Thinking About Thinking

Thinking aloud is allowed. Unfortunately, the noisy chatter is annoying my neighbours. The Mrs had not sat down to watch a movie with me ever since the pandemic caused such a panic. Last Friday, she caught a glimpse of Line of Duty Season 4 Episode 5 with me, and promptly sat down to finish the episode with me. It was intense! Some of you may think it was the close proximity to the woman that I meant. Perhaps. I had planned to commence Season 5 this week, but she wanted to watch from the very beginning, from S1E1. So, dutifully I am re-visiting the stories. A most compelling story about AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the U.K. police, Line of Duty. Is it my duty to accompany her though? So, it got me thinking about the concept of duty. I am known to be a filial son, yet the things I did for my parents were acts of love, not duty-bound. I think there is a big difference between an act of love and an act of duty. A duty is a moral or legal obligation, but sitting down with a spouse watching whatever she likes is an act of giving, willingly, happily and unconditionally. Definitely not a duty. I half-expected The Mrs to lose track of the little details or hints of who the baddies were or what they were up to, but no. She was superb and I think she exceeded my own ability to notice the little nuances of the story – especially the part about the DCI’s secret affair with a woman. She nailed it well before I did.

Can we both be right? Just thinking aloud

Mandatory or not, mask-wearing has seen loud and somewhat violent protests, especially in the U.S. and they aren’t even mandated there. There has been much kerfuffle even in some parts of Australia about the forced limitation of movement and the requirement to wear masks. The tussle between ruling for the greater good vs rules to protect individual freedom and rights has continued unabated in Victoria. I think in the not distant future, people will read with disbelief that mask-wearing during a pandemic to save ourselves was such a challenging proposition.

Two days ago, the Federal government announced a A$3.5 billion upgrade to the NBN (National Broadband network). We have spent some A$60 billion for what will surely become an archaic system once 5G is universally available. Even before the first dollar was spent and the first bucket of soil turned, we already said it was a farce to invest in cables in the ground for the future. Free Wi-Fi was already available in some cities around the world back then at speeds that were not much slower than the promised speed of the NBN. This latest upgrade will deliver “super fast” speed to those who want them, said the Minister for Communications. Both my office and home internet have recently changed over to the NBN, after some coercion and threat of losing internet altogether, if we did not. Since then, we see a lot of the spinning circle on our computer screens and iPads. Is the operating system busy suddenly or has the NBN broken down again? Nope, our productivity has not improved at all with the promised higher internet speed. The NBN is a broken system, which has seen my staff busily making coffee and tea to keep themselves busy. I read that by 2023, the A$3.5 billion will deliver us FTTP. Impressive, with the media parroting about the promised “super-fast speed” without questioning how fast fibre-to-the-premises actually will be. At the moment, our NBN is fibre-to-the-node and then copper to the building. It delivers 100Mbps, i.e. slow. With FTTP, it will become “super fast”, i.e. 1Gbps or ten times faster. Yippee! Until I read that 5G’s speed is 20Gps – that is right, today’s 5G is already 20 times faster than what our NBN will be in three years’ time. It is no wonder Malcolm Turnbull banned China’s 5G from coming, on the pretext of security concerns. I think he meant it was to secure our NBN’s lifeline, to prevent it from becoming a white elephant before the project is even completed.

A very good mate, Mak, sent me a video-clip about the Dhamma’s way to find happiness. He apologised for regularly sending me talks on Dhamma or Buddhist teachings as a way of life. Usually, unsolicited lengthy messages are frowned upon – especially when we are pre-occupied or disinterested in the subject matter. I told Mak, no worries. I enjoy these Dhamma clips, initially out of curiosity but now as a source of knowledge. I was brought up by my mother to pray with joss sticks but there were no deep teachings and philosophical ideas imparted by the adults to a young boy, e.g. why pray when there is no deity in Buddhism? Who was I praying to? Also, the opposite premise was as equally troublesome for me. If the all-knowing God exists, why do we need to pray? Are we not too presumptuous to think the all-knowing deity needs us to tell Him all our woes, wishes and wants? Why waste His time and tell Him what He already knows? Please correct me if I have used the wrong gender pronoun. (Why are there no gender-neutral pronouns for God?) Anyway, back to Mak’s Dhamma clip. I couldn’t get past the first two sentences that asserted we only find happiness when we stop thinking. Peace of mind brings calmness and this is the core of happiness. Sounds easy. Stop thinking and we find happiness? Luckily, with a free morning, I was able to prod Mak for more answers. That required thinking for both of us. I don’t know about Mak, but I think I got some happiness out of our discussion. Thinking about thinking. Why does the Dhamma teach us that thinking will lead us away from our goal of finding happiness? We did not cover the next subject of the video-clip which was about wisdom. The core of wisdom is in the Four Noble Truths. To enlighten ourselves, we need to understand what is suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to end the suffering. To end the suffering, we have to get to Nirvana and it is all paved for us very clearly in the Eightfold path. The path is all about goodness. Wholesomeness. Good viewpoints, good values, good speech and good action. Coupled with good livelihood and effort, we are well on our way once we also heed the teachings about good mindfulness and good meditation. We will reach Nirvana if we stay on this good path to truth. We didn’t discuss wisdom at all because I couldn’t get past the idea of the need to stop thinking. The message rings unabatedly in my mind. “When the mind stops thinking, that is when you find real happiness”. Mak added it is the proliferation of thoughts and the mindless chattering of the unwholesome types that crack our calmness. Unwholesome thoughts will lead to unwholesome actions and words. Eventually, that person’s life is unravelled and misfortune will strike. I suppose that is the theory behind it, and who can be happy after that? I suggested that “contentment” has to be a big part of the equation for happiness. If we are not contented with our lives, how can we be of calm mind and spirit? I honed in on Mak’s remark that it is “unwholesome” thoughts that lead us away from happiness. I reckon the evil ones can also be happy with their unwholesome thoughts, right? As long as they are contented, baddies can still find happiness, irrespective of what makes them contented. It cannot be true that bad people are all unhappy, surely? Can baddies have peace of mind? That, I don’t know. As long as people, good or bad, are contented with their actions and thoughts, they will still have a chance to find happiness. That’s what I think. Proliferation of thoughts is discouraged in the Dhamma. When the mind stops thinking is when we find happiness. I can’t understand that. Isn’t the opposite true? That we cannot be calm if we can’t think and discover the answer? Did the Buddha not have to think a lot to discover the Four Noble Truths? If we all choose not to think and our contentment leads us to complacency and inaction, what will humans become? Stupid and lazy? Unproductive? Unprofessional? Regressive in technology and medical knowledge? I suppose there is a counter argument that technology has not done humanity any favours with all the destruction and death that technology in the wrong hands brings. Medical knowledge has also been abused with the use of biological warfare and accidental releases of deadly pathogens. Is it the heedless, mindless and undisciplined thinking that the buddha discourages? There has to be a mindful way of thinking then. A conscious reflection on thought itself? Yet, in reality when we try to focus on a thought, that very attempt makes it elusive to capture it in a mindful way. Isaac Newton revealed that it was sitting under an apple tree that gave him that “AHA!” moment in defining the law of gravity. There is no evidence that an apple fell on his head but it was his observation of falling apples that helped to inspire him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation. It was already said that the apple tree is the tree of knowledge – precisely why Eve ate the apple despite God’s command not to. The other important tree for us was of course, the Bodhi Fig tree for without it, we have to wonder where Siddartha Gautama would have got his enlightenment.

The Dhamma tells us to stop thinking, whereas Western philosophy is all about critical thinking. It was the ancient Greeks who laid the foundations of Western philosophy, from the search for personal happiness to issues for the greater good, a selfless sense of duty for society. There was also the concept of Stoicism – that we are part of nature, not above it, and should therefore live virtuously. First Son often reminds me we cannot control what others say or do to avoid being hurt. But, what we can control is how we react to them. Be stoic! The French promulgated the idea of freedom and personal rights. Voltaire and Rousseau were the poster-boys for the revolutions in France and America. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chain”. By that, Rousseau meant that it is the government that takes away our personal freedom for the sake of a social contract with society. In Britain, Hobbes saw the dangers of natural rights for the individual and argued that it is the sovereign state that holds the power to exercise the rights for the good of society. He did not trust the selfish, evil and violent nature of urghhlings. John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker, went the opposite way. Under natural law, we all have the right to property, freedom and life. Under his social contract, the people have a right to rise up and bring down the government if it acted against its citizens. Locke asserts that we have the right of revolution. My favourite philosopher is René Descartes. I am forever grateful to him for proving my existence. We exist because we think. “I think and therefore I am”.

So, why is the Dhamma against “proliferation of thoughts”? Do they mean disorganised thinking leading to disorderly conduct? Mak said, “Proliferation of mind brings about more discontentment as the more you seek, the more desire and never-ending goals you will have. The mind gets agitated as our desire is not satisfied. Contentment breaks the desire for more.” Can desire for knowledge be bad though? So, humans should stop thinking? The ability to think, plan and execute our plan is the special trait of humans. The ability to verbalise our thoughts with language is what has placed us at the head of the food chain in the animal kingdom. It is our ability to think and communicate a detailed plan to our people that has us leading in the evolutionary race to unchallenged superiority. That is, until we created AI. Artificial Intelligence is far superior in the ability to think, research and remember everything, and execute their plans perfectly every time. Ok, the Dhamma is right. All this thinking isn’t very calming! It is clear that we control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our mind is churning away subconsciously. Slips of the tongue, accidental body gestures, day-dreaming and unintentional actions are all examples of the cluttered mind.

Question: What is the core of happiness? What is the core of wisdom?

Ajahn: The core of happiness is calm, peace of mind. When the mind stops thinking, that’s when you find real happiness. And the core of wisdom is the Four Noble Truths. If you understand the Four Noble Truths, then you have the wisdom to overcome all of your suffering, to get rid of your suffering. So, this is what you need, two things. You need complete calm which is samādhi and you need the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Dhamma in English, Nov 14, 2017. By Ajahn Suchart Abhijāto
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Too busy to be thinking about happiness

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