Plain and simple: our thoughts are never entirely new.
Imagine if every time you had a thought, a little fact-checking creature inside of you rang a gong and shouted, “Unoriginal thought! The thought you just experienced already occurred at place X, by person Y, in the year Z.”
To be constantly reminded that there is nothing original issuing from this mind I bounded into the world with would be terrifying in a Matrix-y, déjà vu, time-warpy, Stepford Wives-ish kind of way— if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t.
Buddhist teachings, and eventually common sense, tell us this is more or less the case; minus the little creature inside incessantly yammering away with that clanging gong.
Not just in that annoying way when we think of the perfect title for our book or blog until Google tells us it already exists. Or even in that horrifying way when we mount an entire project, like a thesis, on a series of premises that not only exists somewhere on dusty pages throughout the globe, but that have been thoroughly refuted by a gang of experts.
Every time we have that thought it is not only dependent on a whole variety of external factors, but is also hot off the presses of an assembly line made up of our past thoughts, feelings and experiences.
It took me awhile to wrap my head around this. I’d like to think I have the slightest potential to be a free-thinking being, that I can burst forth and issue shiny original thoughts from a pure place where magical brilliance resides.
We are free, though; or at least we have the potential to be, if we can let go of our attachment to the very need to be original, and to our perceived sanctity of self and ego that go along with the territory–if we can accept that who we are is always being shaped out of that huge cosmos of our past selves.
I will always be influenced by the society I live in, for example, and how I was raised. I have the power, however, of critical thinking, and can observe and test the limits of my thoughts and the thoughts of others, and there is a freedom in that.
On a deeper level, though, we need to be okay with not being independent islands of thought.
If we want to connect with others, we need to really recognize how connected we already are to everything and everyone else. We also cannot escape the pervasive need to “know thyself”, which sages have been reminding us of all along. To this end, we can try to absorb:
- We are our own worst enemies.
- We are the masters of our own lives and future selves.
- How are we our own worst enemies?
Well, no one can cage us in more subversively than ourselves. It’s a lot easier to spot the manipulations and deceits of others, for example, than of our own deep mind. If someone tells me candy is health food and fruit is poison, I’ll dismiss this information out of hand (despite my fervent wish that Reese’s Pieces were a food group).
When I believe with all my heart that strawberries are heinous intrusions into our universe—and this feels totally true to me, can I refute myself with facts when my whole being shudders in revulsion when I lay my eyes on them?
What if it turns out that when I was little, I saw a TV news show talking about carcinogens and death and disease to images of strawberry fields, and this association of strawberries and death became infused into the fabric of my being for a very long time?
True story. Thankfully, I’m over it now.
This might be an obvious example, but on very subtle levels, everything we do in this world is governed by prior happenings, which generated feelings and emotional responses that have ultimately created our very own, personalized realities.
Unraveling how and why we think the way we do can help free us from negative habit patterns and open us to all kinds of new adventures. A fringe benefit is we learn to dissociate from our own egos by realizing how dependent we are on all things and beings for the how and why of our existence.
We can learn there are perspectives we’ve never considered before, which have a beautiful place in this world. We can learn to be more compassionate, tolerant and accepting, because we’ve been humbled into realizing our thoughts are not Truth.
From Truth—essence, universe, a place of ultimate freedom—we arise, sometimes fledgling and sometimes breaking a little, and it’s up to us to do the work of unpeeling the onion of beliefs we have packed onto our lives over the years.
Heading into the New Year, what better time to begin this kind of excavation?
I like to think of it as observing and befriending our thoughts so that their origins aren’t mysterious anymore, and cannot hold power over us. This may be a lifetime’s work, but we can begin to examine and say goodbye to what no longer serves us, because we now see our thoughts, and the older thoughts they come from, are not us.
We might be lugging around the sum of all we have been, but we also have an amazing gift: the power to self-contemplate, and to create spaces for change and transformation.
Ever inquisitive, go off in search of more hidden beliefs and perceptions possibly hindering our growth, and open up even one tiny crack leading to a new way of being.
May our thoughts, original or not, be ones that free us, which pour compassion into the world and serve others to the benefit of all.
- This was originally published on The Tattooed Buddha.