“Reminds me of the Grand Canyon.” I was in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – a vast expanse of deep ravines and copper cliffs – and this was the best description I could offer. Instantly I wished I hadn’t said it. The utterance had reduced a true spectacle of nature to a mere imposter – a backup quarterback for the real star. Without taking his eyes off the view, my dad nodded.
This is how we think. We label our experience – usually unconsciously – with fragments from our past. Thought is fueled by memory. And if we aren’t mindful of this fact, our attention is yanked around like a schoolgirl walking a caffeinated Labrador. This explains why we see our car in every parking lot after we buy it. The image of our vehicle is seared into our brain, and when the perfect match is found, we cannot help but notice it.
This “comparing through memory” function can be adaptive. Our ancestors avoided berries – even when their body was saying eat – that had previously made them ill. And even today, if you’ve been swindled several times by greasy car salesmen, the comparing brain will be deeply mistrustful of the approaching pinstriped figure at the Kia dealership. But most of the time, this function is in overdrive. Here’s how it works:
“I see a lovely cloud, or a mountain clear against the sky, or a leaf that has just come in springtime, or a deep valley full of loveliness and splendor, or a glorious sunset, or a beautiful face […]”, wrote contemplative Jiddu Krishnamurti. “And then the problem begins; my mind thinks over what it has seen and thinks how beautiful it was; I tell myself I should like to see it again many times. Thought begins to compare, judge, and say, ‘I must have it again tomorrow.’”
Thought bubbles up and takes over experience. Instead of basking in the auburn hues of a setting sun, we think how it reminds us of a painting. Rather than savoring that grass-fed ribeye with all 10,000 taste buds, we compare it to the last steak. The difference seems subtle, but our habits of attention govern the quality of our lives. And thoughts – especially comparing thoughts – are attention thieves.
We humans, of course, couldn’t stop thinking if we tried. We all ponder aimlessly, get angry, feel sad… are unenlightened most of the time. Yet this fact doesn’t stop a parade of gurus from making specious claims. (Exposed here by author and news anchor Dan Harris.) Does Eckhart Tolle ever get annoyed? “No, I accept what is. And that’s why life has become so simple.” Does the mind of Deepak Chopra ever wander? “I have no regrets about the past…I don’t anticipate the future. I live in the moment…it’s a transformational vortex to the infinite.” If they are to be believed, Tolle and Chopra are spinning away in another dimension free of care and worry.
Yet we don’t have to descend into absurdity to grow more sensitive to our patterns of thought. We can just sit back and watch the show. A beautiful stranger glides by and we’re whirled into fantasy. A clear night of stargazing evokes a memory of the planetarium. A clattering of dishes generates a 3D mind-movie of the offender committing the act. There is no off switch.
But if we can stand sentinel to the vicissitudes of thought, noting it for what it is – thinking, thinking, still thinking – the mind learns something. We stop identifying with thoughts. We become detached from the cycle. Thoughts still come, but – seeing them clearly – we can let them go. Then there is some space in the mind for pure, simple being.
As I brought my attention back to the majestic landscape in eastern Utah, my mind grew very peaceful. Thought was put to rest, if only for a moment. My brain knew – at some level – that I had bungled the experience earlier. Thoughts of the past had stood in the way of beauty. “You cannot think about joy,” said Krishnamurti. “Joy is an immediate thing.”
Krishnamurti, J. Freedom from the Known,. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.