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Do We Control Our Thoughts? A Look Into This Question Using Logic & Experience.

philosophy Feb 22, 2020

Let’s start with an experiment. 

Let’s imagine that after a long day at work, we sit down to enjoy a meal for our first quiet moment alone all day. Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, a thought appears: I wonder if Netflix has any new stand-up. After a beat, another thought comes: Let me check Netflix’s Recently Added section

Let’s contemplate this experience closely. Is there a chooser in the system that has selected the thought, Let me check Netflix’s Recently Added section, rather than, let’s say, a thought about a coworker or a shower or a child unwilling to go to sleep in the next room? 

Is there, somewhere in our experience, a chooser who is carefully selecting thoughts, proclaiming I shall have this thought now, and then this thought next, and shall never think this other thought

Do we control our thoughts, and if not, then where exactly do they come from? 

Do We Control Our Thoughts? 

Let’s do another experiment. 

Let’s say we’re standing in line to get an ice-cream cone, and the person behind the counter asks us: Chocolate or vanilla? After a beat, a thought appears: Chocolate. When our friend beside us asks us what flavor we got, another thought comes: I chose chocolate

In this example, we have made a decision. Chocolate. The decision appears as content within the thought, and the thought appears to us in the same way that weather appears in the sky. 

The next thought, I chose chocolate, also appears in our mind in the same way that weather appears in the sky. This thought creates a speaker, I, and assigns power to that speaker by saying, I chose. The glitchy part of this logic is this: The I that is created as a speaker within the thought was not present at the time of selecting the chocolate flavor. This I arises simply as a character after a decision has been made to take credit for having made the decision. 

Although we might like the idea that we are in control of our thoughts, when we examine how our experience actually unfolds, we see that our thoughts arise without us carefully selecting Thought A, then Thought B, then Thought C. 

In the field of neuroscience, this is akin to the brain commiting to thoughts and decisions before we are aware that they are happening, much like the way we become aware of the weather after it’s already happened. In a lot of ways, our thoughts appear to us in exactly the same fashion as the weather appears to us. 

So if there is not an all-powerful personal entity in our system carefully selecting thoughts out of the infinite possibility of all thoughts, then where exactly do they come from, and who is controlling them moment to moment?

The short answer is: Whatever is controlling the weather. 

The long answer is: Our thoughts, like everything else in the universe, are cosmic events that are decided by whatever is deciding the unfolding of the universe. We are not separate from the atoms that make up the rest of existence, which means that we cannot be a separate, localized power selecting only our thoughts but not our neighbors’ thoughts. As a person, we are not endowed with the power to select the content of our experience.

What About Free Will? 

Each of us has a deep intuition that what we are is essentially free. This is why we become outraged when we feel our freedom being encroached upon, or when we see someone obstructing someone else’s freedom--it just feels wrong at the very core of our being. 

When we first recognize that there is no local chooser of our thoughts, there can be an internal sense of revolt, as if our freedom has been snatched from us like a rug being swept from beneath our feet. A natural question that can arise when we contemplate whether we control our thoughts is the notion of free will. 

If what we are is essentially free, then how can it be that we don’t choose our thoughts? 

Let’s examine our options. Using logic, we see that only 2 possible options make sense. Either: 

A: I don’t control anything, including my thoughts.

-or-

B: I control everything, including all thoughts across all minds.

Which one of these statements more accurately reflects our experience? Let’s explore. If we are not separate from the atoms that make up existence, then we and every atom that exists must belong to a shared reality. This shared reality is the most foundational aspect of our being: It is whatever renders our experience knowable, the element within us that is existence itself, whatever can not not exist. In essence: It is whatever is creating the weather. We are already made of it. In fact, there is nothing else to us except for it. And for this universal reality--we can call it Awareness or Consciousness or even God--there is absolute freedom and free will at all times.  

For a person, there is no free will. There is only free will for unlimited, universal consciousness, which is the decider of all thoughts in all minds, the weather in the sky, and all other cosmic events. We are made of this consciousness, we are known by this consciousness and we appear in this consciousness--along with every other atom that exists. Our free will has not been torn from us. Free will is what we are made of.

What Are the Implications of this In My Life? 

If you’re following this so far, you have seen in your own experience that there is no local decider of our thoughts, and that our thoughts appear to us in the same fashion as the weather. Besides this being a cool philosophical nugget to chew on, how does this actually play into daily life in a way where we are able to experience more sustained happiness? 

First, when we understand that we don’t choose our thoughts, it no longer makes sense to get mad at ourselves for having them. Each one of us likely experiences a deluge of negative thoughts and feelings throughout the day, and we may experience guilt or shame about them. 

For example, when a thought appears: Why am I such a terrible project manager? It might be followed by another thought: Why do I always put myself down?  The I that is accused of putting itself down is not the same I that chose the insult in the first place. Just a tiny morsel of understanding like this will naturally spark questions and investigations into the nature of our experience. Can you imagine not being bothered by your negative thoughts and feelings? This is what’s in store at the end of this investigation. 

Second, when we understand that we don’t choose our thoughts, it follows that other people do not choose theirs, and it no longer makes sense to blame others for their words or actions. This does not mean that we become doormats for bad behavior--we still address issues as they arise, but we no longer blame individuals because we know that all thoughts in all minds are being decided by the exact same force. 

We begin this investigation thinking, I choose my thoughts as a person. When we start to look closer we see, I do not choose my thoughts as a person. When we finish our investigation we arrive at, I choose all thoughts in all minds as universal consciousness. To fully understand this is to know sustainable peace and happiness. 

Final Thoughts

If what I’ve written here doesn’t quite stack up for you, don’t take my word for it. This is not something that needs to be believed out of hearsay. Every point in this article can be verified directly in our own experience until there is no doubt left that this is the way life works. 

Until it makes sense to this degree, ask questions (you can even ask us here on this blog and we may feature the answer as a post), do your research and determine what makes sense based on what you can verify for yourself through logic and experience. 

There is no other goal than happiness, and the truth will lead us there. 

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