writing on suffering and awakening

A good servant and a lousy master: the limitations of our thinking minds

I’ve recently started working through the twelve steps again. What I’m seeing more clearly than ever is how addiction starts in the mind. No matter how firm my resolve, my thoughts inevitably urge me towards some sort of destructive behavior. They can’t be trusted.

People like me can’t break free of addiction purely through force of will because willpower also comes from the mind. When the mind fights itself, the addiction always wins. In other words, we can’t overcome thinking with thinking. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. 

Most people don’t struggle with addiction the way I do. Almost all of us, however, use our thinking as our primary tool for understanding the universe and living our lives. Sometimes it’s reasonable and logical, sometimes it’s driven by instinct and emotion, but it appears as a voice or an image in our consciousness and we believe that it is us.

The problem is that just as thinking is the wrong tool to stop addictive behavior, it’s the wrong tool to guide any of us through life and understand the true nature of ourselves and our reality. 

The deepest and most powerful questions of life are probably, in some order: who am I? What is my purpose? What happens after I die? What is this universe that I am living in? Does it ever end? Is there a God? What is real love? Or perhaps, is love real?

None of these questions can be answered well by thinking.

Let’s take the first question: who am I? There really isn’t anything more basic than that. If we start thinking about it, we usually end up describing a lot of things about ourselves, from what we look like to what we want and what we believe in, but we don’t ever get an answer that really satisfies us in a deep and meaningful way. Our thinking minds simply aren’t capable of coming up with one.

The same experience occurs if we turn our thoughts outward, to the nature of the universe around us. Contemporary physicists offer incredibly detailed models of the physical universe, which have many practical uses. But do those models really satisfy anyone as a description of ultimate truth? No.

Similarly, if we approach love or God or death with our thinking minds, we’re not going to get very far. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to wrap our heads around them, but we won’t ever find peace doing so. We’ll also be missing the point.

None of this is to deny the usefulness of the thinking mind. It can be a powerful servant. The suffering comes in when we identify with it—when we believe that we are our thoughts. When I buy into that belief, as I do many times each day, I’m changing my mind from a servant to a master. That never leads anywhere good. I just end up chasing its whims and desires and running from its fears.

But if we can really break free from believing we are our thoughts, something transformative happens. We find ourselves in a place where all those deep questions no longer need answers, because the answers live in our very bones. 

Once, the Buddha gathered his followers before a small pond. They waited quietly, eager for him to speak. But he didn’t. 

Instead, the Buddha picked a lotus flower up from the pond. He showed it to each of his followers in turn. Each follower spoke in turn about what he or she thought the flower meant—about what the Buddha must be trying to teach them. 

Finally, the Buddha came to stand before the last monk. The monk was silent. Then he smiled. Then he laughed. 

The Buddha laughed with him, delighted, and handed him the flower. 

Ian Cooper