The other day I put up a quote on the evil monster that is Facebook from an interview with my favorite singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. It went, “Any culture which is based around sitting around taking drugs I would say was pretty close to being nihilistic. Especially ones as confusing and vapid as marijuana and LSD. You might think you’re having positive thoughts, but you’re just imagining them, really. You’re sitting there with your eyes closed thinking, ‘Yeah, I love everybody.’ But when somebody actually walks in the room, it’s a bit of a drag to have to talk to them and think about them.”
When I posted this a number of people rushed to the defense of poor helpless drugs. Lots of folks seem to wrap up much of their sense of who they are in the drugs they like to consume. They take any criticism of their drugs of choice as a personal insult. Like when you tell a Clash fan that you think The Ramones are better.
I’d like to set aside the question of whether drugs are good or bad for a moment and talk about what I think is the much more interesting aspect of this quote — and the reason I like it so much.
At least one person got what I think is the real meat of this statement. He asked, “How does one ‘imagine’ that one is ‘having thoughts’…? I think Robyn’s imagination must be a lot better than mine is, or something. Or maybe I just imagined thinking that.”
I’ve found that Mr. Hitchcock is a pretty insightful guy. As far as I’m aware, he has no meditation practice. And yet, here he talks about something that I only understood after a lot of sitting around staring at walls.
I would express it as: What you think you think is often at odds with what you actually think.
We imagine that we have thoughts. But, in my experience, often the thoughts I imagine I’m having, or the feelings I imagine I’m having, are very much at odds with what’s actually going on.
The thinking part of the mind spends a lot of time trying to make sense of what’s going on in the deeper, less accessible regions of the mind and body. Often it gets things completely wrong. Sometimes this is fairly easy to see.
For example, let’s say you’re hungover, you haven’t had your morning coffee, and the milk you wanted to put on your Cheerios has gone sour. Just then, your significant other appears and says it’s your turn to shovel the driveway. You snap and start yelling about how your relationship is all a lie and you need space.
After you get your coffee, take some Aspirin, and make some toast, you realize that what you thought was anger was really just a combination of pain, hunger, and disappointment over the milk going bad. You apologize and try to make amends.
What you imagined you thought was not what you thought.
Meditating a lot got me to notice that this sort of thing happens in many other circumstances.
For instance, to take Robyn Hitchcock’s example, certain drugs can stimulate the brain and body in a way that mimics the sensations one gets when one is in love. Under the influence of those drugs, I have sometimes imagined that the reason for these sensations I’m having is because the drug has made me more loving. I couldn’t come up with a better explanation. Plus I really liked the idea that I had become a new and more loving person as the result of consuming a substance that also got me really high. Bonus!
But, as Mr. Hitchcock says, when I’ve been able to be honest with myself, I’ve had to acknowledge that I’m not really in love with the world. I just imagined I was because the drugs were pushing the same buttons that actual feelings of love push.
Noticing I was wrong was deeply disappointing and not something I enjoyed acknowledging.
It’s not just drugs that do this. Meditation can sometimes produce the same kind of confusion.
Often people who meditate will experience states of bliss and tranquility. This happens because a lot of the usual processes of the mind and body that produce agitation settle down. If you’re not used to this condition, it can be astonishing.
You can start to believe that you have overcome agitation, that you have transformed into a whole new person. This leads a lot of folks to stop meditating because they believe they have achieved their goal.
Often they adopt a new self-image based on the bliss states they’ve experienced. They start talking like a blissed out person, dressing in ways intended to demonstrate their new blissed out persona to the world, and handing out unsolicited advice about how to be a better, more blissed out person just like them.
I know this from personal experience, by the way.
I also know that nobody likes people like that — except other people suffering from the same delusion. If you get enough people with those delusions together they start to feed off each other and things can get very ugly while seeming, to those under the spell of bliss states, to be almost excruciatingly beautiful. I think something like that is one of the factors in cults like the one in the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which I spoke about in a recent YouTube video.
The only cure I know for this is deep and often painful honesty. You have to doubt even your own thoughts. Especially the ones that make you feel real good. By the way, the thoughts that make you feel real bad are usually just as deluded.
This kind of honesty is hard. It requires a kind of leap into another way of thinking.
For me, I had to get it wrong many, many times before I began to wonder if my own thoughts were actually what I thought they were.
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