The “mind problem”

We’re so attached to thought that we believe in, “I think, therefore I am,” a statement originally made by René Descartes. We believe in thought-identity, but deep down, we know that’s not all we are. Yet, the mind struggles with understanding that we’re more than thought, because it can’t see beyond itself. The mind is trapped in mind.

You may be thinking, if thought isn’t me, then who am I? Well, this is the same old mind-problem, which is that the mind can’t think beyond or outside of itself, so it’s simply not capable of knowing who you are. If the mind thinks it’s anyone, it’ll think it’s a “you.” However, it doesn’t really know who or even what you are, so by default, it thinks it’s a self, an identity.

Who you think you are is a mind-created identity, because thought believes that thought is an identity. It believes in itself, in its own created existence, but that’s just thought thinking. The truth is that thought is just thought, no more and no less than that, and thought isn’t the sum of who you are. You’re more than thought.

The mind has three choices: It either believes in its own thoughts and its own mind-created identity or it doesn’t, or it accepts that it doesn’t know what to think.

If your mind (if we can call it yours) concludes that the thinking mind doesn’t have an identity beyond what it identifies with and believes in, then it follows that the “me” identity is a fiction and doesn’t really exist. It’s all about belief versus not-knowing. Do you believe in what you think, or, alternatively, can you accept that you don’t know?

The true and only answer to the question “Who am I?” is “I don’t know.” The mind can’t know because it doesn’t know how or what to know and there isn’t anything else trying to know or wanting to know. Thought wants to know what it is and it’s simply thought.

Making choices and decisions

We don’t actually make choices and decisions for two reasons. First, even though the mind thinks it’s a “someone” making decisions, there’s really no one there to make decisions. There’s no one behind the curtain pulling the levers.

At your core, there’s only a spacious emptiness and spaciousness emptiness doesn’t make decisions. Within empty spaciousness, however, everything arises, dissipates and disappears, including every choice and decision.

The second reason we don’t make decisions is that we don’t have any control over our thoughts. Our thoughts and feelings interlink, and although our feelings influence our thoughts and vice versa, we don’t control what we think or feel.

This means that not only are you not responsible for your thoughts and feelings, you’re also not responsible for your actions. You’re not responsible because there’s no one there to be responsible and no one there to control and direct thinking.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes and everyone can do whatever they want, nor does it mean we can behave in irresponsible ways without taking responsibility for our actions.

We have beliefs about right and wrong, what is OK and not OK and we respond to those beliefs with emotion. Our approval or disapproval of ourselves and others depends entirely on what we think and feel and we have no control over that. No one gets to pick and choose the way they are.

Life continues to happen in ways beyond our control, as there are countless continually-changing variables. So do we really influence and affect what happens? Can we make conscious choices and decisions and do the “right thing”? Do you get to decide what’s best for yourself and others?

What a great responsibility you have, driving this bus that contains your life, over an uncertain road. You can’t know for sure what lies ahead or what’s around the next corner, and there are so many corners, so many turns, so many decisions.

Man driving bus down blurry road - Choicelessly choosing choicelessnessIt seems as though we’re constantly at a crossroads, having to choose which way to go. You’re always doing one thing or another: Should you stay or should you go? Should you stop, carry on or do something different? But do you really decide anything? After all, if you stop choosing, stop deciding, stop reacting, the bus—your life—goes on.

Free will versus determinism

This idea of a crossroads relates to the age-old philosophical question of free will, of self-determination. Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action within the limits of what has already happened and what’s possible.

Alternatively, perhaps everything that happens is actually completely random and the concept of free will is just an illusion. Perhaps we make sense of it all by finding meaning through thinking. We happen to think that what happens is based on our decisions and the decisions of others.

It sure seems like we have free will, doesn’t it? What you say and do is a result of what you think and feel, but do you really decide what you think or feel? Do you know what you’ll be thinking one minute from now or what you might be feeling? If you can accept that you don’t know, then it follows that you’re not completely in control of your actions.

This isn’t just about the realization that you’re not in control of your thoughts. More important than that is the realization that there’s no one around deciding which thought comes next. If you ask yourself who’s thinking your thoughts, you might answer with “I am,” but an “I” identity thinking thoughts hasn’t yet been found.

If you accept the possibility that you have no control over any of this, that there isn’t a you in the way you think there is, then you’re left with only the perception of a “you” choosing, a mind-created identity with an illusion of free will, of responsibility. In actuality, each decision you make, from your little daily decisions to big, life-changing ones, is not of your choosing. Decisions are made by a thinking mind and that’s not who you are.

Perhaps life just happens for no particular reason and along with not knowing who you are, you have no control over how you respond or what you do. Imagine that—not knowing who you are and knowing that there are no meaningful reasons for why you think what you think and do what you do. Is that depressing, or is it liberating?

A new paradigm

We’re at the beginning of the end of the old way of thinking. We’re at the dawn of a new paradigm, illustrated by a shift in consciousness emerging all over the world.

Don’t doubt that this is emerging and that it may be ready to emerge in you. It’s entirely possible for you to experience yourself as a human being in a new way, a different way than you ever have before.

It’s as if the awareness that you are lives inside an automated robot and the robot thinks it’s a separate identity with free will. You’re inside the robot with no way out. The robot thinks it’s the robot and it is. The robot thinks there’s nothing more to it than that, but there is! You experience yourself through the robot, but the robot is not who you are. You need the robot to do its job—to think and feel and experience. Who would you be without thought, without feelings, without experiences? What would be left if all that was taken away? Would awareness continue to be here?

Pure awareness is nothing without thoughts, feelings and experiences. It’s nothing without the decisions and choices that are made by you (apparently). Awareness gets to experience itself as thought, as feelings and through experiences.

Don’t you see that you are all of it, although you don’t exist in the way you thought you did and you don’t choose? Everything is awareness. There’s no reason for any of it and even if there is, it’s beyond our capacity to understand. As far as we’re able to know, life doesn’t have meaning. It makes no sense and never will. We will never know—ever.

The apparent rule on this planet is that all the time, you have to choose. You have decisions to make at every second of every day. You can choose to continue what you’re doing, decide to do it differently or opt to do something else. You can choose to speak and listen or choose not to speak and not to listen. How do you decide when to speak and what to say? Or does speaking just happen?

What on earth would you do with yourself if you knew for sure that everything is completely automated and randomized, and your responses and reactions have nothing to do with your supposed free will?

We’re products of our lives

Our actions are a decisional consequence of what we think and feel. Our thoughts and feelings are driven by our beliefs, values, motivations, interests, needs, desires, pleasures and ambitions. They’re also driven by our search for love, understanding and acceptance, and our desire for others to like us and regard us positively.

Our decisions are influenced by our personalities, habits, behavioural patterns, past experiences, childhood programming and cultural conditioning. We’re products of our inherited genes and our role models, caregivers and protectors, as well as our abusers and neglectors.

In a nutshell, the way we are and what we do is a product of the relationship between our past programming (delivered by past experiences) and our genetic inheritance which, in turn, interacts with our present experience.

Yet, with that being said, it seems as though we still can’t escape from the constant crossroads we’re on, which requires us to make one decision after another. Almost every single action seems to come from a decision, but perhaps it’s all happening regardless of us and our minds make sense of everything by thinking that we’re making our own decisions.

Perhaps, in all circumstances, we’re responding and reacting in accordance with how our brains have been conditioned by our genes, biology and previous experiences. What we choose determines what happens, but our choices are limited and influenced by what we think and feel. If we accept that we don’t have any control over what we think and feel, we don’t have—can’t have—any control over what we decide to do.

This would mean that there are no right or wrong decisions, only what happens. Thus, in that sense, we can’t be held accountable or blamed for doing harm and we can’t take credit for the good we do. Both the benevolent and the malevolent have no choice.

The chair experiment

You might think you’re driving the bus of your life and making decisions, but you’re not. You don’t get to decide where you’re going or how you’re going to get there. Decisions happen and you think they’re your decisions, but they’re not. Did you plan for your life to turn out the way it did? Were you even capable of imagining it happening this way? I doubt it.

If you’re sure that you’re making decisions, sit in a chair and decide to get up from it anytime you like. You can stand up or sit down—you decide. At some point, you’ll stand up, but do you really know when you’ll “decide” to do that? Will you actually decide? I suggest that your decision-making will be a consequence of thought, which you have no control over.

Your existence and your world are built on who you think you are and the decisions and choices you make. But you don’t exist or make choices and decisions in the way you think you do. If there’s no inner you thinking and deciding, then the way you make sense of your life’s journey is illusional.

We delude ourselves into believing that everything has a purpose and we’re heading somewhere for a reason. Perhaps it’s all just up to chance, and there’s no one here, no decisions to make and nowhere to go. Try stopping, and you’ll find that no matter what you do or don’t do, your journey will continue anyway. Decisions will occur and in one way or another, the world will carry on interacting with you.

We want to find out who we are, to discover ourselves, but there’s no one to find and nobody to discover. No one’s at home; there’s no driver of the bus. There’s actually no bus, no road ahead, no crossroads. There are no decisions or choices to make, and even if there were, there’s no one around to make them.

What does this have to do with mindfulness?

Mindful awareness is about just being with what’s happening now and noticing what you think, what you feel, what you decide (apparently) and what you do. What’s happening in this moment can’t be any other way. It’s the only possibility, because it’s already happening. There’s no other possibility besides what’s happening now, as there’s no “before” or “after” the now of this moment.

Mindfulness isn’t about thinking or knowing. Awareness doesn’t think about such things, because it doesn’t think. The mind believes in its own identity and functions while believing that this “me” identity is in charge of what it thinks, feels, decides and does—that’s the illusion. In contrast, an illuminated mind is a “don’t-know,” open and curious mind.

As your life carries on, you’ll find yourself reacting in one way or another—or not. You’ll stay or you’ll go and you’ll do this or do that, because you’re always either staying or going and always doing this and not doing that.

As long as you believe in the idea of, “I think, therefore I am,” the search for meaning and the belief that there’s a “you” deciding will continue.

Thinking that you’re deciding is a way of trying to make sense of your experiences, but none of it makes any sense anyway. Perhaps there aren’t any reasons for anything, and there may not even be anything to make sense of. You’re right where you are, right now—that’s all you’ve got.

Throughout your life, you’ll get to experience what happens and watch yourself “deciding” and doing. Either with or without a belief in a “you” making decisions, you’ll either think you know what you think you know, or you’ll accept that you really don’t know who you are or why things happen to happen in the way that they happen.

Do you believe in free will, or are you more inclined to agree with the author of this article? Why or why not? Let us know in the Comments!


image 1: Petri Damstén (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA / Cropped from original); image 2: Dennis van Zuijlekom (Creative Commons BY-SA)