One of the tenets of mindfulness and meditation, non-attachment is often seen as a route to freedom. So much suffering, it’s thought, is created by mere thoughts that we perceive as true. These thoughts — comprised of electrical impulses jumping synapses in the brain, associations formed as neuropathways fuse, beliefs passed down as truths, or even our self perception — often entrap us; sometimes enslave us.
Missing the Boat on Stream of Consciousness
There are many ways of looking at our ability to attach to thoughts. During one of my first forays into therapy, I was invited to see thoughts “drift by,” in particular, as if they were “floating past me on a stream.” In short, this pastoral scene stressed me out. My thoughts were floating right past me? Even in my mind’s eye, I wanted to grab after them. Even in my mind’s eye, I kept trying to devise some kind of fishing pole, dam, net, anything — to prevent the slipping by of such important things.
The Pros and Cons of Overthinking
Over the course of my life, I’ve grown up doing a lot of thinking about thoughts. I analyze, categorize, reflect, reinforce and question my thoughts. I have a strong memory, particularly for external and internal exchanges, and I can recall my thought processes easily. In this way, thought analysis brings insight, connection, remembrance, and context. But the downside of all this thinking about thinking is that it leaves little room for two important things — the simplicity of experience and the ability to change cognitive patterns.
Because thoughts come so rapidly, so fluidly, we cannot possibly meditate on each one while directing our attention to our experience. Occasionally, in my dating life, I’ve even found myself thinking out loud — sometimes, to the exasperation of my partner, amid a passionate kiss. When you’re running commentary on your sexual adventures, you’re not playing them passionately in those moments. When you’re attaching yourself to every thought, you’re not immersing yourself in the feelings in your fingers, the sensations on your lips.
The other obstacle created by thoughts becoming too important is that we become so very pulled by them, we simply can’t direct them. Our fears seem like forecasts; our mental routes the only way. When our thoughts become less important, we can better master them. We can choose which ones benefit us, which ones we want to invite to stay.
Making Beautiful Arrangements
When someone’s imagery doesn’t work for me, I often try to find my own. While I couldn’t bear picturing my thoughts as leaves floating down a river, I could picture them as a wind-blown swirl of leaves moving around me (with the reassurance that they would simply fall and scatter, and I could sort through them later). For a while, this metaphor worked for me.
The other day, though, as I walked through my neighborhood, with its intense, meticulous gardens, I saw things in a new light. What if our thoughts don’t need judgment — what if we’re in a field of wildflowers, strange grasses, weeds. What if it’s merely a question of what you want in your bouquet? It’s attachment you can choose. Maybe you love roses; or maybe you’d prefer a daffodil. There’s an abundance of thoughts out there to be had, some nurtured within ourselves, some grown by others. And you only have to hold the ones you want to — the ones you’d like at your table, coloring your home, interlaced into your hair. The rest you can always revisit, or you can simply pass by.