Thought is a fascinating and inescapable phenomenon; it takes many forms and has many names. We can think linguistically, visually, auditorily, emotionally, sensually, somatically… Regardless of manifestation, at its core, thought is a means of representing information, mediating, and making sense of our realities; it is integral to our experience.
In this day and age, a primary means of engaging reality is through intellectual process. Descartes posited, “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” This statement has largely informed the weight that intellectual thought has been given as our culture has progressed, and also implicitly links thought with our identities and beings.
Long ago, I became aware of tensions in my thought process, contributing to distressing experiences. As an adolescent, I went through a protracted period of trying to exercise extreme control over my thoughts and exorcise those thoughts I did not want. I had many thoughts that troubled me and would have liked to have gotten rid of. These were largely unwanted because I believed them to be impure, imperfect, aggressive, grandiose, self-defeating, self-congratulatory, despairing, etc. As one striving for elevation of consciousness, I believed that I should be able to transcend negative thought forms, and be unfettered by their grip. However, I found that no matter how many hours I meditated, prayed, or sought means of avoidance and distraction, these thoughts would continue. If anything, the more I tried to control my thoughts and banish them from my mind, the more vividly unwanted thoughts would present themselves to me. Like wading through psychic quicksand, the more I struggled, the faster I was swallowed by the enormity of these thoughts, largely charged with anxieties, aggressions, and despairs.
It took a long time to figure out what was going on here, and it is a continuing journey. After innumerable hours on the analytic couch, while studying various mystical and meditative traditions and wondering why I was so inexorably flawed, an insight gradually occurred to me: thought has a life of its own, far beyond the reach of my conscious will. I realized that whether I wanted a thought was irrelevant. Each thought, regardless of how I judged or experienced it, was a communication from a source beyond my conscious mind. Instead of seeking to rid my mind of unwanted thoughts and feelings, it became important simply to strive for awareness and acceptance of whatever thoughts, emotions, sensations, and fantasies presented themselves to me.
After spending time practicing and refining a receptivity to thoughts, without a compulsion to engage thought actively, I realized that sometimes previously unwanted thoughts actually provide some of the most important information, frequently related to something that is going on the “here and now”: information about my mood, a representation of how to approach a personal or professional difficulty, insights about those with whom I work, how to connect with someone disconnected, creative endeavors seeking expression, and much more.
My experience of this process led me to formulate a basic way of dividing thought into two types: active and passive. For convenience sake and likely due to cultural Cartesian conditioning, I use the word “thought” here, though “thought” also can be called mind, emotion, vision, sensation, fantasy, intuition… For the purposes of this reflection, active and passive thought are described as distinct. The actual dynamic reality of thought is not quite so simple. There are intricate interactions between how we think and experience actively and passively; those interactions are discovered and experienced through practice, vary according to person, and are difficult to articulate in language. This is a fertile a transitional space that eludes definition, a weaving of conscious experience and unconscious forces.
Here, active thought is defined as the thought that we willfully engage. For example, as I write and edit this, I think of the meaning that I wish to convey. I actively seek to express my thoughts in coherent and comprehensible ways. Similarly, if I am seeking to solve a problem, I will mobilize my active thought in the service of figuring out a solution. Active thought is an expression of will: it is how we will our thoughts and experiences to proceed. It frequently emerges in linear, structured, and ordered ways. Active thought is also evaluative. It seeks order and imposes judgment. When we think actively, we feed the thought process. We provide it with energy and strength, and reinforce its hold on us.
Passive thought is the form of thought that presents itself to us beyond our conscious wills. I refer to this thought form as passive, only in contrast to active; passive does not mean that these thoughts emerge without force. The passive can be exceptionally forceful and persistent; it is simply beyond the control of our conscious wills. Seemingly out of nowhere, thoughts will enter our minds: memories, fantasies, inspirations, dreams, songs we get stuck in our heads, lists of things we need to do, grizzly and bizarre images, often accompanied by intense, even compelling emotion. These passive thoughts are sometimes beliefs about ourselves or our realities: I am a failure, I am amazing, life is hopeless, all you need is love, and so forth: an unrelenting and unending flood of different impressions, desires, beliefs, emotions, and judgments, to name a few. When these thoughts enter our minds, there can be a natural tendency to accept these thoughts either as reality or as who we are and engage our active minds; we tend to react to these thoughts as though they are reality itself, as opposed to being reflective of some level of reality. We can then spend inordinate time and energy trying to draw these thoughts to some conclusion; in doing this, we frequently are led away from the deeper significance these thoughts convey, and find ourselves in a repetitive process of self-doubt, guilt, confusion, and disempowerment. And all this time, we are unable to grasp the deeper significance of the thought.
A mind without awareness of the tensions between active and passive thought is vulnerable to believing that thoughts are who we are and that all thoughts are created equal. We can become so accustomed to staying within our thoughts that it can be hard to see beyond them. We are not fated, however, to remaining in this daunting, constrained conundrum. We have an ability to engage our thought process differently, as opposed simply being at the whims of those thoughts, images, feelings, fantasies, and sensations that present themselves to us…