Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Self, Meaning and the Significance of Life

The Question of Meaning or Significance of Life: My former philosophy professor who later became my friend once bemoaned the fact that in spite of carrying the Bhagavad Gita under his arm for many years he could never ‘believe’ (in religious matters). He is a well-known scholar in Indian philosophy and tradition as well as in Western philosophy and logic. I told him that he could never believe nor make himself believe because he knew too much, meaning that the knowledge prevented him from naïvely believing in anything. The knowledge would prompt him to question and doubt any belief he might entertain. The same holds true with innocence in matters of living.

The question, “What is the meaning of life?” like questions such as “Who made God?” “What was there before everything?” is a metaphysical question. It does not lend itself to any satisfactory answer, because such questions are basically paradoxes created by our reason, which is a form of thought. For instance, suppose there is some meaning to life, say, for instance, serving God or His purposes, letting alone the question of whether there is a personal God or not, one could immediately ask the question of what is God’s purpose or why should one serve God. This questioning is endless. That’s why the question has no general answer.

In order to satisfactorily answer this question, we must ask in what contexts the question of meaning of life arises. I used to point out to my students when discussing the question of meaning of life that a five year-old just doesn’t run to his or her daddy and ask him, “Daddy, daddy, what’s the meaning of life?” We don’t ask such questions when our lives are moving on smoothly. Our lives must have run into some crisis and come to a halt before we ask such a question. As UG often said, a living man never asks the question of why he should live. You don’t ask such questions until you have lost your innocence in living. You must ‘know too much’ to get to ask such questions.

Normally, when we do things, engage in various activities of life, we don’t look for any external meaning to our actions except the goals we seek. It’s natural that when we confront various frustrations in life, particularly with regard to some significant goals, be it a girlfriend or boyfriend we wanted, or a job we seek or the ill-health that we try to recover from. In striving for our goals, we make constant assessment of our status, where we are and how far we still have to go, what we have achieved and what that ‘means’ to us, and so on, by reviewing not only our present situation, but also our life, constantly and repeatedly, and the reviewing becomes a habit. It is when we face some profound failures that we tend to review our life, assess its significance and ask if there is any meaning to the whole of our life. We have to arrive at a general idea of the whole of our life, which we didn’t have earlier, (even when as young people we constantly looked forward to our future,) before we could ask such fundamental questions about life. The questioning can land us in various forms of malaise: one might lose one’s taste for life, become bored with life, and worse, become an alcoholic or workaholic, or become addicted to achievement, or become chronically depressed or even go the limits of losing one’s will to live and of committing suicide.

The solution to the problem of meaning of life lies in the sources where it was generated, viz., in the initial frustrations regarding achieving one’s basic desires or goals. In other words, the solution to the problem is in its dissolution. If we were totally engaged in living and are not separate from it, the question of what is the meaning of life would not even arise.

Fulfillment and Frustration: Built into the activity geared toward goal-seeking are ideas of time and future. We labor under an implicit assumption that the satisfaction of each goal will somehow fulfill us. The feeling of fulfillment or the feeling that our life has been fruitful could come not only from satisfaction of goals such as money, a good family, a house, a boat, power, achievement and what not, but also from religious sources: you ardently believed in God and his grace, you feel blessed and or through your devotion and piety you feel that some day your life will be blessed or you will reach the presence of God.

When the goals are reached, when we get what we want, we do feel content and satisfied, and feel fulfilled for the moment. But the matter never ends there: the very awareness of what we have achieved turns it into a further goal, at least of preserving the status quo or continuing it in time, for we once again feel we lack it or feel uncertain about it in some other fashion (we may not have it tomorrow or there is a risk that someone or something might take it away from us, and so on). When our striving process proceeds without interruption, we normally do not tend to ask fundamental questions about living or its significance. If we happen to have religious beliefs, then as long as the beliefs are strong, they tend to give us support in tiding over our frustration: this life with its travails, for instance, might be viewed as a testing ground in which God or some other power morally and spiritually prepares us for a life of blessedness.

But when we find that the goals are not achieved and frustration is the only outcome, and when we confront several such failures, we tend to believe that our lives have been a waste and we start wondering whether life itself has any meaning. We could even lose our faith in God, particularly if the shock of frustration is too great and no amount of prayer has been answered. It is not as much that we look toward a higher meaning as wondering whether there is any meaning at all that is the crux of the issue.

The flow of life has been interrupted when we ask such questions; our naiveté and involvement in the life process have left us. When the frustrations are rather fundamental, no substitutions for the goals or simple patching will put us back on track. We have lost the taste for life. The lost belief or faith can never be regained. Is there any solution to such a problem short of getting into boredom, depression, suicide, alcohol or what not?

Once the question arises, one then asks the further question of how to become free from this separation, this alienation between ourselves and our life.

As long as we are attached to goals and something outside of us to fulfill us, frustrations are inevitable and the question of meaninglessness of life must arise, as we keep insisting that not only our desires must be satisfied, but that we must have no failures and we must be permanently happy ‘without a moment of unhappiness’. The problem of meaningless of life is intimately bound with the problem of time and our own future non-existence: for we try to fulfill ourselves only because we feel we lack all the things we desire.

If we can confront our own future non-existence (i.e. death), and emptiness, then perhaps we could see the superfluous nature of our values and goals we have been seeking all our lives. We can see then all the goals and values that have hitherto given meaning to our life are dispensable. This doesn’t mean that we do not pursue goals or have desires. Living simply requires us to. But we could see the tentativeness of goals and strive for them when one needs to and not be daunted by failures. Each thing we undertake would have value only on its own merits, but not as part of a life-project or ulterior meaning; and when we don’t succeed in our endeavor, we are flexible enough to try some more or in other ways or abandon the goal and move on to other things.

Notice that we are not talking about not having goals or not enjoying or suffering the results of our actions. Of course, we will as we currently do. Suppose we come to the realization that there is no external meaning to life, and whatever we do has to have its meaning stemming from the results of the action; and further suppose, that we realize that success and failure are equally possible outcomes of every action and that when we confront failures, we let that happen and move on to a further project, even if it is retrying the earlier project and perhaps keep working at that. If we can succeed in doing that, that means we have learned to become free from the residue of the disappointment generated from the previous failure or failures.

Each failure is an invitation to revisit our goals and assess their feasibility. Each failure is also an opportunity to become aware of our attachment to things, people or situations and question it. Each failure is also an opening to our own emptiness underneath all our goals and activities.

Then we tend to live life on its own terms, and not in terms of ulterior values we have acquired here and there.

I am not saying that there is no significance to life or meaning in life; I am saying that if you don’t ask fundamental questions about living, then each little thing we do will have its own temporary and tentative meaning. The metaphysical question of whether or not there is an ultimate, exterior meaning to life doesn’t bother us anymore, because we realize that that meaning is bound up with all the goals and values that we have so far found desirable and that our self is that meaning. The loss of that self is what we have been afraid of. Once we are free from that fear, we don’t have to look for any ulterior meaning. Life is its own meaning.

Meaning and the Self:[1]The world we build for ourselves, the world of our meaning is our self. The self is meaning. The loss of meaning is the loss of self. Our thought process puts together repeatedly various situations and events that occur in our life from time to time and assign meaning and value to it. Then we feel elated or depressed, depending on the outcome of the evaluation. Meaning and value are assigned, however, in terms of one’s past experience; that’s the measuring rod and the backdrop against which things and events acquire meaning. The meaning we assign to our world is our meaning and it defines us.

Our feeling secure is bound up with our being able to find meaning in our lives. The mind constantly tries to impose structure on any given situation. One has to find a place for oneself in the scheme of things and see how one measures up in relation to it. Not being able to do so makes one insecure, because the situation then is seen as fraught with uncertainty and one wouldn’t know where one is.

Boredom: One of the opposites of a meaningful life is boredom. If things are not interesting or meaningful, then we are bored. We constantly labor under the opposites of ‘boring’ and ‘interesting’ when we confront situations. What’s interesting and what is not are determined, of course, on the basis of comparing the current situation, action, idea, thought, conversation or whatever, with what we have experienced in our past as more or less interesting or meaningful than this. The ability of not looking for meaning in life is the ability to confront situations not on the basis of such comparisons, but just as themselves – i.e., neither interesting nor boring. You just do them because either you have to, or that’s what’s in your way. Everything you confront has its own interest.

Loneliness: One of the consequences of meaninglessness, particularly that stemming from frustrations in love, is the problem of loneliness. Unless you are, once again, comparing the present situation as lacking something you wanted, there is no room for isolation or loneliness. The world is filled with things and people – they all keep us company. You don’t get lost in them nor do you feel isolated.

Depression: Depression is another one of the consequences. Depression is considered as a malaise. Unless it is generated from some physical condition (such as gloomy weather) or chemical imbalance, it is always in relation to something we have been missing or frustrated about. Depression is a withdrawal response. You don’t reach out any more as you were frustrated earlier. Your energies, as it were, are turned inward. And depression is inevitable as long as you are still hooked to the person or thing you have been attached to and you can’t, for some reason or other, continue to strive for it. If and when you could let the person or thing go, then depression drops itself out of you “like a handkerchief from your pocket.”

Fear and Worrying about Future: We are not only proud of our past achievements, we also worry about our future – what will happen to our money, fortunes, job, health, family, house and so on. The worry is created by the thought process which also creates our future. We constantly live in hope and yet when there is some doubt about the future outcome we worry about it. The meaning structure, i.e. the self, is constantly at risk. We feel threatened. As long as you think about your future, you must worry. The mind is constantly calculating possibilities, measuring one’s progress against them and responding to them through worry and hope. We will never be free from one (fear) without being free from the other (hope). To be able to become free from both requires an overhaul our system -- our values and cherished desires. Worry is a form of fear. We cannot be free from fear until we take it all the way to its limits and accept the worst possible outcome. If we could ever get to do that, that would generate the possible required disillusionment with our desires and goals. Thus we become free from our attachments.

In the final analysis, the question of meaning in life as a blanket question is tantamount to the preparedness to let go of one’s set of values and meanings that one has acquired in the past, and that means the same as losing one self. By facing one’s annihilation, one is able to break up this total meaning structure into pieces. Then, perhaps, one is able to live without having to have an overall meaning, each life situation or event having a meaning in its own terms: I am currently writing, for instance, because there was some occasion in my previous writing where this sort of question arose, or someone raised a question regarding this. Once I finish writing this piece, its purpose is served and I move on to other things. I don’t have to have this contribute to my overall meaning of life, nor do I have to feel disappointed if people criticize it or do not understand it or agree with it. That’s their problem, not mine. As to the question of why I write at all, the answer is simply for lack of anything better to do. It is, as a matter of fact, one among the many things I do in my day-to-day life, some necessary for living or survival and some totally gratuitous. How else could it be? I can’t, at my age, make myself believe in some artificial or religious goal and go about assigning meaning to my life on its basis. But I have no disappointment in my life either. Life is what it is. You just live as best as you can, and then you go!

I know all this sounds totally counter-commonsensical and absurd as we are all so used to living on the basis of a set of values to which we feel so committed and attached. We feel that there is no point of living without such a basis (I can hear a resounding response, “Then why live?” in my ears!) This is just one possible analysis and solution and it may or may not appeal to you.

[1] I wrote about this in my previous article, but it can bear some repetition in the present context.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Thought, Thinking and the Self

Preamble: Here I am not so much interested in what the scientists have to say about thought and thinking, their scientific studies, which generally involve establishing correlations between thought processes (or other mental phenomena like perception, feeling, emotions and dreaming) and various brain centers or electrical and chemical processes, as understanding them from my own point of view in a commonsense fashion. The problem with scientific studies is that they don’t leave us with much we can do anything about. And they eventually will lead to commercial or political exploitation.

Beginnings of Thought: We all use the words ‘thinking’ and ‘thought’ without ever being conscious of what the words mean. I think the thinking process has its roots in consciousness which in turn has origins in the very simple activities like responding to stimuli, recognition and various stages of remembering. Response is evident even in the world of inanimate matter, as for instance, when an iron filing responds to the presence of a magnet, or a gas heater or toaster responds to a set temperature in a thermostat. In the biological world, response takes place in the form of reacting to stimuli, whether internal or external, even at the level of ameba or other primitive organisms. Here we see the beginnings of what we can term as consciousness. Responses become more and more complex as life forms become more complex and heterogeneous – forming the senses and their sensations, which serve the organism’s basic survival and reproductory needs. Some animals respond to stimuli even when they do not occur in the present: an animal like an elephant is said to be able to dream. Dogs are said to be able not merely to recognize their masters but remember where their homes are and get back to them, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Whales and birds are known to migrate thousands of miles away as their instincts and other internal stimuli prompt them. And bees can communicate to other bees with precision the location of a source of nectar.

Internal stimuli too cause responses of various kinds. But most important for our discussion is the idea of image making. Images are said to exist in some primitive form in animals, particularly in elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas, and perhaps even in cats and birds. They miss their partners when they are not present for a length of time. The grieving process and dreaming through fear presuppose some sort of imagery, however primitive and isolated it might be. Images are representations of objects which are not directly present. And to that degree they do represent concepts, although only non-verbally. A concept is a mental representation of whatever kind, even if it is just a mere sensation, when it is taken to represent something other than itself, most of the time a class of objects.

Consciousness: When animals respond to images in a primitive fashion, they are conscious, but only in an incipient sense. An explicit consciousness, as when we are self-conscious, requires the division between the self and the other mediated through a thought, whether explicitly verbalized or not. Therefore, we cannot say animals are conscious of images or of their own responses to them. We too were probably like them before self-consciousness has developed in us. Words, like images, are vehicles for concepts and physiologically they exist only in the form of sounds (which we notice in our sub-vocal speech movements).

Self-Consciousness: Then what is self-consciousness? I think the roots of typical thought processes must be sought here. Self-consciousness must involve some feeling or consciousness of oneself being conscious of whatever it is that one is conscious of (say, a sensation, an object or situation in the world, a feeling or an action). Self-consciousness does not take place in a vacuum. It is not a mere nothing either, nor is it just a consciousness. It involves an object, something we are aware of, and the subject which is aware of that something. The subject is not a mere nothing, either. It is perception, thought, feelings, reactions, plans which are all based on the background knowledge one has acquired over a lifetime. It is the ground on the basis of which we are aware of the objects. All perceptions (and recognition which is implied in them) and our reactions to objects as subjects occur by means of the past knowledge concerning the object. The subject, as subject, can never be the object of attention. It is only evident indirectly through the inner dialog that goes on in the mental processes. The knowledge we have acquired represents to us the world we live in. And the knowledge reacts through its known methods. There is no perception without such reaction.[1]

Although self-consciousness is an aid in the process of learning a new skill, as it helps us in monitoring and putting together through memory various details one has to learn, it can also hinder us in the smooth performance of a skill once it is learned. Much intellectual thinking as well as problem-solving is occurs in the field of self-consciousness in the form of a dialog one carries on within oneself.

Knowledge and Valuation: Our reactions are manifold and add to the edifice of knowledge and hence of the world we make up for ourselves. Perception first of all implies recognition of objects. Recognition is an incipient thought process. And the very recognition of the object is at the same time an evaluation. Also, the reaction to the recognized object or situation or person is simultaneously an evaluation on the basis of a scale of values one has built for oneself over time. The values reinforce experiences positively or negatively. The evaluation process is simultaneously also a process of becoming something other than oneself, something which will resolve a perceived shortcoming, difficulty or problem and steer one toward goals which presumably imply an improved situation. The process of the self (which I will describe below) is a process in time. Evidently, without the movement of thought, there is no past, present or future to the conscious mind or self. Thought is very much involved in this process. Now, what is thought?

Recognition and Judgment: Thought is not only the process of recognition, but of judgment. More often than not, the judgment implies an evaluation and a projection into the future. Images, concepts as well as language are implicated in the mental processes of judging, evaluating and projecting into the future. Some process of creative problem-solving, particularly those that involve creativity are beyond the reach of thought, or, at any rate, best carried out when conscious thinking is not present. Once the problem is solved, then it is thrown into the realm of conscious thinking and then the thought process can work out the details of the solution.

Intelligence: Intelligence has many skills such as problem-solving, scanning, assessing, evaluating, estimating, hypothesizing, drawing consequences from an idea, systematizing, comparing, organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, abstracting, projecting into the future, and so forth. Thinking is one of the functions of intelligence. Animals, of course, have a lower level of intelligence as they lack the capacity to envisage in thought (or even imagery) a situation in its absence and manipulate it consciously.

The Notion of the ‘I’: Thought implying the division between the subject and object already implies the subject as the self. When one becomes conscious of one’s thought, one automatically has the notion of the ‘I’ or the self. The notion of the self becomes enriched and filled with content through further thinking and experience, as one’s knowledge grows with experience and is added to the content of the subject. In the division between the subject and the object, as one’s attitude is determined by one’s past pleasant or unpleasant experience (i.e., knowledge), one either desires or tries to avoid the object. In the process of desiring what a person feels he or she lacks, she creates for herself the need for fulfillment which is really a filling the need or lack. However, once this need is fulfilled, other take its place, for as long as in the thinking process we are aware of things in our world, desires, needs or wants are automatically created. Thus the person is set on an endless travel to realize the ultimate -- ultimate happiness, pleasure, meaning or resting place. The self is also a process to seek permanence and security, and this is where the self-protectiveness of thought comes in. While every thought we think is geared to reinforce the self in some fashion or other, it is doing so by means of the structure it has already built for itself.

While on the one hand thought seems to seek something other than itself, on the other, its search is always limited to the known. We have no clue as to what we seek if we don’t have any idea of it. The seeking serves to further strengthen the self that is already there.

The self is not only the world we built in, but also a fictitious center which holds the world together and acts as its center. All the feelings, experiences and thoughts as well as achievements, worries and projects are referred to this center. We feel as if there is a unitary entity that acts through all these mental processes and governs the body as well as our dealings with the world.

Mental States: The awareness of an object, a sensation, an image, a feeling or a thought is simultaneously a reaction to it. We hardly are ever aware of something without reacting to it. But then the reaction itself becomes an object of awareness and of further reaction. This happens particularly when we rehash an issue out from different points of view.

This constant action and reaction process linked through memory creates what we might call mental ‘states’. A state is something we ascribe to ourselves as, for instance, when we say to ourselves, “I am angry; I am depressed,” and so on. This ascription is itself a thought and is more often than not mediated by body awareness. Notice how we reinforce this feeling or awareness by beating our chest and by being aware of our speech muscles or of other parts of the head or the rest of the body. In this ascription to ourselves of a thought or a state or a feeling, associated with a certain body awareness, is what generates the illusion of the ‘I’. In each of the specifics (thoughts, body sensations, for instance) there is no ‘I’. But through the process I mentioned above, you get the feeling of ‘I’, the feeling that ‘you’ are thinking, ‘you’ have pain, ‘you’ are the agent of your actions, or ‘you’ are what is referred by other people as ‘great’, and so on. This illusion is perpetuated through repeated ascriptions linked through memory. (In other words, I remember, say two such ascriptions from my past, and in that very recollection, a feeling is generated that I have such a quality – there is an implicit feeling ‘That’s me’ in each one of these recollections.)

Mental States have continuity. And we contribute to the continuity of mental states by reacting to them either positively or negatively. You are strengthening your state through your reaction. If you stop reacting, the state ceases to be when it loses its momentum. Thus states have inertia of their own, and they tend to persist because of our participation in them. When we participate in a state, we are within a tunnel as it were. This inertia resists change, indeed even any interference from outside. And within the ‘tunnel’ the states have a tendency to perpetuate themselves either by building on themselves or keeping a fight for or against something going. These states or what I might also call ‘tracks’ include fear, loneliness, depression, pride, inferiority, superiority, and such. For instance, when we are watching a movie, we are ‘within’ the track of watching the movie, and as such, we are identified with the characters and situations and so experience the joys and sorrows expected (or not expected) of us as spectators. You can only stop the process of involvement by stepping out of it, snapping out, as it were. Then you don’t have the illusion. Then reality is reality; the movie reality has becomes a mere show without any effect on you.

Our normal states of mind are similar. We are within a tunnel and we labor hard trying to get out of it, particularly when we feel they are undesirable. But that’s a futile struggle for we labor on the basis of a certain base identification (even if it is only a negative one) and cannot extricate ourselves from it. When we can get down from outside, as it were, to the base identification and question it, then there is a chance of truly distancing ourselves from it and eventually becoming free from the entire state.

We must think about something: Without something to think about, the mind (or consciousness) in an unstable state. It keeps wanting to chew something. It tries to achieve the stability and grounding, if necessary by harping on the negative, as when the negative memories impinge upon our consciousness and we react to them by building on them, just as we react to positive memories by building on them. We try to think of the worst when we are in an uncertain situation, as that gives us more grounding and security, than the positive which can always be questionable. One way to solve the problem of sinking deeper and deeper in a negative state is to let the negative state be and if necessary focus on something innocuous, as they do in meditation, and ‘rise above’ the state. Or one could break up a mental state by interspersing it with self-consciousness, i.e. being aware of what we are doing as frequently as possible and breaking it into pieces. By ‘pulverizing’ the state, the continuity of the state is broken up and the state loses its hold on us. This will at least temporarily remove one from that state of mind. Habits are like states of mind and they too will tend to become weaker by the same processes. More lasting freedom, however, can only be found in becoming free from the source identification.

We can superimpose states upon states, say, guilt upon anger and so forth and make them multi-layered. Also, we can suppress them to a subterranean level beyond the reach of the conscious mind. You can become conscious of states, but as I said, such consciousness only reacts to the state from a point of view, generally the point of view of identification with something and tends to reinforce the state. We cannot just let the state run its course, say just be afraid and let the fear run its course and die its natural death.

States add to the notion of the continuing self: Go through a few of these states, you get the feeling that there is one constant ‘I’ running through them all. The more organized my memory is, the stronger is my sense of ‘I’, or you can say, the bigger is my ego!

To repeat: states of mind continue through memory. Each thought or feeling we have is ‘linked’ to other thoughts or feelings relevant to it – it may be the same or similar thought or feeling we have had in the past or something connected to it. This connectivity, association or linking is what gives rise to the notion of the continuing ‘I’.

Once the notion of the continuing ‘I’ is established, every thought we think is used to reconnect to the relevant past and further support the continuity. Although we can never find the specific beginnings of the ‘I’, we believe in the history of the ‘I’ with a beginning, its current life and an end.

In the process of organizing our world we arrange our goals and look for ultimate goals. And when these are not fulfilled repeatedly and we confront frustration we struggle hard to find meaning in life. Until we become involved in some other goal we become bored with life, having lost the significance in our lives.

Whenever we perceive and relate to anything in the world, we do so by placing it in this mental world of ours, this world of the ‘I’, the ‘I’ being at the center of the world. The world of the ‘I’ is intimately bound with ourselves, because it is nothing but a multitude of identifications interconnected. Whatever happens to each of these things in the world we feel happens to us. Our interests, values and goals are bound with these identifications, determined, of course, by our earlier exposure to them.

Psychological Survival: Our instinctive biological struggle for survival is now translated into the mental world. But these are not identical because our biological survival is embellished by our imagination, which is one of the functions of thought. It can imagine a fictitious future and fear for its non-continuance. Each thought thinking thus about the future is my future that I think about and fear. Our mind can thus generate insecurity and fear of death even when our physical survival is presently not threatened.

Dialogue within Ourselves: The constant dialogue within ourselves is what provides us with the illusion that the ‘I’ exists at the center of all my thoughts. I wonder if we would have this idea of the ‘I’ without the inner dialogue. What does the dialogue imply? When the sounds (thoughts) go on in my head, there are subtle speech movements. I am always aware of myself as thinking these thoughts, and also the person who has experiences, feelings and is the author of his actions. With each such awareness, there is a feeling that ‘I’ am thinking those thoughts. With this feeling I link those thoughts and memories. Hence the feeling that there is the ever-present ‘I’ behind all my thoughts and experiences that I remember.

The same is true of our memories: as memories impinge on our consciousness we become aware of them and in that very process is generated a reaction to them and then a response to the reaction and so on and so forth. That’s partly how the inner dialogue is generated.

The self has many features: 1) It is the center, it is as the self that we try to fulfill ourselves as, it is our world, it is our self-image or self-esteem which is a result of the process of constant evaluation. We are quite sensitive when a remark is passed about us as we are constantly on guard as to how others look at us. We worry about ourselves, worrying about every little things that happens to us; we evaluate it; relate it to the rest of our lives and react to it until we are satisfied that the problem is solved. Notice how the same problem-solving skills of intelligence are exercised here to work out the problems of the self; only this time it is done through the medium of thought. Of course, the worry can easily turn into an obsession or a phobia and we can create a literal panic and hell for ourselves as we continually build on our worries. This is evident even when we notice a slight change or ache or pain in our body and react to it by panicking.

We divide our world into the positive and the negative, into right and wrong and good and bad, pleasant and painful, happy and miserable. We pursue the positive and try to avoid the negative. We constantly reflect and evaluate our lives, figuring out the direction in which it is going, and being satisfied with its progress or disappointed with the lack of it or its failures. We have now a life of constant becoming where there is no rest or peace.

2) The self is meaning: what we experience is interpreted through our past experience and it acquires meaning through it. When it acquires meaning, it becomes part of the world. The world we make up for ourselves is not just our world, but in some sense I am the world, because the things, people and situations in my world are things I am identified with, either positively or negatively. In fact, language itself, the words and sentences we hear, have meaning to us only because of the associations they have with our past experiences. They, as well as anything else that has meaning for us, must invoke our past in some sense in order for them to have meaning for us. Or else, they would remain as mere noises or marks on paper, or, if they are things, as mere non-descript objects which have no interest or meaning to us.

The process of self-evaluation is mediated often through comparison – comparison of ourselves with others, our present state with a future possible state, our actions with our own scales of values or others’ values, and so on. The process of evaluation creates feelings of elation, depression, self-congratulation, pride, inferiority, superiority, sense of power, dominion over others as well as anxiety and fear about the outcome of a given situation. Insecurity is built into this process. The uncertainty generates the anxiety and creates the unending search for security.

3) Our self-image is something we build on the foundation of our notion of the self. We fill it with various projects we have, our desire structure, our estimates about ourselves, our achievements and failures, our sentiments and beliefs and so on. This structure is held together by the center of the self. Not only each thing that occurs in our world is related to the self via the self-image, but interpreted and reacted to by means the image. The reaction in turn reinforces the self and its image of itself.

We constantly build and rebuild our self-image by feeding it with various reinforcements, particularly those stemming from not just our opinions about ourselves, our qualities and actions, but from what we hear from other people, and also from what we think other people think about us. This is a constant process which keeps building and revising our idea of ourselves.

4) This indeed is where we can notice the self-protectiveness of thought. Thinking does not take place in a vacuum. It takes places within the process of the self, within the context of the self maintaining and continuing its self-image. In fact, we are only interested in those things (in fact, even our physical perceptions not only select but seek those that are relevant to our interests) that are directly or indirectly connected to the self and its image of itself, and our perceptions are indeed limited by these interests. We seek those things and consciously or unconsciously ignore the rest of what is given in the field of our perception. (As they say, “We only hear what we want to hear.”) Our reactions to what we perceive reinforce our self-structure. We become sensitive to anything that is seen even as remotely threatening to this structure, and we not only take a mental note of it, but do everything to eliminate it, fight it off, erase it or diminish its strength.

Anything that’s seen as possibly threatening, say, a disease symptom, a pain, an insult, or something which could possibly hurt our self, raises a minor disturbance, if not a storm, in the mind. We don’t rest until the storm is quelled and equilibrium is restored. All our thinking and emotional process is utilized in this direction. When we say we want peace, normally, it’s this kind of peace we seek.

Many mental processes are carried out by means of thought and all have the self at the center. A) Desiring, striving, goal-seeking and pleasure-seeking: Anything which is perceived as attractive or desirable or pleasurable on the basis of one’s background experience is automatically turned into a goal that one seeks and becomes part of the desire process. B) Emotions and feelings: in response to the various situations, including successes and failures in our attempts to deal with the world, as well as to the self-evaluation that one constantly makes, we undergo many emotions and feelings. More often than not, these emotions and feelings are verbalized and as such exist in the form of thought – for instance, thought of envy, jealousy, anger, fear, elation, depression and so on. Without the verbalization or thinking these emotions and feelings lose their identity and reduce themselves to diffuse energy.

5) In the process of seeking our sense of time is created. There is no time without thinking. Although our striving implies time, with its future, past and present, there is something interesting about our dealings with our self. When we seek or avoid, of course, there is time, because the distance between what we seek and avoid and ourselves, implies time. However, within the structure of the self there is no time. It’s as if everything is frozen there in time. Take for instance, our memories. I have been in love with a girl say forty years ago. But my fantasies or reliving my past experiences with the girl hardly ever take into consideration the changes in time that have probably taken place in the girl over the last forty years – perhaps she is an old hag by now, or even dead, for all I know. I myself have become old and perhaps have no ability even to perform sex! But my mind knows no such age. In some sense, it acts as if it is ageless. It’s immortal!

What’s interesting is that our dealings with life are based on this notion of our ‘frozen’ self. We act, strive, accumulate wealth, and protect ourselves and our health, or good name, as though there will be never an end to us. At the same time, time is very real to us as that’s what is implied in our striving for our goals and whenever we are involved in the thinking consciously about anything. Although in some sense time is frozen in individual experiences, as a continuing self I am very much aware of time and in spite of the fact that I know of no beginning to myself in time (I cannot even imagine except through concepts and someone telling me so), I am mortally afraid of the continuity of my life ending. In fact, it’s impossible for me to imagine myself ending. No wonder as human beings we create all these fancy notions such as Kingdom of Happiness, Immortality and living after death as pure Consciousness and so forth. Those are all our lame attempts to combat our fear of death. None of that, of course, will succeed in the face of a seed of doubt!

Combine this with our constant attempt to seek our goals and our striving to restore our mental equilibrium; you will then understand what UG says about man seeking only one thing, namely, permanent happiness. This indeed is what counts for man as permanent happiness.

6) Thought processes don’t always take place at a very conscious level. We are not always aware of what goes on. When we seek a goal or fend off an offense we are not always aware. When we are aware, the awareness only takes place by means of another thought. We don’t know much about the thought until it surfaces in consciousness. We don’t even know that it exists. Say, we bear a grudge or resentment against someone. Our behavior, including what we say to the person, might show it. It may be evident to some other person. But until it is formulated as such in a thought, we don’t even know that it exists. We sometimes have subtle feels and inklings about such and many other things. And in fact, even quite a bit of problem solving can take place subconsciously. If we include these inklings, the field of thought gets expanded considerably more.

And there may be layers and layers of these mental processes. Part of the problem of either psychoanalysis or self-analysis would consist of peeling off layer after layer of these processes and get to the root, the thing, say, we are primarily afraid of or the person and reason for which we resent.

7) When we think, whether in a goal-directed fashion or to solve a problem, or otherwise, we move in a mental space. Some times we find gaps in the mental map we make in thinking which we bridge in order to solve a problem. And at other times the space is traversed in an uncharted fashion when we create like in science, music or art. When we understand or we think we know there are flashes and clicks in this mental space. In relationships also we feel this mental distance -- we may want to close it (as in a relationship we want) or keep it (as with a student in a classroom or with a stranger).

8) There is such a thing as a tunnel vision in thought: when you are thinking about a certain object from a certain point of view, the point of view or prejudice or belief governs our thinking process. Of course, we could become conscious of these points of view, but generally we are aware of them only from another point of view. When it is possible to become merely aware of them without reacting to them, the process has no longer any hold on us. For instance, take fear. When we get to our fear at its bottom level and can face it without reacting to it, that is, without trying to escape from it or justify it or build up on it, if we can face it without resistance, then the fear has no longer any strength. It simply dissipates. In doing so, we are dissolving the duality or division that has hitherto existed between ourselves and the object of fear. We become one with it, as it were. The same goes with other mental states such as anger, depression and loneliness.

9) All feelings of insecurity and loneliness, and many fears, at their base level cover our own emptiness, the vacuum which is pure consciousness or awareness or energy or whatever you call. We term that as nothingness, and are terrified by it and start covering it up with all kinds of activity, information, knowledge, achievement and other surface garbage, knowing full well that we can never completely succeed in doing so. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying. In other words, the whole mental edifice, the edifice of the self and of thought in general is based on nothing! Yet, we struggle so hard to maintain the structure.

10) Thought and desire are intimately connected with each other. As UG would say, to think is to want something – if you don’t want anything, you don’t need to think. I once expressed this idea once to UG (and later to others) in these terms: every thought we think is an attempt to change the given. It’s an attempt to become something other than ourselves. This is part of the movement of the self in which our very awareness of something as other than ourselves automatically reveals our own lack of it (threat by it), and that in turn sets a reaction mechanism going to change the given situation into a more settled one. All such processes are means of self-fulfillment as we feel inadequate without the object. Our inadequacy is enhanced through the process of comparisons which we do all the time. And our reaction mechanism always takes place against the backdrop of our background, past experience and knowledge.

11) As I mentioned in my article on selflessness, we sometimes are interested in helping others, and undertake various social work activities, charities and so on. Or we carry on intellectual activities (we claim out of curiosity), pursue knowledge and practice art. In all of them, the self is at the center and those activities are basically part of the projects of the self. To test this theory, there is just one simple method: when something we have concluded or thought of, or when a long-cherished fundamental belief of ours is attacked, of course we buttress it with various justifications; but more often than not, we feel that the very ground we stand on is taken away from us; we do not rest until we quell the opposition, even at the expense of abandoning the project and taking up another. (“I shall return!”) We resent and bear grudge against the person attacking our belief, in spite of ostensible attempts to appear impersonal and objective. We do all this because we identify ourselves with the project (or belief) – the success of the project is our success; its failure is our failure. In fact, if there are a few more of these failures, then we feel we are ourselves a failure! And that’s a disaster and it can set us on the course of a prolonged depression.

12) Relationships, although seemingly between people, really take place in our mental world between the self and others who are part of our world. And these relationships, no matter how much we white wash them in the name of love, affection, unconditioned love and so forth, are part of the projects of the self. We desire a person and try to have a relationship with him or her for various reasons: it may be sex or companionship we want; or we simply are identified with the person to the degree that the person’s welfare and accomplishments become our accomplishments. I am not saying we don’t do anything for other people just to benefit them. Of course, we do. But when we do, our self is in some way or other involved in it. We do not simply know how to act otherwise. When things fail in relationships, of course, as UG says, “’Love’ is our trump card.” We blame the other person claiming that he or she does not love us.

13) Thought is capable of creating illusions: it always seeks a state where there is no striving any more where all its desires are fulfilled -- the utopia; the kingdom of permanent happiness, moksha. But such things are all based on illusions. As long as thought is there, there is no end to striving, for they are synonymous. And it cannot find a state of total fulfillment as long as it keeps seeking it; for seeking presupposes a sense of a lack of fulfillment. Seeking presupposes that we are an independent entity capable of a destiny. And apart from the set of thoughts and experiences we have created for ourselves, there is no independent ‘I’. The ‘I’ as the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, is a ‘gravitational pull’. We can never directly see it. As Sartre puts it, “We can only see it with the corner of our eye.” In other words, it only appears to be there when we are not directly looking at it. When we look it directly, it’s not there. Yet, it is for this fictitious ‘I’ that we strive and struggle so much. Knowing all this, thought might even want to end itself. And that’s the grandest of all illusions! Ending of thought cannot be achieved by itself. It cannot be achieved by will, which in turn is thought. Of course, when we physically die, our thoughts will die with us.

14) If the thought process is suspended for any reason, either it happens for some unknown reason, or thought is utterly frustrated having exhausted all its resources, and is disillusioned by all its goals, and collapses as a consequence. Then there are no problems. At that moment, the body knows how to handle itself. You are in the field of pure awareness. But this cannot be contrived. Nothing we do or can do can make it happen. None of our methods of spiritual realization actually work, because they all take place with thought and contrivance as their background. We constantly look for and calculate the results. (Just don’t point to me all those examples of people who are liberated: they don’t impress me. In my opinion, those examples don’t prove what they are supposed to show.)

But unfortunately, we, as conscious human beings, don’t know how to live without thought or what to do with the pure awareness. We just don’t know.

[1] I once asked UG about what he meant by ‘knowledge’. He answered by saying that it is the knowledge of whatever gives you pleasure or pain.