How often are you lost in thought? When a student asked renowned Thai teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa to describe the consciousness of today’s world, he answered simply: “Lost in thought.” When we live inside an incessant stream of thoughts, we become identified with our mental creations. We react to the people or events in our minds as if they were real and we believe that the self portrayed in our mental stories is actually who we are. Severed from the direct experience of the present moment — from the truth that is here and now — we are lost in a virtual reality.
We’re usually aware of painful obsessions like nagging thoughts and a dreaded job interview, or persistent fantasies about having a drink when we’ve sworn to be abstinent. But compulsive thinking also takes the shape of everyday obsessing, the familiar stream of worries and plans that are an ever-present part of our lives. This kind of obsessing is free floating; it will afix itself to whatever object is available. We might anxiously obsess about an unfinished project at work, complete it, and then immediately transfer our obsessing to what needs to be done next. Or, we might have a strong craving for acknowledgement, or a burning desire to buy something new and, after satisfying it, find that we are grasping after the next fix. Even a vague sense of anxiety or stress, can lead to dozens of hours lost to worrying or planning, judging or figuring things out. While the intensity of compulsive thinking varies, the common denominator is that whenever we’re lost in thought, we are disconnected from our body and our senses. We are cut off from the perceptiveness and receptivity that underly our natural intelligence and kindness. In all this, I certainly don’t mean to devalue thinking. Thinking is a crucial part of our evolutionary equipment, our primary means for surviving and thriving. Everything we humans bring forth into the world — buildings, computers, pianos, and poems — begins as an idea in the mind. And yet, this same thinking brain is responsible for unspeakable violence toward our own species and animals, it drives the over-consuming the threatens to destroy our living planet, and it generates much of our emotional misery. Just as Houdini locked himself in his cell, our thoughts can imprison us in a painful and sometimes nightmarish trance.
This post is an excerpt from Tara Brach’s book “True Refuge: Finding Peace and Presence In Your Own Awakened Heart”. If you’d like to join Tara live online for guided meditation practices, talks, and Q&A sessions, you can join our community here.