Reflections on Thinking

Kevin Langdon


What am I thinking right now? Is it possible to capture the essence of my thought at a particular moment in a writtten form? What about all the stray associations which pass through my mind?

That is to say, what is the essence of a thought process? Is there a central focus around which the associations cluster, with some in close orbits and some swinging further out? What relationship do aapparently random asociations have to the central attentive focus and to the contents of the "unconscious"?

Now I have been interrupted and will have to stop typing this and come back to finish it. What is lost when I stop? Is it possible to pick up the thread again?

Sitting here waiting for the word processing system to come up again, my mind began to fill up with the questions I started to address above, and I asked myself "Will I be able to remember the fundamental quality of this very rapid flooding of ideas as the various considerations which developed more slowly when I began come back to me?" I also found myself asking whether any of what I was thinking was new.

In one sense, the questions surrounding the thought process are very simple. How to connect the slow service facilities which I use in the everyday interfacing of structured perception and movement to my internal utilitarian representation system with the swiftness of that thinking which comprehends the flow of my attention? This question is a very basic one, and it is clear that there is no wholly satisfactory solution in the abstract; nonetheless, if I have a specific perspective which I wish to communicate selectively, it may be possible to place it before the reader in a useful way.

It is the very in-principle-intractability of the problem which makes it fundamentally simple. The question is raised, I recognize the basic incommensurability, and refocus to an appropriate scale.

Another very interesting question suggests itself in the above: How does the attention connect with its object? Does it pass over the surface of an object in my field of vision or (in some to-be-defined sense) the form of a thought? Is there a distinction at all, basically, between thought and attention? If the attention comprehends a thought, does the attention "think"? Isn't any representation of a thought a thought itself? If thought represents attention, are not important distinctions inevitably lost? And if not, what does this imply about the level of thinking which must be utilized? On the other hand, if thought and attention are, in some fundamental sense, identical, what gives rise to the apparent dissimilarity between them?

There is another sense in which the thought process gives rise to some very deep and significant questions. No matter which aspect of this familiar--at least to some extent and with respect to some objects--process is examined, it leads to endless complexity as new aspects of the fabric of mind come into view.

As a concrete examle, I am creating a document to record some of the considerations involved in these matters. As I think, and try to convert my thinking into English, there is a secondary process of thinking about the linguistic forms I use to represent my thoughts. If I try to represent this process, this new thought process, too, must become the subject of the same representation considerations.

How is it that something which is so apparently ordinary and straightforward can reveal itself as endlessly deep and complex? It reminds one of nothing so much as the universe iself, which, as is bcoming apparent to physical scientists as they explore ever-deper levels of the structure of matter and the fabric of spacetime, is not made up of individual objects and disconnected processes, but is instead one indivisible whole--though the scientists generally deny or ignore the applicability of this fact to their own inner psychological experience. (This blindness of the scientific establishment to human existence within the world of interconnected forces which it studies in the abstract has recently been exploited in a number of popular books which purport to provide an understanidng of the interconnectedness of things, uniting the physical with the psychological, a premature claim, to say the least.)

What is the relationship between thought and reality? The suggestion of a relationship is strong, but what is the mechanism by which the mind makes a representation of a world, and how do I come to believe that that world exists in reality?

What do I mean when I say "exists in reality"? It would seem that I am speaking of existence in a stronger sense than the mathematical, the sense in which I might speak of the existence of a solution to an equation. Perhaps it has to do with my experience of pleasurable or painful sensations corresponding to certain events in which I recognize definite and repetitive patterns in my world-representation. These are, at least, difficult to ignore. Connected to this are what appear to be automatic functions of my organism, which in certain respects appears to be quite independent of my psychological inner world, becoming perceptible only through its effects. The organism seems to have a life of its own, separated from my attention and thought processes, but sharing certain facilities with the "volition" which is connected to these processes.

On closer examination, this interconnection provides an indirect link between mind and body which suggests the reality of an "external" world (that in which the body lives) through my involvement in it. This is, of course, quite a different matter from my intuition that mind and body are functionally one whole, supported by my observation of the difference between connected and disconnected functioning.

It is clear that my perception of a solid world is unreliable, arising from the accidental forms of my perception, and, in many areas I have observed (and presumably many others which I have not seen in myself as yet), biased by my desire to see myself as an independent and responsible agent unconstrained by forces outside myself.

This desire is universal, and universally leads to delusion. The chaos of the world is magnified by the mass institutions of modern society, but has existed throughout human history. It is very difficult and unpleasant to look at the world as a system governed by unknown influences, obeying an unknown purpose, in which one's place and function is questionable and, if it exists at all, to be discovered.

Nonetheless, if a reliable perception of an underlying reality is possible, it must begin with an objective study of my own tendency to disappear into my own subjective world.

How is one to begin such a study? It is already clear that the instrument which I am accustomed to use for investigating phenomena, thought, is highly suspect as a means of grasping the truth of existence, as, by its very nature, it always begins in the middle; thought cannot reveal one starting point more fundamental than any other. Even if mathematics were complete and understood as a unity with a basic axiomatic foundation, this would not help in arriving at an understanding of the world, as there is no basis for applying mathematical constructs to psychological reality; the stuff of thought is fundamentally elusive, as shown above. In fact, there are a number of problems in the foundations of mathematics which have stymied all attempts to reduce it to a single coherent and consistent structure and there are technical grounds for believing that such a reduction is impossible.

If my study is not to utilize thought, or at least not thought alone, what am I to use in investigating the nature of reality (or of myself)? What is required is a method which is immediate, providng direct contact with something indubitably real as a starting point and proceeding in such manner as to avoid arbitrariness and paradox without loss of generality.

Mathematical truth is directly available to the mind, but, as we have already seen, does not, by itself, lead anywhere; memory is not always reliable (and my trust of the contents of memory arises through the memory of its close correspondence, where a correspondence can be reasonably expected, with the world of the present); dreams are ephemeral and difficult to recall and my everyday critical intelligence is not normally present while I am dreaming; intuiitons of higher realities are of great interest, but it is by no means clear that the traces left in the memory by such experiences capture anything of their essence, nor that they provide a means for collecting experience into a comprehensible whole. The only possible starting point, then, is my contact with the world through direct experience of myself in this moment.

The experience which may be of real use to me for the understanding I seek is the experience of myself inside my body. But how do I approach this experience? I have existed in my body in the world for my whole life and so has every other human being who has ever lived.  If this is the starting point, there must be something more--something which transforms stumbling through life into a real study of the laws of nature within my inner life.

Socrates is reported to have said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." It is clear, at least, that many millions of people lack both any sense of meaning in life and a sense of inquiry into the nature of things, despite the incessant revolution in them of the wheel  oof thought. Ordinary thought, concerned only with the satisfaction of desires, leads nowhere.

Examples of pointless thought and activity arising from it are easy to identify; many things are so manifestly senseless that all reasonable people agree that they have no purpose. It is much harder to arrrive at an understanding of what might be genuinely useful and valuable thinking, from the point of view of the study of oneself and the universe. Is it "better," in this sense, to be a millionaire than a hobo? Is there an existential superiority of a philosopher to a king? Does a monk who renounces the world have an inside track to objective truth? I am suspicious of such broad generalizations, and suspect that the answers to these questions depend very much on what one means by a "philosopher" or a "monk."

What I recognize as of value in bringing certain people closer to the taste of authenticity is not an external form of life or the profession of one philosophical creed or another, but an attitude of immediate and unreserved availability to the truth of experience in which thought finds its place as one of a number of functions operating simultaneously and contributing its distinctively mental voice to the texture of life as experienced.

By its nature, thought discloses certain interconnections among phenomena. Without taking these interconnections into account, one's image of reality is incomplete. At the same time, thought has a tendency to draw the attention into byways, severing the thread by which awareness is connected with the immediate experience of myself in the moment.

I know this because I have seen myself mired in mental associations time and again, to the detriment of my contact with the reality of the present moment, despite my best iintentions to remain centered and in control of my attention. This tendency of thought to run away with the attention, which is the only instrument through which I make direct contact with the world, is itself an important object of study, and one in which thought plays a particularly important part.

In order to think actively, as opposed to being a passive spectator to the automatic movement of thought, I must observe the tendency of the thought to follow familiar associations and learn to notice when these associations lead away from contact iwth my experience--and from an active relationship with myself.

If, at this point, I am able to return to that questioning of what I see which appears naturally when I am not too occupied to notice that I am alive, a new relationship of the objects of attention may appear, as a thought or in some other form.

The point of appearance of a new thought is a critical one. At the point of insight I am faced with the greatest temptation to reify the thought and to lose my attention. Simultaneously, the possibility exists to penetrate yet deeper into the underlying mystery of the universe and my existence in it.

To see the precarious position of any active engagement of thought and to realize that, at any moment, I do not know whether I will be able to find the way toward that sincere questioning which originates from the highest--which is say, the most authentic--part of myself, is very difficult. There are strong forces within me that resist this engagement. It goes against all my habits of thought and it requires a great deal of energy.

It can only be maintained for brief periods, and, in the end, I always find myself swallowed up by a thought or something else which takes my attention away from the immediate experience of psychological reality, or, more usually, I see later on that I have been swallowed up.

The work of self-study is difficult, tedious, upsetting to one's ideas about oneself, and brings very little in the way of obvious immediate rewards. Nonetheless, this work is necessary if one is not to simply drift through life, if one truly thirsts for knowledge and refuses to be satisfied with pointless excitement and empty pleasures.

 

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