Do We Choose Our Thoughts?

When my attention is drawn to the thinking mind, I often am amazed anew that we spend our lives with an endless stream of thoughts swirling around us that we normally imagine originate somewhere inside our heads, and are almost always totally ignoring the fact that we have no idea what this stream of thought really is. We can say they are fleeting images of letters, words, or other physical objects. We can say they are alive, because they are manifested by our living presence. But these last two sentences are just more thoughts, and thoughts don’t tell us what anything actually is, including our selves. What is clear is that because of our ignorance, because of our ignoring that we don’t know what thought is, we continually attempt to grasp onto this thought stream and imagine that we can control our experience by continually attempting to control our thoughts.

So an interesting question for spiritual inquiry is to ask who or what chooses our thoughts? Our normal waking consciousness consists of seeing objects, hearing sounds, feeling sensations, and thinking thoughts. What is our actual experience of the thinker? Is the thinker the chooser? Can we find an actual entity, either inside or outside of our head that thinks our thoughts? If we’re willing to ask this question from a deep enough place to stay with our actual experience of a series of thoughts arising and disappearing, we realize the imagined entity we label the thinker is nothing more than another thought in a series of thoughts.

Try staying still for a few moments and notice the successive thoughts arising and dissolving. If you’ve been practicing contemplation for awhile, it’s probably easy to notice a gap between thoughts. Where is the actual chooser of the next thought in that gap between thoughts? The thought of being the chooser is simply another thought in the series of thoughts produced after you read the sentence, ‘where is the chooser in the gap between thoughts?’

If you have the experience like I just had, of having the thought ‘I’ve found the chooser’, the chooser thought just appears in retrospect as the next thought in the series. We are continually fooling ourselves when the chooser thought takes responsibility for being the initiator and enjoyer of our thoughts. Our actual experience of a succession of thoughts is that the chooser isn’t there in the gap between thoughts. The chooser is just a thought saying I was there choosing between thoughts, but the chooser thought only appears later as a subsequent thought. The thought of being the chooser isn’t choosing anything, it’s just the expression of the thought of being the chooser. It’s the clown that takes the bow, claiming responsibility for thinking and choosing the thoughts after the fact. The sense of being a separate self, being a separate entity, being a separate thinking person, is that chooser thought.

This type of discussion can be difficult to digest, and one big reason can be that it gives us a sense of being totally determined by some impersonal mechanical process. Some of you may have had the recent experience of changing a password or opening a new account online and presented with a task that starts with the phrase ‘I am not a robot’. We don’t like to think that we’re programmed and have no choice in our experience which of course includes the choice of our thoughts. So we’re uncomfortable with just the suggestion that our experiences might be predetermined in a mechanical conditioned process, and particularly uncomfortable with the notion that we don’t possess free will. So we sometimes have a feeling like our innate love of freedom is being curtailed and we feel rebellious.

Our feeling rebellious is an expression of our love for freedom. We love the idea of freedom because deep down we sense that our actual being is totally free. The idea of there being a controller or a container of self limiting us is just another thought. Our real being isn’t the result of any fixed, regulated, definable, or confined system; it is simply infinite ever present awareness freely expressing itself as our life. But the separate self idea doesn’t possess freedom; there is free will, although there is no my free will. The truth of our actual being is the potential to realize infinite possibilities, including the realization of our true identity. Our true identity is the spiritual life force expressing the timeless joy of boundless freedom.

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