Do I choose my thoughts?
This can be a very interesting question to explore, as it goes right to the core of assumptions and beliefs around “big-ticket items” such as identity and free will. So let’s have a look!
The general structure for exploring this question — Do I choose my thoughts? — will be to make explicit three possible meanings of “I” and two possible meanings of “thoughts.” We’ll also notice two distinct connotations of “choice.”
The three possible meanings, or referents, of “I” in relation to this question are:
(1) “I” as a separate being — an inherently existent, independent, self-contained, unchanging “me.” This is the “I” of the Imaginary Nature.
(2) “I” as my True Self, the Light of Tao, Pure Awareness, Dharmakaya. This is the “I” of the Completely-Existent Nature (a la a Shentong view).
(3) “I” as the Five Skandhas of a “human bodymind.” This is the “I” of the Dependent Nature.
The two possible meanings of “thoughts” in relation to this question are:
(1) Thoughts perceived to be inherently existent, separate and unchanging in the same way as the “I” of the Imaginary Nature is conceived to be inherently-existent, separate and unchanging.
(2) Thoughts as “events” corresponding to patterns of thinking/perception, whose specific appearances are governed by probability distributions.
The two distinct connotations of “choice” we’ll explore are: choice in the sense of “deciding among options”; and choice in the sense of unconditional acceptance or nondual embrace.
Do I As A Separate Being Choose My Thoughts?
Since the separate being — an inherently independent, unchanging “me” — has no existence other than as a mistaken concept, such a being — being wholly imaginary — has no causal agency. In other words: it simply cannot and therefore does not “do” anything, including (as a special case) “choosing thoughts.”
The situation here is similar to considering the question: “Does Santa Claus choose his thoughts?” Santa Claus does not choose his thoughts for the simple, and somewhat trivial, reason that Santa Claus “himself” has no real existence. I may have within my mind a concept/idea/thought of Santa Claus — but that concept has no actually-existent referent. If I believe it to have an actually-existent referent, I’m simply mistaken; and if — building upon this mistaken belief — I also believe the wholly-fictional Santa Claus to possess various powers and capacities, e.g. to “choose his thoughts,” I am, once again, simply mistaken.
The “me” believed to be an inherently-existent, separate and unchanging entity is identical, in terms of its ontological status, to Santa Claus (and unicorns, and purple elephants etc.).
So no — I do not, as a separate “me,” choose my thoughts — because such a “me” belongs exclusively to the Imaginary Nature, and so has no capacity, as such, to “do” anything.
Do I As My True Self Choose My Thoughts?
While the question of the previous section turned out to be equivalent to asking “Does Santa Claus choose his thoughts” — the question here turns out to be equivalent to asking “Does God choose his/her thoughts?” And the answer, by definition if you will, is of course, yes! Being all-powerful and all-knowing, there is nothing (including “choosing of thoughts”) that God cannot do.
The meaning of “choice” is however quite different from that of the previous section. While in the previous section, choice was understood dualistically (a separate “me” as subject choosing specific “thoughts” as objects), here it is understood in terms of the nondual relationship between Tao and the ten-thousand-things, or between Pure Awareness and appearances. Instead of saying “God chooses his/her thoughts” it might be more apt to put it something like: “In the mood of unconditional nondual acceptance, God births, in continuous delight, his/her children.” In other words: all appearances — including, as a special case, “thoughts” — arise within and inseparable from Pure Awareness, our True Self.
So yes — I do indeed, as my True Self, choose my thoughts — in the sense of saying “yes!” to, and welcoming fully, any and all appearances. In this scenario, both “I” and “my thoughts” belong to the Completely-Existent Nature (via the Shentong interpretation as Clear-Light Nature). Not for a moment are thoughts believed to be anything other than the Pure Awareness (the “I”!) out of which they arise — and so are self-liberated to arise and be perceived as deities, emanations of the Divine (or as what in Tibetan Buddhism is called the “unity of primordial purity and spontaneous presence”).
So far, then, we’ve explored the case of “me” as an inherently-existent, separate entity — and discovered that as such an apparent entity, I do not choose my thoughts — for the somewhat trivial (though deeply transformational, when seen) reason that such an “I” has no real existence. So the “me” of the Imaginary Nature — in being Santa-Claus-like — does not choose her thoughts.
Then we explored the case of “me” as my True Self — and discovered that such a “me” does indeed choose his/her thoughts, for the (bordering-on-tautological) reason that — both by definition and in our deepest experience — God “does” (in a nondual way) everything, so why would “choosing thoughts” be excluded? So the “me” of the Completely-Existent Nature does choose his/her thoughts.
Do I As The Five Skandhas Choose My Thoughts?
In Buddhism the appearance of a self as a functioning human bodymind is understood in relation to what are known as the Five Skandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Together, these ever-shifting patterns of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, along with the physical elements constituting the body, make up what we generally refer to as “me.”
So, do I as my Five Skandhas choose my thoughts? Well, what’s interesting here is that “thoughts” belong to the “mental formations” category of the Five Skandhas, so the question then becomes something like: does one part of me choose another part of me? In the more detailed descriptions of the Five Skandhas, we learn that there are 51 sub-categories within the “mental formation” skandha. Feeling and Perception are two of these 51 — but because of their importance are also given their own category. The remaining 49 include various “flavors” of thinking — some wholesome, and others unwholesome ( i.e. harmful or unskillful).
So we could, for our purposes here, simplify the Five Skandhas into three: (1) the physical body (Form), (2) Mental Formations (51 total, including Feelings and Perceptions), and (3) Consciousness (what allows us to be aware of any of the other skandhas). To simplify even further, we could notice that our subjective experience of the physical body is actually contained within the Mental Formations category — since it is only as thoughts, sensations and perceptions that we “know” our body directly.
So what would it mean for “me” as the Five Skandhas to choose my thoughts? What it would mean, basically, is that one Mental Formation (among the 51 possible sub-categories) “chooses” another Mental Formation, i.e. that one thought chooses another thought. Or that Consciousness (which in this context simply means the capacity to “be aware of” a specific perception or thought) chooses a thought. But do thoughts, in and of themselves, have the “power to choose”? Or does the capacity to “be aware of” a specific mental object imply the “power to choose” — in the sense of deciding among options — that mental object? It would be difficult to make a case for either of these scenarios.
Patterns Of Thinking & Perceiving
If we look at the 51 categories of Mental Formations, we see that for the most part they describe patterns or general qualities of thinking and perceiving. And this brings us to the distinction between (1) thoughts as individual entities; and (2) thoughts as “events” corresponding to and expressive of patterns of perception/thinking.
So-called “individual thoughts” — like a so-called “separate self” or “Santa Claus” — belong only to the Imaginary Nature. In other words, thoughts — like the self — do not exist independently from the contexts of which they are a part, do not exist separately from their causes and conditions, and do not exist separately from the meanings we assign to them, i.e. their associational networks.
What the Five Skandhas are to a self; patterns of thinking/perception are to a thought. In the same way that the coming together of the Five Skandhas gives rise to the appearance of a self (a human bodymind), so it is that the contours of patterns of thinking/perception set the stage for the appearance of a thought. (This is the realm of the Dependent Nature.)
And what is the source of these patterns of thinking/perception? Some might seem to be “hard-wired” into our bodyminds (including, perhaps, the so-called “vasanas” or “samskaras”) — but if we look more deeply, we’ll find that many are the outcome of some kind of conditioning or training, that we undertook as a seemingly-conscious choice.
So for instance: taking piano lessons for ten years trains my hands and my hearing in such a way that allows me, later, to perform a piece — say one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos — on the piano with much greater skill than could someone who has had no formal piano-playing training. Similarly, if I study chemistry for ten years, and learn how to perform experiments in a chemistry lab, this greatly improves the probability that — sometime later — chemistry-like thoughts will manifest, allowing me to speak intelligently to other chemists, or assist students in creating their own experimental protocols.
So then: in what sense is it fair to say that I either have or have not “chosen” chemistry-like thoughts? Or “chosen” the thoughts constituting the skills necessary to play the piano? In the moment, such thoughts emerge more-or-less spontaneously — but not randomly — since their emergence is clearly guided by probability distributions which were shaped by previous training. So perhaps “influenced” is a better word than “chosen,” to describe the effect of training/conditioning upon the subsequent arising — as events in the phenomenal world — of particular thoughts.
But who does the “influencing” of these probability distributions?
Levels Of Analysis: Ultimate & Relative
Here it will be useful to diverge into a brief discussion of levels of analysis, and their corresponding criteria for validity. In Buddhist logic/epistemology, a distinction is drawn between (1) analysis at the Ultimate level (i.e. in relation to the Completely-Existent Nature); and (2) analysis at the relative level (i.e. in relation to the Dependent or Imaginary Natures).
The criteria for validity at the Ultimate level is Truth (with a capital “T”). The criteria for validity at the relative level has more to do with usefulness or functionality (which includes beauty and other aesthetic criteria), relative to specific contexts. In other words: each of the two levels (Ultimate and relative) has its own criteria for validity — and “mixing and matching” tends just to create confusion, and so it’s something best to avoid!
If, for instance, I’m presented with a steaming-hot and delicious-looking bowl of broccoli-cheddar soup, and decide to evaluate it — not on the basis of relative-level criteria such as its visual presentation, its taste and its nutritional qualities — but rather at an Ultimate level — looking for (and of course never finding) its “true existence” as broccoli-cheddar soup (nor finding the “true existence” of the mouth into which it is being placed) — by the time I finish this Ultimate-level analysis, my relative-world soup is sure to be cold and now rather disgusting to eat.
And so it is with the appearance of choice, or the apparent capacity of a Five-Skandhas “self” to influence, via training of the body or mind, patterns of thinking and perception. These are phenomena belonging to the Dependent Nature — and as such should not be subjected to Ultimate-level criteria of validity.
We can enjoy the appearance of choice/influence as a human bodymind, without losing sight of the deeper Truth of God (Tao, Dharmakaya, Pure Awareness) as the Ultimate Chooser of all phenomena, including this “appearance of choice.” This is the dance of the Completely-Existent and Dependent Natures, of the Absolute and relative dimensions, of Sat-Cit-Ananda and Nama-Rupa.
Contemporary physicist Amit Goswami suggests an approach to living that he playfully calls: “do-be-do-be-do.” The “doing” component refers to acting as though we do have choice, do have the capacity to influence our circumstances (and corresponds to what he calls “upward causation”). The “being” component refers to the practice of releasing, every now and again, the “appearance of choice” along with all other appearances, into the space of not-knowing — which then opens us to the blessings, the miracles, the quantum leaps, the nonlocal communication of the Spiritual realm (corresponding to what he calls “downward causation”).
While in the “doing” mode, we are “choosing” or “influencing” from within space/time, from the position of a Five-Skandhas “me.” The “being” mode, on the other hand, allows for manifestation arising out of a knowing identification with/as Pure Awareness, the Light of Tao, Dharmakaya. In Tibetan vajrayana practice, such an approach bears a similarity to what is known as “generation stage emerging from the ground of completion.” The “ground of completion” here refers to our capacity to rest as Pure Awareness (aka Rigpa); and the “generation stage” refers to the projection of various visualized images, while maintaining the direct perception of the images as inseparable from their ground in Pure Awareness. In other words: resting as the ocean, as the waves arise, we never lose touch with their being, in essence, nothing other than water.
The provisional conclusions drawn from this exploration into the question — Do I choose my thoughts? — are then as follows:
(1) I as a separate-me (belonging to the Imaginary Nature) do not choose my thoughts, because there is no “separate-me” except as a mistaken concept.
(2) I as a Five-Skandhas me (belonging to the Dependent Nature) exercise the appearance of choosing thoughts, via the appearance of influencing patterns of thoughts and perceptions, via various sorts of conditioning or training of the body and mind — as part of the dance of manifestation.
(3) I as my True Self (belonging to the Completely-Existent Nature) do indeed choose my (i.e. all) thoughts — as a special case of choosing every “thing” i.e. all phenomenal appearances — in the mode of unconditional acceptance and nondual embrace — though via a specific bodymind directly perceive (aka remember) only a fraction of these, at any given moment. (And it is exactly this remembering/forgetting ratio which defines the apparent “uniqueness” of one bodymind vis-a-vis another, allowing for diversity of appearances.)
(4) #2 and #3 require distinct levels of analysis, with their respective criteria for validity. The “appearance of choice” enacted by a Five-Skandhas self should not be rejected as invalid, on the basis of its being unable to withstand Ultimate-level analysis. Similarly, the choice-qua-unconditional-acceptance of True Self should not be held to relative-level (and hence conceptual) criteria of usefulness/functionality.