The chances are that if you are reading this you are a ‘thought junkie’. The truth is most people have this condition to at least some extent. Some of us could be described as high functioning thought junkies because our fixation with thought doesn’t prevent us from complying with the expectations of family, friends, and society – we will be suffering negative effects due to our addiction but not so much that we feel a desperate need to change.
Unfortunately, there are many of us who struggle to keep the thought addiction under control. It means we end up in great mental distress as a result of ‘living too much in our heads’. We then attempt to escape the pain through using alcohol, drugs, and other maladaptive behaviors, but ultimately, this only makes things worse. Our situation is certainly dire, but in some ways we are more fortunate than the high-functioning thought addict because we can become desperate enough to break the habit.
Why Do We Become Addicted to Thought?
Let’s try an experiment – I want you to put your attention on physical sensation in your left hand. Notice anything? Are you suddenly aware of a world of sensation that you didn’t notice before?
We are all used to the idea of having five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch). Buddhists add ‘thinking’ to this list to make a total of six senses. When we develop strong concentration, through practices such as meditation, we can begin to notice that thought behaves in a similar way to sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch – a thought pops into awareness, remains for a time, and then disappears. It therefore begins to make sense that thought be considered just another one of the senses or ways that we experience reality.
If you put your attention on any of the six senses (just like we did in the experiment above when we focused on touch) – that sense will fill your awareness and become prominent. For instance, if you were to overly focus your attention on the sense of smell, this sense of smell would play a much larger part in your perception of reality.
The exact same happens with thought – we are constantly focusing on thought so we begin to live in a thought-centric universe. This is a problem because in order for thought to be able to keep our attention, it needs to differentiate itself from the rest of reality – it does this by creating an ego identity that is at odds with reality (e.g. the thought, ‘it shouldn’t be like this’ or ‘you need this to be happy’). The ego can only exist as a conflict with reality – when there is no conflict, there is only reality, and no ego is required
Once thought becomes the prominent way in which we experience reality, we are already hooked. We forget that we are awareness that observes all of the senses. Instead, we overly identify with one sense that can only maintain its prominent role by continuously finding fault with reality.
How to Break the Addiction to Thought
The ego can only exist as a conflict with reality – when there is no conflict, there is only reality, and no ego is required
We need to be clear that there is nothing wrong with thinking – it is just a sign your brain is functioning as it should. The goal of the Hope mindful compassion program is help you develop a new relationship with thought. It is a more natural way of being where thought is just part of the experience rather than the manager of the experience.
We begin this journey to mental freedom by developing a better understanding of thought – learning about thoughts won’t help us much, we need to see them in action. Through meditation, we begin to see that thoughts are just one part of the human experience.
We slowly become disenchanted with thought. This frees us to investigate the other parts of reality (e.g. smell) through awareness rather than always through the filter of thought. Eventually the brain gets it – if we are anything, we are the awareness of the six senses rather than being any of them. This is when we start to wake up to reality and our lives improve immensely.