Tuesday 23 October 2018

The difficulty of thinking-about-thinking

Thinking-about-thinking is something that we all ought to be thinking-about (I think)...

You see the problem?

Falsely-assuming, wrongly-directed, superficial and manipulated thinking is pretty close to being the core modern problem; yet it is a problem difficult to 'fix' - because it relies upon false/ wrong/ superficial thinking to discover and implement the solution...

I personally find most of what has been written on the subject to be unhelpful, because it falls prey to this boot-strapping paradox (ie. in trying to fix thinking with defective thinking ones is trying to lift oneself off the ground by pulling hard on one's bootstraps).

In particular, I find it painful and ineffectual try try and turn my thinking around to examine itself, as oft-recommended - this feels like trying to rotate my eyes backwards by 180 degrees, in hope of seeing the eyeballs: I can't do it, but even if I could - it wouldn't work...

But on the plus side; real and true thinking is always-going-on somewhere in our minds - albeit ignored and buried; and some-times it comes to the surface.

Yesterday it happened. I found my thinking suddenly clear, self-validating, and able to know reality wherever it roamed. This didn't last long; but I had the advantage of recognising what was happening, and regarding it as true and valuable.

The experience reminded me that real thinking puts down roots into that which is divine in us, and thereby - potentially - comes into direct contact with the thinking of all other Beings that are thinking from their divine selves. All sense of being alienated or cut-off from reality has gone; and I know myself a part of on-going divine creation.

What specific knowledge we get in such a state depends on where our attention is directed - which we control (since we are agent beings), and our own capacity to know.

I strayed from this state by (mistakenly, misusing agency) trying to think of non-realities - and thereby fell-out-from the thought-realm of the divine and into the usual externally-inculcated work of theories, hypotheses, models... of propaganda and manipulation. And so my thinking went back to its usual wrongness, superficiality, dishonesty.

My point here is that primary thinking really is attainable - albeit seldom and briefly. But we need to 'ask the right question'. It is less a matter of discovering and practising some special (esoteric?) method; and more a matter of transforming our ordinary, alert and purposive actual thinking - of having it suddenly put down roots into the real self...

Of the stream of thinking suddenly coming-alive and being intense, powerful, comprehensive.

That's what it feels like. 


Chiu ChunLing said...

It ultimately comes down to the motives of our thinking.

The two primary motives for thinking are love on the one hand and pride (particularly vanity) on the other. If we are thinking for the purpose of flattering ourselves, then our thoughts will be directed away from the truth, because the truth demands something of us.

On the other hand, if we are thinking for the purpose of discovering what we should do, that is, what love (particularly love of God, but there are specific manifestations of God we may be focused on instead, such as God's children or creation) offers as a dedication, then we are seeking truth because only from truth can we know what is required.

It is true of any task that if you do it to "have done it", you will take shortcuts that undermine the quality of what you do. If you do it for the purpose that requires it to be done, you won't take shortcuts unless they prioritize the actual result over the appearance of "doing the job".

As humans, there is an enormous investment in getting credit for what you do (as well as avoiding blame). This is the real motive for most human action, it is deeply instinctive. So to actually do anything while focusing more on the result rather than seeking credit (or avoiding blame) for it is enormously difficult.

Vanity is ultimately rooted in fear, the instinctive fear of being rejected socially and thus not having the advantage of having other people to take care of you. But fear doesn't motivate thinking at all, the mental activity of fear doesn't even bother with the appearance of rationality.

Unknown said...

It almost sounds like you suddenly stopped your usual attempt to control your thinking, and Reality suddenly became apparent :)

William James reports that divine illumination frequently comes after a person has "surrendered".

You then tried to reassert control and dabble in concepts and ideas, and the spell was broken, the magic gone.

I wonder, Bruce, if the end of your journey is to discover that all your muscular attempts at control are futile, and by finally surrendering you will receive what you want from God. The sense of alienation is gone and oneness achieved by no longer fighting life, of which you are a part.

If so, it's something you would have yo undergo yourself without shortcuts. You would have to strain yourself for decades perhaps, trying to lift yourself by your own bootstraps so to speak, until you finally collapse in despair - which is when divine grace comes :)

There is a school of thought that believe all the spiritual methods of Eastern traditions are really just a cunning way to get the aspirant to strain and try to "develop" himself only to finally realize the futility of self-effort, and to give up - which is when divine grace comes.

But if this is correct, we each have to make the journey towards the point where we finally see beyond self-effort, and each of us has a different number of years or decades we must strenuously strive before we realize this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Unknown - No, that's what *you* think, not what *I* think!

The difference is tha between Original Participation - which is what you seek; and Final Participation - which is what I seek.

I also believe that Original Participation cannot be recovered, any more than adults can become a child again.

We can only go forward by intention and effort; Not by relaxing, lapsing-back, letting-go, dropping-out... trying to extinguish the self, trying to cease being conscious...it does not work (and it was very thoroughly tried in the late 60s/ early 70s)

Maybe you should read Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield?

Unknown said...

I absolutely agree with you that trying to extinguish the self or cease being conscious do not work - because that is still effort, still trying to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, and so continues the sense of alienation and division between oneself and life, which one must control.

But the opposite extreme, of trying to strenuously control, is not the only other alternative, it seems to me.

In Eastern traditions, they warn against the misunderstanding of trying to cease being conscious, and say in that case stones would be enlightened.

I have read Saving the Appearances - I remember loving the beginning but getting confused and losing the thread somewhat in the later parts, although it was shot with insights throughout. But I am not sure Barfield has been able to integrate the various threads of his philosophy.

I confess I am not entirely clear on the difference between OP and FP. Starting from where we are now, we have no choice but to consciously guide ourselves to participation.

By definition, OP cannot be recovered, and if we ever recover participation, it would have to be with the knowledge that it is possible to disconnect and become alienated, and the horrors of that state.

So Taoism also seems like an attempt towards FP, and any relaxation or surrender would have to be FP as well, starting from where we are now. But in truth even conscious relaxation is not true surrender, and even that would have to be given up :)

So I agree that we cannot go back by definition, but we can go full circle. We can complete the circle, richer for knowing the horror and futility of alienation, and with a firmer sense of the goodness of participation.

Epimetheus said...

So, is this Primary Thinking intimately connected to sincerity? Pure thinking goes in hand with pure heartedness? This makes a good deal of sense, somehow...

Chiu ChunLing said...

Originally, we were children, and knew our helplessness and dependence with instinctive certainty. Then we learned that those we were depending on, our parents and elders, were only older children, just as helpless and dependent as us.

We cannot go back, nor should we.

But to let the matter rest at disillusionment with truth will only leave us in despair.

The insight of Eastern philosophy is correct insofar as it goes, if you have desires, you will suffer. But you cannot eliminate your desires. Your motive for eliminating desires is itself born of your desire to avoid suffering. To the degree that you really were to attenuate your desires, your essential desire to avoid suffering must wither away first. Ascetics have known this a long time, suffering is the frustration of desire, thus the desire to avoid suffering is a desire to avoid the frustration of your desires. It is an amplifier to every other desire that pushes them to grievous extremes. If you set about to purge yourself of desire, it is the essential point to attack.

But when you succeed in no longer desiring to avoid suffering, you have no more reason to eliminate all your other desires. Only to rank them according to which are better and which worse. In practice, this is all that ascetics (Eastern or Western) could ever really achieve. Which is not nothing, it is a great advance over an unexamined life.

But if you do not have a path forward to truth, then it will still end in despair.

Some desires are self-defeating. The desire to avoid the frustration of your desire will always end up frustrated, so of course it must go (though one doesn't really need to be an ascetic, life is hard enough already especially if you really care about others). The desire to seem good (smart/kind/strong/etc.) will always end up preventing you from actually being good (sm/knd/str/et), and thus will ultimately end in you not even seeming good. So it must be smothered as well.

Every desire of the body is finally and utterly frustrated by death. The more you desire satiation of your bodily desires, the more terrible death (and the anticipation of death) becomes. The Spartans were physically ascetic through harsh training because it served their agenda of promoting physical courage. Though not every corporeal desire is inherently self-defeating, they all lead to inevitable defeat.

But the desire to overcome suffering, the desire to be good, these desires are not inherently self-defeating. To overcome your useless desires, you must strengthen your consistent desires. The useless desires can't ever be fully killed, they will never be thrust an infinite distance from your heart. You will always suffer from them.

The only remedy is desires that can be satisfied sufficiently to make the suffering a small (or at least bearable) price to pay. The hedonists erred in thinking that any desire tied to the mortal body could be sufficiently satisfied to avail against the suffering of certain death. But they were entirely correct that merely trying to avoid suffering by killing desire was futile in principle.

You must have desires that are enduring, which are not frustrated by mortality or their own pursuit. Only the satisfaction of such good desires can ever be compensation for the inevitability of suffering, the endless frustration of the desires that cannot be satisfied adequately forever.

Those desires are the truth that will set you free, the only escape from despair.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Interesting exploration of desire - and (for me) the end result is a reductio ad absurdum of placing desire at the centre of a metaphysical understanding. i.e. if we focus on desire as primary, we reach absurdity - or rather a kind of living death of passive, only partly selfed, bliss. ie. Nirvana. So the hope of a human is to cease to be human - a kind of death.

By contrast, if something-like creation is the centre of Life, then desire is necessarily a part of it - including unsatisfied desire. God has *many* unfulfilled yearnings - unless (as usual) we do some magic about Time, so that God has the fulfillment of no desire, as well as the actuality of desire... but this is only the cognitively obliterative magic of infinites, not a real solution!

So working-through the primacy of desire, even though to reject it, as you apparently did, is worthwhile - and moves us closer to reality.

Unknown said...


Yes, desiring not to desire is still a desire, and impossible to do.

In Eastern traditions, you are supposed to neither suppress desire nor develop it and cling to it. You just let it be. The focus is on insight, perceiving the basic interrelatedness of everything - the illusion that there is any individual thing to grasp - and instead of negating existence, it is a kind of ecstatic acceptance of all.

Desire is natural and part of the All - there is no point trying to suppress it, although running after it is also silly.

Also, desire is not quite the right word - it is more like trying to grasp, trying to posses. For instance if you walk in a beautiful wood and your heart is full to bursting with awe, and you try and grasp and cling to this feeling, it will vanish like smoke.

This kind of grasping at life is the root of chronic dissatisfaction (suffering is not quite the right word for dukkha), because if we are a fundamental part of life, than trying to grasp it is biting our own tail.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Trying to obtain an outcome is exactly what it means to desire something.

It is mere nonsense to say that you're not trying to not desire, you're just trying to not try to obtain what you desire. It's like saying X = Y, and Y = ~X. Yes, you can say that, but it doesn't mean anything at all. It's merely resorting to spouting nonsense as a way of evading having to answer X or ~X.

"Try" has a connection to "trial" (as effort has a connection to struggle, it is not a mere accident of etymology). No matter how a desire is quelled, the motion of the will when it essays pursuit is a trial of the heart, i.e. suffering. That's true even when we quickly receive satisfaction of our desire, the trial of the heart is swallowed up in (and lends savor and joy) to the satisfaction, but it is still there. C.S. Lewis makes much of this with regard to the suffering of the longing for God, that he termed "joy". But I would say that joy is the transformation of the trial of the heart by desire satisfied. The longing for God is answered by a movement of the spirit which brings us closer to the divine, it is always (but generally quite briefly) satisfied because of this (the brevity is because usually we only let our spirit move a short ways towards God before some other desire pulls it back). But what C.S. Lewis has perfectly right is that the depth and profundity of the joy is directly related to the passion and suffering of the desire. You cannot feel great joy over getting something you desired little (or not at all).

My great task in life has probably been to desire things more (seemingly mostly things that most people should desire less). So I am naturally out of my element talking of quelling desires, merely not developing them in the first place has served all my needs thus far. I have little to offer on the subject of how to subdue strong desires that only bring suffering and cannot be satisfied in the end, other than my interpretation of what others have said.

Still, I have some confidence that they said it for a reason.

Unknown said...

"or rather a kind of living death of passive, only partly selfed, bliss. ie. Nirvana. So the hope of a human is to cease to be human - a kind of death."

I think that's a common misunderstanding, but isn't what nirvana is about.

Enforced passivity is as artificial as our usual attempts to "possess" the world. Rather, you go along with the flow, accepting all of it, not separating yourself from it.

It isn't passive, its action that isn't forced, isn't against the grain - as our usual actions so often are.

By not seeking to "posses" the world, the whole world is given to you. Only by dying can you truly live.

That's the idea at any rate. I do understand the idea of this blog is different, though.

Chiu ChunLing said...

In practice, this is how people who pursue "Nirvana" must treat it to avoid nihilism.

But that doesn't change the clearly defined theory, which has been demonstrated to lead towards nihilism (with consequent rejection of any meaningful value in Nirvana) rather more often than it leads to any degree of real enlightenment.

If you're going to defend a theory based on how it is applied in practice by those who do find value in it, you have to also defend that theory's practical outcome on those who fail. And the numbers matter, when serious failures are a rare outlier, it is rather easier to defend the theory for allowing them in some cases. When they are the more frequent and predictable result, the bar for justifying them is quite a bit higher.

If you're going to defend the theory on purely theoretical grounds without caring about the practical implications, then you cannot go appealing to how it is practiced successfully being divergent from the clearly expressed theoretical implications. Besides, a theory that doesn't properly describe the successful application is what we call an experimentally discredited theory.

Unknown said...


You are not entirely wrong with regard to Theravada Buddhism, although even here the grim version of Nirvana is more of an interpretation than actually found in the texts.

But with Mahayana Buddhism and Zen, the conception of Nirvana I am describing is frankly set forth, and it's clearly a development of what is found in the earlier texts.

I am not sure what you mean by nihilism. If you mean purpose and goal, yes, this conception of Nirvana clearly destroys any such concepts.

But this conception of Nirvana leads to wonder and awe, and a sense of complete existential security as one sees one is not separate from the stream of life that one must impose ones will on it as a separate ego, but rather are an indissoluble part of everything.

So in that sense it isn't nihilism, and has been the basis of the wonderful civilizations of the East.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Nihilism isn't incompatible with wonder and awe, merely the delusion that they actually mean anything.

Meaning doesn't have to be a delusion as such. Genuine nihilism can't trade in absolutes about the lack of meaning anyway. But usually it is, especially if one avoids rigor.

The Crow said...

Any human can think. Only a very few have the self-discipline necessary to not-think.
The former go crazy trying to think their way to some semblance of wisdom.
The latter find themselves smiling serenely at how incredibly easy it actually is.

Unknown said...


I prefer the word value. In Eastern traditions, the world has immense value - indeed it is bliss - but it has no purpose, goal, or meaning (in the sense of refering to something beyond itself).

I suppose that is a major difference.