Sylvia Boorstein on how the mind manufactures thoughts the way a popcorn machine makes popcorn—and what’s delightful about that.
I’ve often imagined that whatever mechanism is in my mind manufacturing thoughts, it probably resembles the popcorn machine in the lobby of a movie theater. My thoughts seem to pop up and fly out randomly in all directions—a bit of this and a bit of that, any one thought getting buried by a barrage of new thoughts. But every so often I have a thought that stands out in some dramatic way, either because I like it a lot or because it embarrasses me, and I remember it for a while with either delight or chagrin.
The “delight experiences” seem good. They lift my spirit. Sometimes they initiate creative ideas, and I see things in a new way. They are like the “Aha!” moments in psychotherapy: suddenly, a pattern of behavior is illuminated, and at the same time the way to change that pattern becomes clear. These delight experiences are also like the “Aha!” moments in meditation practice, the moments of direct insight into impermanence or suffering or interdependence.
I think the delight I feel is twofold. First, I am delighted that confusion is replaced by clarity. Then, in the very next moment, I think, “Wow! Look at that! I figured that out!” The sense of a separate self has appeared, taking ownership of the insight. It seems fine to me, though, that one’s sense of self comes back for a victory lap. It keeps the mind interested and energetic. And it gets poetry written, music composed. It seduces the “thinker” into thinking out loud.
My embarrassing thoughts still sometimes surprise me. “Oh, dear! Why did I think that? That is definitely an ignoble thought.” A meditation teacher of mine mentioned in a lecture long ago that it is a good thing our thoughts are not connected to public address systems. At the time, the room full of still, sober-faced students burst into laughter. “The mind is shameless,” the teacher continued. “Outrageous. It has a mind of its own.”
It is strange that we should imagine emotional growth or spiritual insight will inhibit the mind from forming thoughts in its usual impersonal, popcorn-machine fashion. The fact that we keep hoping for more elevated, more sublime thoughts, despite all evidence that the mind goes on in its own independent way, speaks to the depth of our compassion. We’ve come to understand that “ignoble” thoughts often carry with them a level of afflictive emotion. Arising spontaneously in response to an apparent outside stimulus, they often point to some unrecognized neediness in the thinker herself. “That person is . . . (needy, lonesome, unsatisfied, uncomfortable),” is often an indication that “I am feeling . . . (needy, lonesome, unsatisfied, uncomfortable).” The thoughts themselves are not what hurt. What hurts is the pain that creates them, and the accompanying story that we often tell ourselves: “If I were a truly spiritual person, I would never think . . .”
I believe that the fundamental inclination of our hearts is toward compassion. We are empathic beings. We are touched by others’ emotions because we know how those emotions feel in us. I framed a poem that my granddaughter Grace wrote when she was eight years old, and I keep it where I can see it from my desk. It was a homework assignment: Autobiographical Poem About Me. Grace describes her family, her living situation, what she likes and dislikes, and then says, “I worry that my rat might be lonely.” Grace must feel lonely sometimes, and so she worries that a being she holds dear might be lonely.
We want very much not to suffer, and we do not want others to suffer on our account. And so insulting thoughts that are directed at others-however much they mirror our own discomfort-contradict the basic intention of our heart. I think that’s why we wish so much they’d go away.
The fact that the mind marches on with its endless production of noble and ignoble thoughts leaves me hopeful. The more often I see that I have several types of thoughts I can focus on, the less I am bothered by the ones I would rather not think at all. I can notice them and perhaps discover the needs in myself I can address, and how I might respond with compassion. I can also let them go. Remembering that my mind is not attached to a public address system makes me laugh, and that always improves things.