Monday, July 31, 2006

Selective Awareness

My experience has been that there seem to be an infinite number of thoughts, impressions and fragments of thoughts 'floating' around in the ether just beyond my ordinary conscious awareness. The conscious awareness selectively notices particular thoughts and impressions and develops and follows conscious lines of thoughts based on this selective noticing and choosing.

This is similar to ordinary awareness of the environment and physical senses. In waking awareness, there are an infinite number of possible sense impressions on which one can focus. For example, with our peripheral vision, we can see and process the entire panorama. However, we focus on specific 'things' and this is what forms our conscious awareness, and subsequent memories (although our minds also subsequently distort the visual impressions, creating memories not necessarily based on actual physical experiences).

So as these infinite thoughts, thought fragments and thought combinations swirl around in the 'sub' conscious mind, we selectively notice particular thoughts and consciously develop them further.

Why do we 'choose' the thoughts we choose to follow?


At July 31, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Not sure what sort of answer you're looking for. A couple that spring to mind are:

Because it is our nature to do so.


Because at some level we prefer them.

I've heard of evolutionary theories of mind which describe the selection of thoughts in similar terms to that of natural selection.

At July 31, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

There's an article where Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this here. You can probably find out more about some Buddhist perspectives on this phenomenon by googling for "alaya-vijnana".

At July 31, 2006, Blogger me said...

Because there is a reward for doing so. Nobody does anything if there isn't a reward. It is sometimes hard to determine what the reward actually is - for example, a child behaves in a very irritating manner, intentionally, to upset her parents. Why? The reward is power, feeling that although being small and seemingly lacking in power, by making the parents angry the child feels she has power over them, she has control. That is the reward.

Why do people who know 'right from wrong' choose to do wrong? What is the reward?

At July 31, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

aldous huxley wrote about this in doors of perception at the beginning. he put it down to survival instinct. we choose to notcie particular things that stop us dying etc. if we were out walking and were suddenly aware of all the possible sense data that a single flower was producing. i.e. not just texture and colour and smell but all the linked thoughts that the sight of that one flower could produce then we would be too fascinated by that flower to notice the great big bear/tiger standing behind us about to eat us. aldous' theory was that psychedelics have the power to temporarily disable our brain's selective powers so that our conciousness is suddenly exposed to all the possible sense data that is available to us at any given moment. this is also known as 'tripping balls'. it is also the reason why brad asked the very good question in his book, " would you let someone tripping on acid drive you around in a car?" ummmmm..... well i did once and we nearly crashed so no.

At July 31, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

There are a few separate things going on here....

1. Thoughts that are below the surface seem to need to acquire a certain strength before they can break through strong enough at a conscious level. Lots of thoughts never become strong enough to reach this level.

2. Most of the thoughts that are below 'conscious' level tend not to be in terms of words and word-based images but instead in terms of emotions, images, and sounds - i.e. senses. We are so used to thinking using words that we tend not to notice them.

3. All the thoughts below conscious level can vary widely in content. They are uncensored and so can include things we might like to pretend we cannot think. [i.e. The Shadow]. There is a definite conscious act that happens that ignores all thoughts at this level that do not match who we think we are so that they never surface.

All of these thoughts do have an influence on who we are and what we do in one way or another.

The unconscious thoughts that we wish to deny do tend to generate strong and disproportionate responses in us when they manifest as repulsion or shock or horror in some way to external events - a resonance.

There are two ways that I know to increase your awareness of what these thoughts might be. All are from various Buddhist traditions.

1. Allowing yourself to think whatever you are thinking without censorship - mindfulness of thoughts. Over time this will make you more aware of what you are actually thinking.

2. Zazen. The act of just sitting with a quiet mind allows some of these thoughts to manifest.

3. Dream Yoga. The thoughts that don't make it into daylight can often occur at night in the form of dream imagery. This can happen because the sense of self is much less or absent during dreams.

All of this stuff is very helpful in knowing yourself and seeing yourself and other clearly.

I would warn you that this is one area where an earnest exploration may well reveal thoughts that you did not know you could think and may not like.

On the flip-side it will also increase your compassion.

If you acknowledge that there are some thoughts that you have thought then you can have more compassion for someone who has had those same thoughts or acted upon them (even though you did not).

Once you start to acknowledge all of your thoughts your sense of self does weaken and you do become more open.

[This is one area where I needed to do major work and so I am Au Fait with both the science and the Buddist theory]

At July 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do we 'choose' the thoughts we choose to follow?

I firmly believe we do so based on a pre-thought filter mechanism. That is, the thoughts are chosen and only after that choice is made do be become aware of it. Most of the time I doubt that there's even the consciousness that there WAS a choice in the matter.

I also believe firmly that zazen allows us to become aware that there are such choices to be made and that we are making them all day every day. I don't know how much control we ever can have over this choosing, but simply becoming aware that there are choices to be made can be, for lack of a better word, enlightening.

The basis on which we make these unconscious, or rather pre-conscious choices exists in the same sliver of present time, that as-it-is-ness that exists before duality slams down and creates subjects and objects in our conscious thought. What, exactly, that basis is, is probably undefinable, but I'll steal from Robert Pirsig's idea of quality because I think he was on the right track.

Knowing that these choices for thought exist allows us to treat life as a art form. What is art if not choice? This color of paint, not that color, this view, not that one, this word, not that one. Good art is based on good choices. What if you lived your life like you create your art, making good choices?

That, I think, is the ultimate act of zen.

At August 01, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

I was contemplating this after having a discussion with a friend that suffers from anxiety. His anxiety is preceded by thoughts of violence or irrational action. For example, he will be driving across a bridge and will think, "What if I jerk the wheel to the right, smash through the rail, and drive off the bridge?"

If he has other people in the car, he will obsess on the thought, and then become anxious and fearful that he might actually do this.

I've told him that through meditation, I have learned that I have what seems like an infinite number of thoughts and impulses racing through my mind at any given moment. It seems as if my mind is processing innumerable possible courses of action and reaction to any given situation, but the majority of these thoughts normally come and go without conscious attention to them.

If I notice a thought like he describes (the bridge scenario), I usually dismiss it as comical, and insignificant. He, on the other hand, is shocked to notice such a thought, and therefore "worries" it, like a Labrador wrestling with an old shoe.

My theory is that if he can release the thought immediately upon noticing it, the anxiety will not follow. But the key is acknowledging that we have innumerable thoughts, and none of them are more significant or substantial than others. Thoughts only have power and "substance" if we build upon them.

At August 01, 2006, Blogger me said...

db I really like this:

Knowing that these choices for thought exist allows us to treat life as a art form. What is art if not choice? This color of paint, not that color, this view, not that one, this word, not that one. Good art is based on good choices. What if you lived your life like you create your art, making good choices?

That, I think, is the ultimate act of zen.

is that Pirsig, paraphrased? or your own? It's nice.

At August 01, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

anatman, your solution for your friend's anxiety sounds nice and simple... but it won't work.
I suffer from anxiety. The problem is that by the time I perceive an anxious thought, it is already too late. Anxiety triggers the "fight or flight" response in the amygdla (sp) part of the brain. So, for your friend, just seeing the bridge might trigger the anxiety, before the thought of crashing arises as a conscious thought. It is already too late. It happens subconsciously. And it doesn't make sense. We have these irrational thoughts, and realize that they are irrational, but the anxiety still happens. It is very strange. Kind of like a mental computer virus.
We anxiety sufferers just have to notice it when it happens, tell ourselves, "It is just anxiety... it will go away"... and let it ride out. The more we pay attention to it, the worse it gets. It is a feedback loop.

The good news is that zazen really helps with anxiety. You might want to tell your friend about that.
In fact, I wonder if anxiety might be a "thinking" problem? Basically, the mind/brain over-thinks.
And zazen and Soto Zen is all about "not thinking". It is a "philosophy of Action", as someone we know keeps saying.

There is a good website called OCDonline that has articles that describe "pure O" OCD. This is what I experience. And it sounds like your friend does too. The articles there really helped me.

At August 01, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

anatman, I owe you an apology. I misread what you said. Your idea is correct.
Sorry about that.

But your friend should still check out that website. ;)

At August 01, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

No apology necessary, Eardrum -- thanks for the feedback. I will forward the link to the article, which is interesting stuff.

At August 02, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"My theory is that if he can release the thought immediately upon noticing it, the anxiety will not follow. But the key is acknowledging that we have innumerable thoughts..."

This is only partly true for your friend. These thoughts that he is having are a symptom of something deeper.

What you suggest will solve half the problem but not the root. For that meditation and contemplation over a period of time would be helpful.

At August 02, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

If these thoughts have been going on for a long time, your friend might want to consider therapy instead and/or as well.

At August 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

me said "is that Pirsig, paraphrased? or your own? "

It's probably mostly Pirsig, filtered through me I suppose. To put it another way, it's my interpretation, but the idea and the credit belongs to him.

At August 18, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...

here's something funny. How is it that someone could register any of the phenomena not noticed in a given moment? It never happens in our personal frame of experience.

I don't think any of this is an option that we select and to think of it as a means to a reward implies that we are totally concious of what our reaction is going to be as we select our noticing (which I don't think we do). I know that I'm not that aware.

As for our noticing and selecting phenomena for attention; I don't think we have any control. One mental phenom follows the next. Occasionally a phenom will trigger the 'now noticer' and we'll be in the moment. The part that I find tricky is relinquishing the sensation of control and allowing phenomena to be as it is. I think this is why that exercise is built into so many practices of all traditions.

Dharma all seems to be this way, changing the funny habits we have to ones that react to reality. It doesn't happen alone, you have to have the luck to even happen across that path.

At August 19, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...


The only saving grace we have in changing the emptiness of our self is awareness and the present moment.

At October 09, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one and it helps a lot.Thank you for your great post.

Karim - Positive thinking


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