Thought, Action and Power

The fundamental lesson of meditation is that we empower whatever we give attention to. When we sit in silence and let thoughts come and go, the powerless thoughts that we were previously unattached or indifferent to don’t cause us any trouble. Thoughts of minutiae and harmless things rarely bother us. The thoughts that prove to be a challenge are the ones that hold strong significance for us. We give these thoughts attention in daily life, thus empowering them.

When we sit, we make a choice, consciously or unconsciously— do we fixate on a thought or not? If we do, we empower that thought. The more powerful it becomes, the more able it is to enslave us. If we don’t, the thought deflates and disappears. The thoughts we deem unimportant are such to the degree that we ignore them. We can entirely shift our perception of reality by learning to control which thoughts we empower.

Meditative practice is a useful microcosm for understanding how this sort of fixation impacts our daily experiences, ideals and interactions with others. This is why meditation is perceived as being so “useful” by the world’s more productivity-fixated practitioners. Meditation is not an act, like weightlifting or running, that merely enhances stamina or strength. It is a symbolic rehearsal of perception itself. Average schlubs don’t just pick up the violin and go play Carnegie Hall. The functional process of musicianship requires practice.

Perception and experience require practice, too. We grow wiser with age because we have methodical practice in living. To meditate is to practice cognition. Skill in cognition comes when we control thoughts, not when we let thoughts control us. This is why ‘mastery of the self’ is considered so important in spiritual literature. When we direct our power impulses inward, we learn how to control our world from its source— the mind. Once we can do this, it becomes less necessary to try to force the world to conform to individual will.

This simple relationship between thought and action ends up being significantly influenced by the power we grant to specific thoughts. Imagine the brain as a legislative body; it decides which of its constituents has power and what that power entails in each instance. If we spend most of our attention empowering thoughts of malice and self-interest, our life will slowly and steadily shape itself around these values. If we direct our attention to thoughts of benevolence, prosperity, and growth, life will follow suit. When we change thought, the root of action, action subsequently shapes itself around thought. Most people don’t realize this; they think their actions will change their life and change how they feel. The lesson of introspection is that we can do more to change our lives by shifting things internally than externally.

This is only part of the equation, of course, but it’s too simple to be totally true. Sometimes people get the opposite of what they will in life, because existence is more complicated than simply giving us what we think about most. And this is the most important part of understanding the relationship between thoughts and power— our attention is always empowering something. Whether we perceive it as good or bad in the moment is often of no consequence. We are not always directly responsible for what happens to us. We are always responsible, however, for how we perceive what happens to us. Let’s not forget the story of the farmer, which I like to share every once in a while:

“There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.”

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