5. Thinking makes us so

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. 


In his books and seminars, David Bohm profoundly challenged our thinking about thinking. He presented 21 features of thinking and thought. His insights help us to not only understand what thinking is but also to see and experience the world differently than we are accustomed to.

1. Thinking is a material process. We can observe and measure it "happening" in the brain cells as neurophysiological reflexes. Thoughts are hard-wired in our consciousness which makes the division between mind and matter somewhat misleading.

Thinking is a conditioned reflex.

2. Thinking is a conditioned reflex. It participates actively and automatically, like a reflex, in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and our daily actions. It does not neutrally report on what is 'out there' in the objective world. It interprets everything we sense according to images and knowledge in our brain without conscious choice. It is impossible for the brain to choose its reactions.

3. Thoughts and feelings go together. Thoughts often have a positive or negative emotional charge that we are only partially aware of. Emotions are thoughts, coming mostly from our memory. Both of them are products of thinking.

Thoughts are collective.

4. Thoughts are collective. They move between people creating a system in which everything affects everything else. There is nothing - or very little - original in our thoughts. We adopt some ideas and reject others for irrational reasons. The 'individual self' is a private mixture of collective values, meanings, and intentions.

5. Our life is ruled by thoughts. We gather information in memory and process, apply and express it all the time. Our consciousness manifests as words, knowledge, symbols, concepts, images, feelings, and experiences. Thoughts rule our life.

6. Thinking is habitual. We learn skills like speaking, writing, playing or driving a car, but we also learn to "deal with people" and all this forms our ego, the "me". Our responses become habitual and mostly unconscious, so that we don't have to think when we use our skills.

7. Thinking divides and fragments the world. We make divisions and draw lines that may be useful and somewhat correct but they may also lead to problems and unwanted outcomes. We also tend to glorify the divisions that we value and feel passionate about. We love the country we were born in or the people we happen to live with more than those with whom we don't identify. This leads to conflicts between people.

8. Thinking abstracts and simplifies reality. We do not seem to realize the difference between our thought and the thing it represents. We understand the difference between a map and the territory, but the difference between reality and images created by our mind is difficult. We fight for ideas and symbols as if they were real. Words cannot feed us!

9. Thinking gives meanings. It evaluates, compares, judges, overestimates and underestimates, "marks" things arbitrarily but has no reason to doubt its evaluations. Thinking is not an accurate mirror reflection of reality but an evaluation based on our conditioning and concepts.

Limitations produce conflicts.

10. Limitations create conflicts. Conflict is born when we consider our image of the world to be right and real. There is conflict also when we want to get something that we don't have or want to be something other than we are. We are conditioned to live in conflict.

11. Thoughts create a feeling of time. We can remember and plan, but we can only live here and now. Combining memory and imagination we create an idea of time moving, but actually the whole process is happening inside our head.

12. Thoughts create real things. Thinking not only reflects and interprets, it also creates our reality. Many things are artefacts or creations of our thinking: towns, roads, houses, factories, airplanes, computers, musical instruments, and even agriculture, science, corporations, nations, and governments. Thinking also invents concepts as to how the world works and they become the basis of our worldview.

13. Repetitive thoughts form a structure. A fixed structure works and is coherent in certain circumstances but when the world changes the structure has to be changed. Often we don't want to make the changes because they give us a feeling of security. This mechanism leads to tension and conflicts, and sometimes wars.

14. Thinking is mechanical. It moves in a rigid groove and we may imagine it is free, but it is not. The patterns change only within their limitations. There is always a pattern in thinking.

15. We use imagination for good and bad. We create problems that are real only in the area of our mind. Most desires and fears are creations of our thinking and sometimes lead to neurotic actions.

16. Thinking is apt to create self-deception. We want to feel safe, avoid unpleasant feelings and are afraid of losing or not getting what we want. Psychological conditioning makes facing the facts of life very difficult for us.

17. Thinking can be irrational and illogical. We justify dangerous, brutal and immoral behaviour when we feel that our ego is threatened or wants to fulfil its neurosis.

18. There is an inertia to thinking. We want the status quo and resist change so it always takes time to adjust to a new situation.

19. We don't sense thinking. It is very difficult for thinking to see its systemic nature because we lack proprioception of thought. Proprioception of our body tells us our position and movements but we are not in the same way directly aware when we are thinking.

20. We don't recognize the potential of thinking. All the time we consciously or unconsciously limit our creativity by leaving some parts of reality outside our perspective. Every thought is limited and we do not realize how fundamentally limited our thinking is. However, awareness of limitation may yet free us from that limitation and enable us to use our creativity.

21. Thoughts can be coherent. The most important feature of thinking is that insight can change the brain cells in a profound way and lead to a direct perception in which thinking is coherent. Then thinking is used only where it is necessary and its limitations do not cause us harm.

Who wins when all lose?

The book Thought as a System takes us to a weekend seminar Bohm had in Ojai, California in December 1990. He starts by asking, What is going to happen to the human race? Can we find a way out of the world mess?

To him, the source of the mess is thought. Our culture prides itself on thought as its highest achievement but there is another side to thinking which is leading us towards destruction.

One of the obvious things wrong in thought is fragmentation. It breaks things up but denies that it did so. We are divided into billions of bits globally. We put labels on ourselves and other people according to nation, religion, sex, age, wealth, profession, looks and skills. Usually, we rank people, too, both consciously and unconsciously.

We are driven by fragments.

Fragments are practical but also psychological. We are driven by them, sometimes to madness. We feel we are better than some people and inferior to others. We have proof of both. We get worse grades and salary but also praise and glory. Somehow we know our place in the status hierarchy, although it changes all the time.

All boundaries are invented and established by thought. Nations, religions and ideologies fight each other and people kill each other for them.

Boundaries are based on differences and similarities but thought is irrational in creating them. We see a close connection and establish unity where there isn't any. All Finns are not alike! We also see differences where there are none.

We human beings are very similar in our suffering, smiling and longing for love. Emotions are deep or superficial. They don't ask for our nationality, profession or language.

So, we have false division and false unification. Thought pretends that there is sharp division outside and everything is unified inside. It is not so. It is easy to see this if you try to answer a simple question: where does the ego start and where does it end?

Thoughts are faster than the self

Fragmentation is, however only a symptom. The more general difficulty with thought is that it is very active, participatory. It has produced tremendous effects outwardly and also inwardly in each person. Yet our tacit assumption is that it is just telling us the way things are and that it has not done anything.

We assume that our ego decides what to do with the information it gets. No, it does not. In fact, it is just the opposite: self is made of the information it has collected from the world and identified with.

"The information takes over, it runs you", Bohm says. "Thought runs you but gives the false information that you are running it,"

Thoughts make the self.

We did not create thought but thought created us. We feel that thoughts just inform us what the world is but that is not the case. To Bohm, thought is just a conditioned reflex reacting to its own image.

Our first reaction to a sensation is faster that the self. When we see something we react immediately, feeling something. Then the self decides what to do with that sensation.

The sentence 'I think' reveals our mistake. The 'I' is created when we identify with some of our thoughts. There is only the process of thinking. There is no 'I' that is doing the thinking.

Thought makes another mistake when it divides itself from feeling and from the body. They are not really different but one process in flowing movement.

There is a physical reason why body, feelings and thoughts affect each other. It is in the structure of the brain.

There is an intellectual centre in the cortex, the outer layers of the brain. Deeper down there is an emotional centre and between them is a thick bundle of nerves connecting them.

The intellectual centre informs us whether or not our emotion is appropriate. They are two sides of the same process, but language makes them separate. There is no division. Our fictional thinking misleads us.

Getting what we don't want

The word 'thinking' implies that there is some activity going on right now. 'Thought' is the past tense. We think that after we have stopped thinking our thoughts evaporate. No, they do not. They go into the brain and leave a trace in the memory.

In the same way, the word 'feeling' suggests that we presently feel something. Yet most feelings come from memory and Bohm suggests that we should call them 'felts'.

Most feelings are 'felts'.

Most feelings are felts. Remembering something pleasant gives us actual pleasure and traumatic experiences cause us actual pain. Evidently, there is a profound connection between the state of the body and the way we think and feel.

False divisions cause confusion and incoherence in our thinking. We will not get the results we want.

People did not set up nations in order to suffer and fight wars but that is what happened. We do not see that the root cause of every single war is in our thinking. We think it is in 'them', our 'enemies', not in our thoughts.

It is very difficult to see the role of thinking, especially when feelings take over and prevent us from being rational.

One feature of thought is that it is doing something and then struggles against what it is doing. When we think, we don't think we think. It is somewhat funny that we cannot understand this by thinking about it.

This causes a bigger problem, sustained incoherence. Unpleasant feelings may leave a deep scar in our memory.

There is also simple incoherence because we cannot avoid making mistakes sometimes.

There are two important points involved here: how quickly we see that we are making a mistake, and who or what we blame for our mistakes.

In simple situations we correct our thoughts immediately after recognizing them, but in things that matter most, we generally do not.

It is very odd. One would suppose that in things that are important to us we would most want to act especially coherently. It is just the opposite: convictions are deep in our mind and no amount of evidence shakes them.

We do not have the intention to cause trouble. It happens against our conscious will. We don't realize that our deeper, hidden intentions have produced it and perpetuate it. Unless we see the source, it will never change.

Bohm sees thought as a system which also includes felts, feelings, the state of the body and the whole of society sharing thoughts. It is essential not to break that up because it is one process.

Thought is a system

We share thoughts and feelings. That is why it is misleading to think that they are strictly my thoughts and your thoughts, or my feelings and your feelings. They are connected, parts of a system. The parts have very little meaning separately.

When the system does not work anymore, we have to change it. There is a structure in the system of thought but there is also a systemic fault. Something is wrong. It is not here or there but all throughout the system, everywhere and nowhere.

In dealing with the fault we use the same kind of fragmentary thoughts that produced the problem. This will not solve the fault. Systemic faults in thoughts must be dealt with in a more organic, holistic way, considering that we are part of the problem.

In science and technology, we get clear and coherent thoughts but when we use scientific knowledge for national, religious or political purposes we throw the scientific method out of the window. Good intentions are counteracted by another set of 'polluted' intentions. We don't see this process.

Systems are necessary for different purposes but they tend to become fixed. When we meet trouble, we are not aware that it is the system causing it. Bohm sees a possible way out of this loop.

"Perhaps there is a deeper perception or intelligence that is able to see the incoherence in the system. It goes beyond memory. The key point is to break the old mould of thought."

Two sides make one coin

In trying to correct the system in which we live, we may get unpleasant feelings such as pain or fear. To overcome negative thoughts and feelings we may engage in positive thinking. That will not help us understand or solve the problem.

Anything positive is implicitly negative.

We have a natural mechanism for preventing negative images from coming up. Our brain is conditioned to keep them down. Yet the positive and the negative are two sides of one system. Anything positive is implicitly negative and vice versa.

We engage in positive thinking only because we are caught up in negative thinking and want to overcome that. Then negative thoughts go into abeyance but there is still incoherence.

One sort of dual system is the pleasure-pain mechanism. Somewhere in the middle of the brain there are pleasure-pain centres. Every time you stir up pleasure, the pain centres come in to compensate for it. There is always a mixture of the two.

This process gets complex when we introduce words to describe it, saying that something is either pleasurable or painful. We can't separate the two. Therefore, the process of pursuing constant pleasure cannot work.

It is easier to understand this process, if we look at thinking as a system of reflexes. A reflex just operates. We cannot control it.

This raises a question: could we somehow be aware of the reflex nature of thinking? Yes, we can, but only by watching our thinking in action, by seeing thoughts when they come into our head.

Fix or wither!

Reflexes serve us if they are not too rigid. An automatic reflex in a new situation can be a disaster. We can drop it if we are aware of it. If we are not aware of it, we batter our head against the wall.

There is a neurochemical reason for rigid thoughts. A strong thought with a lot of emotion being constantly repeated has a powerful effect. We get energy from these emotions, but that also produces a defensive reflex.

Rituals affect us but unfortunately also blind us. We can see this more easily when we watch the rites of other cultures.

What is important is to find out if reflexes are coherent or not: do they produce the results we intend and want to get? Often they do, but very often they do not.

Reflexes are coherent only if they change when something changes outside. A species that is not coherent either with itself or with its environment cannot survive.

We are in actual danger and have an urgent challenge here! Either we fix this fault in our ego-system or this species called Homo sapiens will wither.

We indulge in dangerous procrastination only because we are blind to our inner program!

Incoherence means conflict but it is only inside our mind. The universe is always coherent. There is order there, no problems, everything as it should be. All problems come from the mind that allows memory to create disorder.

Coherence is what we need and must go after. It is sensed as harmony, order, beauty, goodness, and truth. That is what we need and want in life.

We cannot get coherence by wanting it. Wanting is incoherent thinking. All we can do is to be sensitive to what causes incoherence. We see it everywhere: in daily conflicts, contradiction, striving, fear and sorrow.

We are not bad on purpose.

To see it and act immediately is our biggest challenge in life. The first step is to notice that incoherent actions are reflexes. We don't produce bad things on purpose. We don't even notice that we are doing them. A reflex often produces results that we do not want.

Following the whole process raises a question: can we change reflexes? It is not enough to understand them intellectually. Verbal or intellectual understanding has no value.

We need to pay attention. If we see that our thoughts are reflexes we will understand our ego-system better.

Bohm emphasizes that it is important to draw the intellectual map of thought correctly. The map we have now is that thought, feeling and the body chemistry are all separate. That misleads us because they actually work together. We need a more coherent map, a new kind of thought about thought. Basically, it is a new map of the self.

The right to be right

One of the most powerful thoughts we have is the thought of necessity. The word means 'cannot be otherwise'. It is much more than a thought. Something that is necessary is a very powerful force which we cannot prevent. It is something we hold to and must do.

The opposite of it is contingency. It means 'what can be otherwise'. These notions are always operating and have become part of our reflexes.

If we think something is impossible to do, we will never even try. Thus, we trap ourselves into making it impossible. On the other hand, we may think something is possible when it is not.

People have different assumptions as to what is necessary or absolutely necessary. That is what we are fighting about all the time. Our assumed necessities prevent dialogue because they create a set of reflexes which we defend with absolute force. We are often ready to fight for our rights even when we are wrong!

The notion of necessity is not intellectual. It is a force which involves everything! All the adrenalin you need will be released when you defend your assumptions of necessity.

Necessity is our primal mover.

The instinct of self-preservation is generally regarded as a very powerful set of reflexes built in by a set of genes, but the notion of absolute necessity will override that every time, whether it is your country, career, God or possessions that you give absolute value to.

Notions of necessity move us. We are impelled, compelled, propelled or even repelled. We feel that there is a 'me' that has the impulse. We don't see the system behind the impulses. Our intentions come from thoughts.

It is important to see how tight the connection is. We should draw dotted lines between thinking, feeling, and chemistry, not solid lines. They work together, side by side. Our body reacts to our thoughts and feelings and vice versa. We may try to give orders to our body but it has its own will, too.

The next question is: Is there something beyond the reflexes, something unconditioned? If everything is conditioned, there is no way out of our mess. Bohm figures that the fact that we are able to see new things might suggest that there is something that is unconditioned. We cannot know. We have to leave room in our thoughts for all possibilities. Actually, there is no need to answer this. It is good enough to keep both options open.

A word is a button

Our brain is set up to hide our assumptions. It is worth fishing around to find words to express them. A word can be the button that triggers our action. We need a correct description of the way we actually think.

To understand how the system really works, we must use accurate language, otherwise we miss the core of it. We must actually see that thought is behind this whole system. It is creating our inner world.

To see all this, we must suspend our reactions. It means that we do nothing else but watch our thoughts. No reaction, no action. Just seeing what happens in our mind. Then we try to put them into words.

Words represent thoughts. Words give thoughts an appearance. Often thoughts work implicitly without our being aware of it. There is an implicit thought which 'goes without saying'. It just reacts.

In suspension, there is a new element at work: attention. It is one of the tools we need to use in getting rid of incoherent thoughts.

The show must go on

We must see that all thoughts are incomplete. The thought about the table is not the actual table. It picks up a few points about it. Every thought is only a simplification or an abstraction.

The verb 'to abstract' has two meanings. Usually we take it to mean the opposite of concrete. Abstract means that it is a concept, not factual.

Bohm raises the other meaning: to extract or remove, take something from the whole.

By definition, thought is abstract in both these ways. It is always different from what it expresses. It also excludes something that might be important.

To Bohm, thought only represents something that is true or is not true. An artist makes a picture which represents someone but is not that someone. Likewise, thought does not provide complete information on the thing it is about.

Everything we think about is connected to reflexes which will involve what we can do with it. This is how thought works. It gives us vast amounts of connected, logically interrelated information, but we abstract it and use only some part of it.

There is a tremendous potential hidden in here. Thought organizes itself into a very complex, rich structure based on abstract symbols. Some are general and some particular.

A symbol represents a thing. A word is a symbol, too.

Thought tries to claim that it knows more than it knows. This is a very dangerous tendency which leads to self-deception. It doesn't leave the unknown open.

We must leave room in our thoughts for something more and something different. In religious and political thought we do not do so, either in scientific thought.

A great deal of thought is aimed at increasing our security, but there is always uncertainty. There is always the unknown.

Our representations are adequate only up to a point. If the limits of knowledge are not crystal clear then knowledge becomes the substitute for truth.

The key point is, again, whether reality coheres in our experience. If it does not, we must change it. The lies burn to ashes in the heat of the truth.

The brain is able to guide us properly if it is coherent. We must let it build up. We easily miss the fact that perception comes from thought, as for instance, seeing someone as an enemy always comes from thought.

It is crucial to see that the representation affects perception. It is a tremendous source of illusion if we lose track of the fact that this is happening.

The self lives to leave a mark in the world.

The problem with thinking is that it does not want to be a silent witness to reality. It wants to modify the world to its own image. It wants to leave a mark. In doing this we bump into barriers and conflicts that we simply cannot avoid. We don't realize that we have created most of the nuisance in thinking.

Most of our thoughts are tacit, hidden. We are not and cannot be aware of them. We refuse to question our worldview because that would mean questioning our own identity.

And that is just what we must do if we want to be one with the world.