MCTB The Thought Models
Speaking of screwed-up models, we have the Thought Models. These are models that tend to focus on something different happening with thoughts in those who are awakened, rather than simply seeing through the thought patterns that create a sense of a center point or special, permanent, separate self. These idealized models include not thinking certain thoughts, such as enlightened beings being unable to think the thought “I” or “I am”, not thinking at all and thus stopping the process of thought, or some other modification to thoughts, such always thinking good thoughts, whatever those are.
I got an email a while ago from a seemingly nice engineer who said basically: “I did some Taoist practices, got enlightened, and now am incapable of thinking any thoughts or visualizing, yet I seem to function normally. What do you think of this?” I put a lot of thought into my response, and so am including it here, in slightly edited form:
“One of my dead teachers, Bill Hamilton, used to talk about how people's conceptions of what was supposed to happen would have some influence on subsequent events, with some question about what that influence was. We used to discuss this often, with possibilities including:
- People with different models of awakening might actually achieve different results. I am no fan of this proposition but admit the possibility.
- People with different models might achieve the same thing but describe it differently. I believe this one more than the first.
- Some combination of these.
- People might fail to achieve results but be scripted to report or believe that they had achieved something in line with their own working model. This is a common occurrence, one that I have observed in myself more times than I can count and also in the practice of many other fellow dharma adventurers. Bill would often mention people's ability to self hypnotize into semi-fixed states of delusion. He had a long run of hanging out in scary cult-like situations with psychopathic teachers and got to observe this first-hand in himself and others: see his book Saints and Psychopaths for more on this.
- People with different models and techniques might have very different experiences of the path along its way: this is clearly true in some aspects, and yet the universal aspects of the path continue to impress me with their consistency and reproducibility regardless of tradition.
- Other possibilities we haven’t considered, in the style of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “Unknown Unknowns”.
The “no thought” question is an interesting one. It is commonly used in some traditions as being the goal, these including some strains and descriptions of Hindu Vedanta, multiple non-aligned traditions, and others. Zen sometimes toys with the idea on its periphery. As to Taoism: I did a bunch of reading of the old Taoist masters some years ago, but I wouldn't consider myself an expert on its current practice or dogma.
Buddhism does not generally consider not thinking or not being able to visualize among its goals, which brings us to the points mentioned above. For instance, the Awakened Buddha often says things in the old texts like, "It occurred to me that I should wander by stages to [such and such a place]." Or, "This spontaneous stanza, never heard before, occurred to me." These obviously are thoughts. Furthermore, if we note the old texts as reference, all of the enlightened disciples of the Buddha and the Buddha himself were described as thinking thoughts. Further, many of the Buddha's disciples could visualize, as could the Buddha, and if we look to modern times you can't be a tantric master without some strong visualization abilities.
Further, the notion that one can write an email or do engineering, which inherently involves abstraction (mathematics) and other concepts being converted into actuality, or even speak and have it not involve thought, is one that I think is merely a conceptual understanding itself and thus an arbitrary designation. Further, as intentions fall into the realm of thought, and all physical actions are preceded by intentions by the fixed mechanics of the system, the notion that action can occur without thought falls into the same camp. This also applies to all such things as memory, which you clearly demonstrate, as this inherently must involve thought essentially by definition (with caveats as above).
Given those assumptions, the question I ask is: have you simply stopped calling those processes "thought" so as to fit with an arbitrary and dogmatic model? Perhaps you have forced yourself to stop noticing that mental processes occur as you thought that was supposed to happen? Maybe you have achieved something real and because of your preconceptions choose to describe it through that terminological filter, or have achieved something completely different from those that is not on my radar screen for whatever reason, possibilities including my own delusion or lack of experience, just for the sake of completion and reasonable skeptical doubt, which is always a good idea.
The terminology that I am used to involves seeing thoughts as they are, thus having them be just a very small and transient part of the natural, causal field of experience. However, it must also be admitted that, since thoughts can only be experienced as aspects of the other five sense doors, then labeling thought as thought is also just an abstraction and just as arbitrary as is labeling the other five sense doors as such. These are simply convenient designations (thoughts) for the sake of discussion.
When one notices that all things simply arise on their own, including those sensations that may or may not be designated as thoughts, to be empty of a self, as they are and always have been, with no separate or independent observer or controller or doer that is not just a part of the field of experience or manifestation, then one has understood at some level what the Buddha advocated that people understand. Thus, the model that I prefer, as it is practical, non-esoteric and direct, is that:
- Sensations that can be labeled as thoughts occur.
- Thoughts are natural, causal, and essential to nearly every function we perform.
- Thoughts are not self, not other, part of life, and empty in the good sense.
- They always have been this way, before and after any spiritual achievement, and when their true nature is seen, they are still as they were.
An essential question regarding enlightenment is: does it make things different from how they were, or does it merely reveal a true and accurate perception or perspective on how everything always was? I advocate a moderated version of the latter view, as I believe it is more helpful to practice and more accurate. Thus, in this view, which is just one view, anything that could happen before, such as thought or visualization, can happen after, with the only thing changing being some untangling of the previously held knot of tangled perception.
In terms of my experience, another interesting conceptual designation, and using relative and down-to-earth language, I can make my inner voice as loud as it could be before, it is much more clear than it was before, it is perceived as part of the natural field of causality in a way that it was not before, and mindfulness comes and goes as before. In high jhanaic states the inner voice is very subtle, but I can still visualize as before, sometimes with even more clarity depending on practice conditions. In short, I have not lost abilities nor have I changed much about the way the system operates. That said, something is clear that was not clear before, and the sense of a special center point seems seen-through, though the sensate patterns that made it up generally seem still to occur as before, and it is only the perception of them that is different.” (End of email.)
As you can see, I sometimes write long emails for worthy dharma questions, but must admit I only have the time to do this because the number of people who ask me questions as of this point is so very small. Anyway, back to the models…