In the March issue of Sunrise, several articles regarding "thoughts" were published. But there still remains the wonder within: what really is "a thought"? Can we, in the jumble-tumble of our daily thinking, ever separate such a unit? Many of our thoughts are flitting, shifting, short-lived, hazy images, passing in front of our mental eye, merely semi-automatic responses to our surroundings or to our feelings. Even the most uncomplicated thought is part of a complex system; and, moreover, never static, never for a moment frozen in stillness so that we can observe it at our ease. Chasing our thoughts seems to be futile. Attracted or repelled by memory and association, fears and hopes, they crisscross the screen of our mind — and all we perceive is speed and movement, not actual thought units.
Thoughts range from the most elementary to the most abstract, some hardly piercing our consciousness, others engulfing our total existence. Many are clear-cut, simple in structure, frequent visitors to human minds everywhere; some are intricate and delicate, rare as shining jewels. Perhaps it would benefit us to look at these various levels of thought and how we make use of them.
Behind every act, however trifling, is thought. Our body has become so well-trained since our birth that we are hardly aware of the mental activity involved in each voluntary move we make. If we had consciously to instruct our nerves and muscles for just one single movement, such as getting up from our chair, we would need hours. Yet, some brain impulse is necessary, which in turn had to be activated by a thought: "I want to get the book which is on the table there, out of my reach." How many factors play a role in this one decision: there is the desire to look at the pages of the book, perhaps because of a passing curiosity, or deep interest in the subject, or because we feel it is our duty; then there is the quick judging of distance to where my arm can reach; if I am very tired, there may be the weighing of physical strain against the fulfillment of the wish; and so on. How fortunate it is that we are not aware of all these ruminations.
The disciplined motor centers of our central nervous system guide and supervise — but do not instigate -- our physical responses and actions. The ability to walk and swim, bicycle and skate, and execute a thousand other movements, was acquired by slow, stumbling efforts, by repetition, over and over again, until the channels of brain and nerves were smooth and clear. When fully grown, our body becomes a tool so sharpened that the merest flicker of a thought impulse is sufficient to set in motion the machinery — electrical, chemical, mechanical — and then let it run practically on its own. A marvel of efficiency!
Of course, man is not unique in this. The lowliest creature in the animal world runs, flies or swims soon after it is born. It quickly learns to follow its drives: to chase the fleeing rabbit, the darting mouse; to seek the shade of a tree, or a waterhole in the hot desert; to select the colorful and fragrant flower. The gathering for safety in flocks or herds, the migrating with the change of seasons, the storing of food for hungry winter days — all these are more than just reflexes. There cannot be much doubt: there is a foreseeing intelligence behind their activities, although the animals themselves appear to follow the incitements without conscious understanding or reasoning. Are they, in some way, conveyors or transmitters of thoughts coming from a higher 'layer,' from a source more advanced?
But let us first turn again to the human field of action. We do not find fewer questions here but, at least as self-conscious beings, we can observe, as in a mirror, our own inner life and profit from such observations. Generally we are aware of the reason for our actions. We can adapt to changing demands from our surroundings, solve problems, make logical deductions. Every waking hour adds to our training; every decision we make, every question we answer, teaches us by its consequences a little more. In pragmatic situations, in which no emotions or feelings are involved, we can select possibilities, discard unpromising ones, determine which roads are open; we can weigh, eliminate, hold in abeyance — in short, can reason logically and visualize without having to follow the laborious road of actual trial and error. Hundreds of times we go through this process, and the more proficient our mind becomes, the less aware we are of the intricate thought patterns that are being woven. The pull-toy hooked behind the leg of the table poses a major problem for the toddler; "unthinkingly" we free it with a nonchalant shove of our foot. The addition of 4 + 5 may be difficult for the first-grader; our adult brain immediately flashes the answer.
The area of our consciousness, however, stretches farther. Deeply rooted in our human existence and experience, most of our thoughts are intertwined with our desires, hopes, needs and ambitions. Fear and frustration, joy and love, hate and irritation, compassion and aspirations, form a coruscating whirl of hues, in which thoughts may or may not take on definite shape. Only when we are extremely alert, do they emerge sharply outlined within the totality of our consciousness. Yet even the most casual introspection reveals to us that many of our thoughts are colored, many of our actions motivated by feelings and moods, by the temper of the day or the hour; that important decisions may be crucially influenced by them.
Just as we, in childhood, unwittingly taught our body to perform certain movements easily and automatically upon our slightest bidding, so we can discipline our emotional nerves and muscles. Here too channels of communication have to be established, of the right kind and direction. In order to become fully human, bordering on the godlike — in the distant future of the race — we must become in full command of our emotions, more objective and less swayed by the mood of the moment. There are some who fear that this would result in our being cold-hearted and non-responsive, mere living automatons. But this fear is unfounded. Don't we consider the graceful ballet dancer or the accomplished athlete as superior to the clumsy person? Don't we admire their perfection and ease and expertise? So it could be with our "emotional body": it would respond sensitively and unwaveringly to the stimuli of the world around and within, perfectly attuned to the needs of every instant. Such self-discipline cannot be forced. We have to work naturally and, above all, gently. As in physical training, nothing defeats our purpose so quickly as a taut, unbending, strained determination.
The process of emotional growth started equally when we were young, but it is all too often neglected so that our emotions remain insufficiently coordinated. In extreme cases, thoughts, captured by fears or excessive self-centeredness, cling like leeches to the victim, causing pathological behavior and irrational acts. All the reasoning in the world cannot help the sufferer to free himself from these haunting obsessions and compulsions. Volumes have been written about these sad cases. I mention them here only because they illustrate how emotions can almost completely take hold of our mind, and how, when they are not checked, they can groove ruts in which the wheels of our mental vehicle can be hopelessly caught.
So far we have looked at, first, the mere flickerings of thought that set in motion our physical activities; then we glanced quickly at the thoughts as we know them in "pure" pragmatic reasoning; these were followed by those that are strongly interlinked with our emotional life. But we can climb higher still, to the clear air of ideas, touching only here and there the immediacy of our earthly existence — to the mountain-tops of the poet, the philosopher and sage, where wondrous visions are woven into the glorious fabric of mind. We too may ascend occasionally to those rarefied strata of thought, though we may not always be able to translate our experiences into words. These elevated planes we humans have claimed as our own, and we are constantly expanding them. Directly or indirectly, humanity as a whole benefits from them, is lifted up a little, inspired to greater deeds. Pure logic may have its brilliance, but it never has set the world on fire; many an ethical concept, on the other hand, while it may be imbedded in eminent logic, has sparked a civilization into life or urged it on to another peak of accomplishment.
Where do thoughts come from? This question becomes even more pressing when we endeavor to trace such inspiring thoughts. Are they created by the human mind, or are they pulled out of the thought atmosphere? We know that it is impossible to create anything out of nothing, not even a thought, tenuous and immaterial as it is. It may be painful to our ego to reflect upon the possibility that a so-called original thought is not original at all, but we can immediately apply some soothing ointment to our wounded pride: no thought would come to us if we had not attracted it, had not prepared for it the proper feeding ground.
It is an often-mentioned fact that significant inventions and discoveries in history frequently emerged almost simultaneously at places far removed from each other — an especially striking "coincidence" in times when the lack of communication precluded an easy exchange. "The time was ripe," we say loosely. And indeed, that may well be the case: the channels of mind were cleared and ready to receive these inspirations waiting to enter once again into the thought life of mankind. "Once again," because numerous civilizations — and with these their own particular body of thoughts, ideas and discoveries — have prospered and died in the long aeons preceding ours.
We are used to thinking of our thoughts as particularly our own. We likewise regard our body as something that belongs to us, that is fairly unchanging over the years, except for the inevitable marks of age. Yet, the atoms and molecules pass through us in a continuous stream, in and out again. It is said that every cell is replaced in the course of about seven years. So all these components are not ours after all; they can only be called so while they are part of our physical system. In the material world, then, we are truly one with all, magnetically attracting and thus partaking of the atoms which may have coursed through the veins of a Chinese street-sweeper, or once been breathed in and out by a Swiss mountain goat, passed through the trunk of a Scandinavian oak, or paused in the ice of Antarctica. Moving in the ever-flowing sea of manifested life, each creature, man included, is a temporary concretion, as it were, open to its currents and swirls, sensing and reacting to its heaving and falling, yet contributing something of its own essence to the whole.
Keeping this picture in mind, it seems not at all far-fetched to regard in a similar fashion our participation in the ocean of thought. We take from it, freely; yet some thought atoms pass through our mind practically untouched by our influence, while others become almost our possession for a time and get colored and shaped according to our imprint, until they at last are released to pursue their further peregrinations. Some of them will return, again and again, responding to our attraction. Others, having been prominent in our minds for years, leave us forever.
Just as every physical form of life on earth — or anywhere in the universe, for that matter — is a temporary concentration of smaller particles (themselves miniature lives), held together by the inspiriting spark expressing itself as a consciousness, whether of minute or vast compass, so it is very probable that each individual mind is a temporary home and training school for the thought energies revolving and evolving through their experiences. A strange hypothesis? Perhaps. We should not judge too quickly, for it is only a few years ago that the same judgment would have been made if someone had conjectured about radio waves. Actually, these afford an excellent analogy, for here too we select the wave length, and here too we receive and perceive a movement, never a static unit; while the quality of our receiving set determines to a large degree the grade of perfection of the sound.
Such an atmosphere of thought must necessarily range from the simple to the complex, from the primitive to the godlike. All kingdoms of nature may avail themselves of it, those far below as well as those far above the human, each attracting those qualities which respond to its particular need. Could it be that the birds migrate because they answer a call — a thought spark once emitted by a much higher entity, just as our legs are set in motion by the thought spark from us, and then react unfailingly, without conscious supervision?
We have not found the solutions to our initial questions, and perhaps we never will fully. But we have, in our ponderings, caught a glimpse of thoughts as complex, ever-moving entities, never the same for one instant, having to be observed in flight, as it were. We have seen them as visitors to the home of our mind, where we are master and can grant them entrance and welcome them, or refuse them access, so that so-called good and bad thoughts are really of our own choosing and of our own making. And, as a last point, we have suggested that there are innumerable gradations in the thought atmosphere, implying that the true geniuses of mankind, those who set their noble mark on history in whatever way, were those who had succeeded in opening themselves to thought energies of an almost godlike purity and quality that transcended the normal human level of the time. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, they had trained themselves and thus were able to translate their visions to their contemporaries. There is no question in my mind: this road is open to all of us. In the eternities of our future we can and will attain ever greater heights, chasing and ultimately touching the golden stars of divine thought.
(From Sunrise magazine, April 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)