The problem with thought
A common theme in all mystical and spiritual traditions is the problem of human thought. Particularly our ‘I’ thoughts. As an NHS psychotherapist I have noticed that this is a feature of every patient’s inner world. At the core of people’s mental health difficulties are thoughts like: “I’m a failure, unlovable, a reject”. The rejected child does not just conclude ‘I was rejected but feels this personally in the form of ‘I am a reject, there’s something wrong with me’.
These thoughts are inevitably depressing and debilitating often leading to long term mental health problems.
In a mindfulness group recently a patient described a profound realisation: “Now I know I’m not my thoughts!” Her sense of liberation was life changing. She continued to have the old ‘I’ thoughts but no longer identified with them and as such was free. The effect on her mental health was immediate. She began to be in touch with her true nature beyond the story of her. Not only did she realise she was not her thoughts but also not her story. For example as a result of her childhood sexual abuse she had told herself, as many victims do, there was something wrong with her. When we stop identifying with these thoughts it leads to the realisation that there is fundamentally nothing wrong with us. We see clearly that our problems are merely on a functional level and are as a result of our conditioning not our true self. The conditioning of our families, our culture and the era into which we are born.
I grew up in London in the early 1950’s. My mother was German and my father English/Swedish. I felt like an outsider and feared rejection from my peers and community. I did what I could to hide my background and fit in at all costs. Especially during playground war games when ‘we’ were killing Germans. Underneath I was determined that others would not see what I thought was the ‘real’ me.
Later when training as a social worker and psychotherapist and as a long standing member of a meditation network I was still desperately trying to assimilate and fit in. All the time this was covering my core belief that ‘I don’t belong’. I felt I had to change. Psychotherapy and meditation seemed perfect methods of self improvement. It was only decades later after years of searching I came to see that this was futile – a dead end. This realisation arrived in one moment!
A French psychiatrist, who was giving a talk to the Royal college of Psychiatrists said:
“Stop searching! Be who you truly are!”.
Although given to an audience of over a hundred people these words felt directed at me. All the energy of my personal search dissolved in an instant along with the emergence of a profound sense of freedom.
I later learnt that the speaker Jean-Marc Mantel, now a friend and colleague, had been a student of Jean Klein who in turn had in been influenced by Krishna Menon all immersed in the teachings of non-duality – Advaita Vedanta.
For the next two years or so I too immersed myself in these teachings to bring an understanding to the experience of that afternoon. I came to realise to what we mean when we say ‘therapy without the therapist’, ‘no one teaching’, ‘no one writing’ or when it comes to sport ‘no one playing’.
The path (although no longer a path) was then not about self improvement or making progress – not about adding anything but more the stripping away of the conditioned self and enquiring into who we are beyond thought and story.
How did you sculpt the horse?
Sculptor ‘I just took away the bits that weren’t horse’.
Non-Duality and the creative process
Not surprisingly these realisations had a radical effect on my work and my life. Suddenly there was no path to take and as in the Zen poem there was:
Nothing to do
Nowhere to go
No one to be.
When the struggles of ego began to dissipate more energy was liberated for living in the flow of life and welcoming each moment whatever it brought. It takes a lot of effort to resist when we don’t like what life brings and none to surrender to the flow.
Welcome every guest.
There also arose a strong impulse to convey these teachings in my work as a therapist and mindfulness teacher but also in writing. The work now, like the sculptor, seemed to be chip away at my story to clear the way for the spirit or true self. Like a musician clearing his flute for the music to flow through. In this way writing has emerged in the form of non fiction, fiction and poetry.
I had started a book on golf thirty years before. Now I could finish it!. Now the story had an ending. An ending that was aligned with the new sense of freedom that ran through my life. The player in the story could now end his search for self improvement and his struggles in the first half of the story and really hear what the mysterious stranger was alerting him too. He could let go of all the ‘I’ thoughts, of trying too hard, realise that intention is in tension, see how ego’s desire to win gets in the way and learn to trust in what is natural and instead be one with Nature and his surroundings.
Our thoughts are great separators, especially thoughts of ‘I’. We perceive things as separate entities. As subjects and objects, including ourselves. The non-dual perspective is not two, not separate. We can also call this reality as everything in the cosmos is connected as one. This is confirmed by quantum physicists as well as mystics over the ages. The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that if we could really see a tree we would never need to go to church again. As soon as we say ‘a tree’ we have separated it from the earth, the light, the moisture, the birds and insects without which it has no existence. Apply this to ourselves and we may get some glimpse our fundamental connectedness to our world.
Of course not only mystics and scientists help us to see things as they really are but this is a feature of great art, literature, music and poetry. The capacity to point to a deeper truth to go beyond the veil of duality.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
On a personal level this meant a dissolving of the illusion that I did not belong into the realisation that this distinct form called ‘me’ is merely a wave in the ocean of consciousness, completely one with the air that I breathe and the light that sustains life.
Martin Wells trained as a social worker, working in Brixton, London and later as a psychotherapist in Bristol. He has worked for the local mental health trust for over 35 years where he’s employed as consultant psychotherapist. He has been studying meditation for over 40 years and teaching mindfulness to his patients and staff for most of that time.
A profound experience of liberation led to a complete change in his mindfulness and psychotherapy practice and to an impulse to write. This began with non-fiction, the finishing of a book that had been on the back burner for 30 yrs and more recently to a book of poetry (out soon). This spontaneous outpouring of poems was a complete surprise to Martin and as a result he is open to whatever comes next, for example, a recent invitation from a concert pianist to collaborate in a concert on the theme of mindfulness.