Who Is Responsible for Our Thoughts or Why Can't I Make My Orchids Bloom?
For some reason, I get a lot of orchids as gifts. I find orchid blooms to be delicately beautiful and they remind me of Plum Village, where the altars are always filled with blooming orchids. Unfortunately, once my orchid plants finish blooming, they go dormant, and I have yet to make any of them bloom a second time. I spoke with an orchid expert last week at the farmer's market, and she gave me some tips for watering and feeding the plants, and I'm hopeful that it will give me better luck in the future.
I was listening to a podcast recently, when I heard the mindfulness teacher Rodney Smith say that we are not responsible for our thoughts, and most of the suffering we create for ourselves comes from thinking that we are. That surprised me. He goes on to say that the suffering we create is a result of believing that our thoughts and feelings are entirely true, which causes us to have a strong reaction to them and need to either cling to the "good" thoughts or run away from the "bad" ones. We can decide where to put our attention, but not what comes out of our mind.
Consider your reaction to the last U.S. election. Whatever you think about it, you probably believe your thoughts are true and right. Other times, you likely have thoughts that you don't like or don't believe. For example, "I should spend all my earnings this month on lottery tickets" or "I could jump off this mountain and fly." Right away, you judge those kinds of thought as not right. So, who's really calling the shots in there?
Rodney goes on to say in his talk (accessible here), "Whatever the mind brings forth is not your fault. In fact, it's not even your responsibility. This is just coming out of you, it's neurons firing, it's just cells doing their thing, communicating."
In March 2014, Scientific American said something similar: "Although thoughts appear to 'pop' into awareness before bedtime, their cognitive precursors have probably been simmering for a while. Once those preconscious thoughts gather sufficient strength, the full spotlight of consciousness beams down on them."
If you have ever sat down to meditate, lay awake with racing thoughts, or even if you've ever just noticed what you were thinking, you may have been surprised and even shocked at the huge volume of thoughts that arise and the variety of their content. In a short period of time I catch myself thinking about upcoming teaching plans, the huge amount of cat and dog hair I just brushed off the sofa, baked sweet potatoes, and what that last text from my daughter really meant. In between those more typical thoughts, many other thoughts arise including judgments about the previous thought (e.g., "I need to stop worrying about this!")
Thoughts Aren't Our Fault
If I try on what Rodney suggests -- that my thoughts are not my fault -- my life feels very different. First, my judgments about my thoughts no longer apply. If it's not my fault that I'm worried about something, then there's no point to judging myself for worrying. Letting go of this judging leaves me more at ease. Second, I get curious about what's arising in my mind. Sometimes I find myself giggling, rather than fuming or ruminating, when something completely unexpected or wacky pops into my mind. Turns out, I have a better chance of not acting on a rogue thought if I'm not caught up in judging and believing them.
Thoughts and emotions do come from somewhere, though. As Scientific American describes it, the cognitive precursors to those thoughts have been simmering, but where? Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the seeds of thoughts and emotions that live in our "store consciousness." Each seed -- anger, joy, peace, jealousy -- comes to us from our ancestors in the form of genes and behaviors. But until a particular seed is fed and watered, by us or someone else, it's not likely to arise and become a full-fledged thought or feeling.
One of the Buddha's teachings, known as wise diligence or wise effort, suggests that we pay close attention to our seeds and how they are being watered. If we let the toxic ones get watered, we will get thoughts that upset us and may lead to saying and doing things that make us and others suffer. If we water the beneficial ones, positive thoughts and feelings will eventually show up and give rise to actions that benefit others and ourselves. Just like a garden, we can't control what grows or doesn't grow, but we can provide the right conditions, fertilizing the soil and making sure the seeds that we want to sprout get enough light and water.
"We are reluctant to let our minds just be what it is." -- Rodney Smith, Seattle Insight Meditation Society
This Is Because That Is
Trying to control our thoughts is like continually mopping up water rather than fixing a leaky roof. If we fixed the roof, we might still spring another leak, but if we just keep mopping up the mess without fixing the leak we'll always be frustrated. Rather than getting triggered and acting on the thoughts and feelings we are having right now, we can learn to let them go and focus instead on watering the seeds of happiness, peace, love, gratitude, hope, confidence and engagement, and trying our best not to water (or let others water) our seeds of confusion, despair, anger, fear, tension, craving, pain, and exhaustion.
Of course, even when we do our very best to water wholesome seeds in others and ourselves, we still can't completely control unexpected and noxious thoughts, just as we can't control the orchid's bloom. There may be leaks in our roof that have been there for generations that are challenging to patch in one lifetime. But by letting go of believing our thoughts, focusing our efforts on creating the conditions for beneficial thoughts and feelings to arise in our minds, and using our mindfulness practice to embrace unpleasant thoughts and feelings, we can at least reduce further harms and encourage more helpful thoughts and feelings to grow in the future.
It's simple: This is because that is. When the conditions are sufficient for a thought or feeling to arise, it does. When conditions are sufficient for the orchid to bloom in my kitchen, it will. We have about the same amount of control over each. The best thing we can do is take good care of our seeds by learning what nourishes and supports each kind of seed's growth and then feeding the ones that bring the most benefit to ourselves and the world.