Thoughts Aren’t Real

There’s a quote that’s falsely attributed to Buddha— it sounds like a provocative statement but contains within it a bunch of problems I’d like to address: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

This isn’t an inherently Buddhist sentiment. In the realm of Zen specifically, these words are pretty much the antithesis of the meditative mindset. But why?

The belief that thoughts make the world is a comfortable idea. All you need to do to change yourself or the world is change your thoughts, right? Wrong. Such a basic mindset is of course a lofty delusion but the world simply does not work this way. You can pretend the mirage is real but that’s only going to detract from your quality of reality. While proper thought and ‘right mind’ contribute to a mindful life, thoughts often also get in the way. Many of your most important decisions aren’t made by consciously thinking but instead by intuition.

People seem to think that rationality comes from thoughts. The truth of the matter is that rationality and balance come from nature. Humans are natural creatures. Our processes mimic those of the world. You wouldn’t pretend to be able to time travel or teleport; these are contrary to what is allowed by nature, despite being fun human-centric fantasies. Why fight nature in the realm of day to day reality, then? Our self-aware thinking often clouds our intuitive organic rationality. The meditative mind cultivates this innate sense of balance and rightness. The more thought conditioning you subject yourself to, the further away you get from the real.

The real lesson is that thoughts are rarely your friend. Thoughts may point you to wisdom, but true understanding only comes when we transcend concepts altogether. These moments of awareness are beyond language. People of all eras and epochs have reported making crucial creative, professional and historical decisions during these periods of lucidity.

The problem with most modern culture / culture in general is that it trains us to be deeply solipsistic. People think that they have complete control over who they are, what they think, and what they do. We have very little control, in fact. The thoughts that you hold most dear and are least willing to bring into question are often the most delusional thoughts of all. Those thoughts which please us most as fantasizing humans trying to deny ourselves are often the least conducive to a meaningful reality.

That’s the unfortunate but liberating truth of the matter— we’re still at the behest of natural forces and the great mysterious universal balance. When we consciously work against this balance, we fight against life and nature. The result is constant chaos and misery. When we work humbly with the inhuman immensity and acknowledge natural truths, even if they are uncomfortable and contra-human, we reach a place of higher understanding.

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