we’re awake, we believe that we are seeing, hearing, and feeling the external data stream that enters our awareness through our senses. And ultimately, it’s all just formed of thought. But what does this all mean?

An important realization that emerges from this truth, is the fact that all feelings and moods, both positive and negative, are a result of our thoughts. Judgmental, self-critical, or otherwise negative thoughts are the ultimate source of all negative emotions and feelings. And when we get out of our own way, and either stop or ignore the stream of thought that progresses through awareness, we reach a state of genuine happiness.

This happiness isn’t exactly the same as the surge of good feeling that often emerges when we get what we want – perhaps it would be better to call that “pleasure” or “satisfaction” instead. The great thing is that real happiness doesn’t depend on us getting what we want, avoiding what we don’t want, or on anything else in the part of the world that appears to be outside our own consciousness. In that sense, it’s completely self-generated and impervious to influence by the outside world. (If you haven’t already experienced this state, perhaps you’re curious to enter it? It’s simple – meditate carefully and enter a state of deep concentration, thus relaxing deeply, slowing down the pace of your thoughts, and letting go of all thoughts that might appear. Simple, but not easy.)

And what else? One amazing fact that also emerges from this primary observation is that our minds literally construct 100% of our experience of the world. Whether they are “inspired” by the sensory data stream, or else performing the “snake eating its tail” activity of dreams, all of our experience of reality is just thought. None of what we see as real is actually, literally real. It’s either mediated by the senses, and distorted by the filters in our brains, or else it’s completely imagined. In either case, it’s all just thought.

This allows us to come to some other powerful realizations. For one thing, all the beliefs, assumptions, and preconceptions that reside in our minds are not real – they’re just made up of thought. Some of these thoughts are habitual, and seem pretty real, but that statement itself is just a thought. (For that matter, so’s your entire experience of me and of this article. And of your mother, last night’s dinner, and your favorite sports team.) See how complicated it gets? We’re trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Even though everything you experience is made of thought (and hence isn’t real) it doesn’t mean that all or even any thoughts are bad or should be rejected. Quite a few of them appear to be very useful. For example, in the world that I see, there’s something called gravity, and it appears to draw heavy material things (including me) down to the ground. According to the rules of the game, as it appears to me, rejecting this thought and stepping off a very high building has destructive consequences to the body where my consciousness appears to be anchored. There’s a certain basic acceptance of consensus reality that most of us agree to in order to function within the physical and social systems that we perceive around us. While our experience of reality may be constructed in our minds, there appears to be a certain basic consistency to that experience when we’re awake to this particular reality.

The most useful way to approach this realization is to regularly condition our minds, through meditation and other mental trickery, to detach periodically from consensus reality. In so doing, we can understand, at a visceral rather than at an intellectual level, that literally all our experience is simply made up of thought. Because of this, we can alter the nature of our experience of reality by simply altering our habitual thoughts, and letting go of the ones that don’t serve us well. This opens up a lot of opportunities to change our experience, since it’s usually easier to change our thoughts than to change the world outside ourselves.

Some people object to this approach – they say things like “changing your thoughts is fine if you don’t care about doing anything in the world, but I need to be (angry, sad, fired up, indignant) in order to make real changes in the world”. This sounds compellingly simple, but it’s simply wrong. Total nonsense, in fact. Anything that a person desires to do, be or have, inspired by negative emotions, he can feel equally inspired to do, be or have from the starting point of a clear mind. The journey there is also a great deal more pleasurable. The illusion that we can be more “motivated” through negative emotions and negative states is just that – illusion.

What does this all mean? Well, thought has the tendency to go in circles, so avoid overcomplicating it. Just remember – none of your experience is real, it’s all made of thought, and if you feel any negative emotion at all, then let go of whatever your thinking as best you can. It’s simpler than it seems.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bennett January 26, 2011 at 20:32

Brilliant stuff here, Jack.


Jack January 27, 2011 at 20:44



Bill Sunshine January 26, 2011 at 23:24

Hmmm, sounds like an introduction to Lamrim (great book on that is The Meditation Handbook by Gyatso). “Emotion is a thought grasped by the tale.” ~Sleepy


Jack January 27, 2011 at 20:45

Thanks Bill – sounds like a good reference! (and good quote) Must check it out…


Duff January 27, 2011 at 00:57

Insighful article, Jack.

The illusion that we can be more “motivated” through negative emotions and negative states is just that – illusion.

This quote is particularly good. The same can be said of “positive” emotions like passion, enthusiasm, or a desire to the best. I’ve been exploring what motivation feels like from an inner place of clarity, and it’s a bit awkward at first.


Jack January 27, 2011 at 20:44

Thanks Duff.
That’s a good flip side to the point that I made, and one that I hadn’t considered. The person who “needs” to be in a peak state of fired-up joy and happiness to feel motivated and get anything done is also at a disadvantage, just like the person motivated from anger and opposition.

A state of balance and equanimity is how I’d describe that inner place of clarity, and I think it’s a more effective place to work from wherever possible.


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