Ong sees a fruit high up on a tree. The amount of energy it’d take to climb the tree is more than that fruit could provide, so climbing it would be a waste.
But, Ong’s hungry af. “How do I get that fruit? Maybe I can use a branch to knock it down.” Ong looks around, but can’t find any branches long enough. Sitting there, starving and defeated, Ong looks at two of the branches and thinks, “If only I had one branch that was as long as both of those put together.” Bam! Insight.
Ong gathers some vines and ties the two branches together. Triumphant, Ong raises the creation into the air, and tries to bat the fruit off the tree. But it’s a stubborn fucking fruit. “If I can’t hit it off, maybe I can stab it.” So, Ong takes a rock and sharpens the end of the super branch and tries again. Bingo, it catches on the fruit, and Ong is able to pull it off the tree.
Later, Ong tells the tribe about what happened and shows them how to make their own fruit-grabbers.
This is why we think. It helps us to communicate, understand what’s going on around us, plan, and solve problems. Everything we have started off as thoughts in someone’s head. These computers, phones, and tablets were once just thoughts. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take our phones everywhere? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had the internet everywhere?”
Those thoughts set off a stream-of-thought and activity that’s passed from person to person, and it’ll keep going as we make new revisions and innovations.
Our thoughts can also cause problems. When people figured out how to use fossil fuels to power machinery, they didn’t think about how that could affect the environment. So now, we’re trying to think up solutions to that thought-created problem.
Thoughts also help us to communicate our feelings, but words still aren’t the best way to communicate emotions; paintings, music, tone of voice, body language, and physical contact are far more direct.
Ong didn’t start off thinking, “I love you.” Ong hugged, shared, drew on cave walls, sang without words, and smiled.
Thinking isn’t a problem—unskillful thinking is the problem. Thoughts have a purpose, they’re tools. If we use them outside of their natural function, we start to make a mess of things.
“Yikes, it sounds my brakes are squealing,” is a skillful thought. “Yikes, I’m a piece of shit and no one loves me,” isn’t. Not because one is good and the other not, but because one thought is received, and the other is fabricated.
If I see the color blue, my mind is receiving that color from the surroundings. If I think, “Ah, a clear blue sky,” that thought is being received from the surroundings.
This is thought’s natural habitat. The mind’s thinking process is gonna naturally function better under these conditions. Each thought we have is gonna be more likely to be the most appropriate thought for that moment.
When we get lost in thought, lost in our own stories, that’s taking thought out of its natural habitat and putting it in a zoo. That’s why we often feel trapped in our lives or stuck in our heads.
No-thought is Zen. That doesn’t mean not thinking at all, it means letting thought abide by its true nature—that nature being non-abiding.
Zen practice is about abiding non-abiding. Thoughts arise from the situation and change with the situation. They don’t dwell, they don’t circle or linger. They don’t stand on their own feet but rely on sensations, feelings, perception, memory, impulses, and consciousness to prop them up. As those elements change, thoughts change.
But, it’s not a one-way street. Thoughts also influence the things they depend on. A dark mood can cause aggressive or depressive thoughts, but peaceful and optimistic thoughts can brighten that mood.
That’s the beauty of emptiness: if we change one thing, just one, then we change everything. Zen focuses on thought, it’s the study and practice of letting our thoughts abide by their true nature and seeing that nature directly.
This means being mindful of where our thoughts are coming from—if they’re from the body or just the brain—and being mindful of whether they’re free range or locked up in a cage.
Practice involves tossing out this dualistic preference we have for the brain and reintroducing the body into our everyday awareness. By the body I mean seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.
And it involves understanding that there is no cage, the cage is totally imagination only.
The cage is past and future and judgments. But the past is just memory, the future is just imagination, and our judgments are just habitual biased preferences based on our feelings and perception. All of it depending on an ungrounded consciousness that leaps from branch to branch.
We don’t have to tackle every little thing in that clusterfuck. Since it’s all connected, we only need to tackle one. Just thought. If we let thoughts abide by their True Nature, everything else will as well. If we see the True Nature of thought directly, we see the True Nature of everything.
One fun method to get us out of your heads is slow-mo mindfulness. It’s exactly what it sounds like. We eat, drink, walk, talk, think, reach for things, etc. all with the intention to do it slowly, smoothly, and deliberately. We take the sloth or turtle as our spirit animal.
This gets us out of our heads because it takes persistent attention to keep slow-mo going. Also, stress-reduction is an added perk since doing things slowly causes less cortisol to flood the body. It decreases our trigger-happy fight-or-flight response. This also helps us see things clearly.
It’s important to not get carried away with slow-mo mindfulness though, it’s just a skillful means. Once we see the nature of thought, we can just be as we are without any means at all. Maybe we’ll naturally move and speak slowly, maybe not. But, until we get to that point, it’s good to use all the tricks of the trade.