Thich Nhat Hanh’s 3rd mindfulness training is Freedom of Thought. To realize the inherent freedom of thought itself, we first need to cultivate mindful awareness of our thinking. We learn to welcome the experience of thinking with an attitude of acceptance. This frees us to witness thought as it actually is.
Then our inquiry naturally leads us to question, what is thought? We know our conscious experience is a continual stream of thoughts, our mind is always producing thoughts, just as our heart is always beating, and our body is always breathing. Thoughts think themselves, they don’t belong to an imagined entity we call ‘me’. I like to describe thought as a particular stream of energy flowing within our stream of experience that constitutes our aliveness. Our flow of experience is an intermingling of fleeting sights, sounds, sensations, traces and fragments of words, and ideas. They are all arising and constantly dissolving back to the source that is our awareness of being present.
One way to define thought energy is to say it’s the movement of our experience trying to label things. This enables us to talk about things as if they have a separate existence, an own-being with some essence or substance separate from other things. This is a very necessary aspect of our communication, and of our harmonizing with each other. However if we look deeply into the actual experience of thinking, we begin to realize thought energy doesn’t really establish any own being of anything we think about, or separate anything from the awareness we are. Thought is only an idea, only a movement of our aliveness. When we try to use thought to try and pin down what this movement of energy actually is, what thinking actually is, there is really only this movement of energy, this movement of the presence we are. Eckhart Tolle called it, “Seeing everything, seeing all thought as ripples on the surface of being.”
There is no real meaning in thoughts other than the continual flow of the ripples. There is no meaning in our attaching to the imagined conceptual content of the ripples. When this realization becomes deeply embedded in the muscle memory of our emotional life, thinking will no longer be any problem. And while our emotions may still be quite painful sometimes, free of the confines of thinking, they will also no longer be a problem.
We don’t really know what thought is, it’s a vast deep mystery. Being a deep mystery itself, how can thought define anything we see, hear, or feel so that they are less of a mystery? Everything in this universe is manifested by this infinite mysterious life force which is free of all labels. Things aren’t what we think they are. Not only are they not what we think they are, they are free of what we think they are. The absence of what we think about things, is the way they actually are. The absence of what we think we are, is the way we actually are.
Teachers sometimes say, ‘pay attention to the gap between your thoughts, how can this gap, this suspension of thought, not be your actual being?’ I try to label this gap by saying it is simply the awareness of being present, without the confines of any labels. It is what is always here and always now in every moment of our little lives, and it never changes. If we look a little closer, if we watch the stream of thoughts flowing by, where is the gap? The stream of thought energy is just an expression of the awareness that doesn’t change, and awareness isn’t affected in any way by the appearance and disappearance of thoughts; thoughts have never created any gap whatsoever. The absence of what we think about the awareness we are, is the way awareness actually is. There is no enlightenment other than this. A Zen master bangs his stick on the floor, shouting It’s just this!
When we are willing to deeply contemplate our actual existence in this way, our awareness is beginning to realize freedom of thought. It is not the cessation of the thought stream, but freedom from the confines of thought streaming by. We just let the thought stream flow as it wants to flow; that is all it is ever doing anyway. We are learning to be to free to use our thinking in service of our Self that we share with all beings. And we’re learning to be free from the compulsion to use our thinking to struggle with our desires and fears.
When we persevere in our practice of witnessing all of our experience, we will naturally begin to taste the freedom of thought itself, and the freedom of our real being, which is pure being. Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Purity is things as they actually are.’ Thinking as it actually is, is always arising and dissolving into and as the flow of our awareness. If we’re willing to continually observe this, to go with the flow, our awareness becomes informed by the whole of awareness, informed by the ground of all of our experience. We move right through the thought stream, into the vast quiet stillness and freedom of our true nature.