I Think, Therefore I Am


I just finished Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs. This was by far the best of the Mercy Thompson books, which is always a delight as a series gets older. No calling it in here.  Ms. Briggs expands the world and the cast of characters to Europe and fills in a lot of the backstory, which is always fun. And because Mercy spends the vast majority of this story either on the run or in captivity, it allows the other characters to step up and show us what they've got. And again, because Mercy spends a lot of time as a prisoner, I get some food for thought and an opportunity to think about thinking. While she's hanging out in a magically spelled cage, Mercy observes that philosophy must have been started by prisoners. She figured that with nothing else to do but think, these ancient jailbirds were able to develop a system for thinking about thinking and explore their love of wisdom—hence philosophy. It's an interesting thought. I'm not a prisoner, thankfully, but I see the point that Mercy is trying to make. With all the responsibilities and activities in our lives to distract us, it can be almost impossible to think effectively, much less willingly. We have no time or mental bandwidth to engage in productive or speculative thought. But there is a way that doesn’t involve incarceration to find the hours and headspace to engage in deep thought:  vacation! Vacation offers the time and space to unwind and unburden allowing our minds to cogitate. Which leads, of course, to our favorite philosopher's signature saying, "Cogito ergo sum."  Let's think about this for a moment, shall we?

I'm on vacation. Glorious, relaxing, life affirming vacation with the hubs and without the rug rats. Who are hardly rolling around on the floor these days, but are, instead, aging their parents prematurely as they do what all teenagers do. Even good boys like ours. So we've escaped for a few precious days to relax, rejuvenate and recharge. And in doing all of these things, I've made time to think, to philosophize and consider whether Descartes was correct.

Does my being depend on my thinking? There is certainly a school of thought (ha ha) that elevates the mind above all else and crowns thinking king, and it exists largely in the western canon of philosophy and literature. But there is a competing theory that challenges Descartes' formula. It's one promulgated by yogis and monks in orange robes the world over, as well as others, I'm sure. This philosophy stipulates that the point of life, the endgame, if you will, is to realize that we are not, in fact, our thoughts. That our thoughts, rather than being that which define our being, are that which detract from accessing our being. It seems that these are mutually exclusive ways of looking at the world, but perhaps, if we think long enough, we can reconcile these dueling definitions of essential self.

According to the more eastern approach, the purpose of life is to quiet our thoughts so as to move beyond them to our essence, which is not our thoughts, but that which makes us who we are. The goal is to watch our thoughts, as images that flit across a private screen, or to listen to the monologue of a vaguely interesting, but clearly delusional person. As we become the witness instead of the judge or defendant in this courtroom drama, we begin to see that our thoughts are ephemeral and inconsequential to life and to self. That delving deeper below our thinking mind is where we will discover Truth, of the absolute variety.

But, as Hamlet so eloquently put it, therein lies the rub (to be perfectly accurate he said, "There's the rub."). The beauty—and joy—of thinking is that it confirms our individuality, our sense of our own specialness. In turn, our own sense of specialness resides in our egos. The yogis and the monks and even our priests and rabbis tell us that we must overcome our egos in order to find paradise or enlightenment in the next life or simply to avoid suffering in this one. In this theory, it is in the territory beyond thought that we find union, the merging of our essence with that of the Universe and the divine, the understanding that we are all one in our essence and that we are not separate. You know, the good stuff that we are promised, just beyond the bend.

But a little separation is good for the soul, or at least for those parts of ourselves that must live in the world. We need the in-between space to co-create ourselves. "We" become "I" so that sometime later in the future, perhaps, we can become "we" again. It's an interesting process; first we are born and must, for reasons of healthy development, attach appropriately and properly to our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Then, in adolescence, we individuate and emerge from our chrysalis as—individuals. In our 20s, if we're both lucky and good, we succeed in figuring out who we are, or co-creating ourselves, depending on our beliefs in this area, so that by the time we get to our prime, we're operating out of a firm foundation of self confidence and a strong self identity.

Then, if we're on the Carl Jung or Jesus Christ life plan, we're supposed to spend the second half of our lives, from about 35 forward, giving ourselves away—self emptying—contributing to the greater good and to our fellows. Phew! It's exhausting, all this living. But wait!  There's more!

There is the task of self-forgetting. After we've done all this thinking and philosophizing, whether in jail or on vacation (and I know which one I'm choosing), and self creating and contributing, we're supposed to let all of that go (according to the yogis and the monks—the eastern mind, rather than its western counterpart). We're supposed to dissolve the ego and find the Truth—that all of this thinking was designed to take us to the place beyond thought, where we can take our place in the cosmos among the stardust, and, knowing our work here is done, step off the stage. A surcease of thinking and of being.

So, where does that leave us? Who the fuck knows? Lost in thought?  Lost in space?  Meditating to relieve ourselves from thinking?  I'm not sure. I will think about it.