(radical |ˈradɪk(ə)l| - forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of something; the root)
In the practice of mindfulness, a person starts to develop the witness stance, noticing the patterns of thinking that habitually pull attention away from the experience of simply being present. The practitioner observes the 'what' of thinking before compassionately escorting their attention back to the now or the object of mindfulness.
In this article, I’d like to consider something deeper than the 'what' of thinking - and that is the 'how' of thinking.
When a man or woman holds a strong belief of any kind, for instance a religious belief, there are many thoughts that will grow from and be supported by it. For example, if I believe the astonishing notion that I was born a sinner, a raft of thoughts will result – that I need someone or something to redeem me, perhaps that a Jesus died for my sins, that I need to be ‘good’ to deserve love, and so on. Stop believing the root notion and, like a stack of dominoes, all the ensuing thoughts will topple because they have no ground on which to stand.
The 'what' of thinking is nourished and held firm in the soil of how I think. And how I think is laid down in the ground of consciousness itself – it is the fabric of me, to a large degree sub-conscious, and established by genetics, the collective unconscious beliefs of the culture and time in which I live, plus my own particular conditioning and familial influences. I do not have free will in this regard.
In mindfulness practice I might notice that many thoughts arising are those of a 'should' nature. My children should be doing better at school. My partner should be more understanding, or expressive. I should be living a more balanced life. I should be more compassionate. Fitter. Thinner. More easy-going. And so on.
Underneath these thoughts I might then understand and feel that there is a firmly held notion, or 'how' of thinking in place, that in order to be OK/happy/acceptable, I need externals to be constellated a certain way. I seek approval outside myself. I depend on conditions to fulfill me and bring me joy; I do not have the first idea of the art of filling my own 'well of joy' through the tacit understanding that the privilege of simply being is the source of my joy and confidence. Instead I look to others or conditions to do that for me. I search for love, fulfilment and self-worth outside of myself. And this isn’t a sign of stupidity – it is just what has impressed itself, or branded itself, into me. And then I will defend these tendencies as being 'natural.'
When I begin to feel the way my mind creates the root bondage by the 'how' of my thinking, I understand that I might very well take thoughts one at a time to loosen and shake them up and question them, but unless I really feel into the root of what holds them in place, and stop believing them at a cellular level, I will have to keep doing the techniques over and over again with each individual thought. And while things might change relative to behaviour, nothing in consciousness will be transformed.
Nature is surely wanting to make something of me; everyone has gifts of some sort, even if they are not recognised as useful by the culture, but they are often unrealised and un-enjoyed. What Nature truly wants of me can only be intuited from the place prior to thought. It is only in the spaces between thoughts that I feel the unproblematic sweetness of being. Thoughts can’t enhance or diminish that sweetness, in the same way that a mirror is neither enhanced nor diminished by the image of a face reflected in it.
But the culture is trying to make something of me too and this imperative has impressed itself deeply though parental, educational, cultural expectations etc. What culture wants of me is most definitely held in place by thoughts. And most of us are servants of work, others’ expectations and the drive to feel acceptable and worthy of love.
It is impossible to serve two masters.
The notion of an individual 'self' arises from thoughts; I tend to become thoughts if I ride them for long enough. 'I' am held in place by thoughts. Consciousness before thought is not me-based; it is impersonal. And true spiritual practice is to expose the illusion that there is an “I”. Death will show me that illusion, but there are rare human beings whose work it is to expose the illusion before a human dies. These are spiritual masters. Someone mastered by Life can transmit to another that it's possible to truly enjoy the privilege of simple being, to experience this brief play, feeling both the mud and gold of being fully human, living in the world of conditions but relating more to the feeling recognition of who one really is: unsullied Consciousness, the force of Life prior to thought.
The 'how' of thinking then becomes something more like this: I am unconditionally confident and joyful simply through Being; I depend on Nature; Life brought me here for a while and will take me out when it’s good and ready; I am not in charge of this brief affair. There’s a humour in a human being living this way that’s palpable - an ease, a freedom, a generosity, a deep capacity to feel, a dignity, a kindness, an unpredictability and a relentless drive to serve others in Love. I see these qualities in the spiritual master I am blessed enough to sit with, and they are more attractive to me than anything.
And then, I don’t think it matters in the slightest what one thinks.