Philosophy of Mind: Thought or No-thought?


Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka

I’ll have to admit that it bothers me somewhat the extent to which Eckhart Tolle goes to demonize the process of thought. Is this not who and what we are, for better or worse? “All thought is judgment.” Really? But he’s definitely got a point about our non-stop narratives (not to be confused with truth or reality) and the resultant mental noise and ego-defenses inherent to such a system.

His is basically a metaphysics of meditation, if not in so many words, i.e. (mostly) without the Buddhism. And that, of course, is the challenge, in assuming that the mental state achieved in meditation can somehow be maintained every minute of every day of your life. Is that even possible? Maybe so. But I’d like to suggest a slight detour to that conclusion.

I’ve been reading some Buddhist texts recently that allude to something that probably translates best as the ‘true original mind’ or ‘pristine mind’, as that state to be desired, sought after and accomplished, and hence to be the model for our short shrill suffering-filled existences. Okay, good enough so far, but: what does this ‘true original mind’ consist of and how does it function? That’s the issue to be determined. In other words: Did thought begin with language?

IMG_0581I don’t think so, though it certainly changed with it, as it did with our little laptop friend, the personal computer. But the logic behind it is still the same, Boolean: more than, less than, equal to, included, not included, i.e. what we used to call back in 1966 “modern math”. I think this provides a valuable clue to what thought was like prior to language, non-literal realizations of comparative volumes on one hand and cause and effect on the other, i.e. logic and proportion, the math of sizes and symbols, flip sides of the same coin.

Sound familiar? I know what you’re thinking: Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’, right? Okay, but doesn’t it also sound a lot like your last IQ or SAT test, specifically the math (numerical) and ‘verbal’ components, which are really almost flip-sides of the same thing, i.e. numerical equations vs. verbal analogies in a modern literate world, or physical proportions vs. symbolic relations (religion?) in a pre-literate one? It’s something like that, I’d say.

I refuse to believe that thought just suddenly sprang to life with the accidental discovery of language, but rather that the two of them finessed and cajoled (read: ‘invented’) each other in a symbiotic relationship that resulted in something that neither could have imagined in the beginning, not unlike the modern evolution of computers, much easier to examine up close than our own spermy trial-and-error history of false starts and brilliant mistakes, that has currently led us to the peaks of accomplishment, only to…

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…you fill in the blank. As the history of computer coding has evolved into extended versions of object and event-oriented ‘visual basic’ programming language, so perhaps must our own language-oriented literal thought evolve into something more and different, as artistic as it is literal, as symbolic as it is numerical.

It’s arguable, after all, that the first language, or at least the first literal thought, was the numerical counting system, only hence to be replaced by symbols and phonics and…what else? Modifiers, qualifiers, connectors, punctuation and more occurred only long after the basic functions of quantity and inclusion, cause and effect were established. Maybe a more visual thought, not a vacuous ‘now-ness’ or nothingness, is the key to decreasing mind-noise: maybe.

For those of us who tend to enjoy thinking, this is an enticing proposition. But back to the original idea: is it possible to dip into a bit of meditation-mentality at will for creativity and survival like dipping some snuff or smoking a fag out in the back alley, or sipping some Java in a downtown street-side café?

Hundreds of thousands of the best writers and artists have made it their little ‘trade secret’ to successfully walk the fine line between boredom and addiction, taking just what they need of a ‘little helper’ without getting hooked, and meditation would certainly be far healthier if only it could provide the same thing, access to something like a trance-state or ‘natural high’ just a moment away at any one once given, keys to the kingdom and the back door, too, drop of a hat and the whole toodle-oo…

But a good start might be to just clean up the process of language, and make it something sacred once again. Something once the special skill of priests and scholars has been reduced to trash-talk and crap-rap, politeness gone over to acrimony, conciliation given way to aggression. We are to ourselves what we think, as we are to others what we say. Only by cleaning it up can we lift it up, and lift up the whole universe in the process…