Life in our modern society is inherently meaningless. As a result, one of the main features of living in today’s world is the epidemic of addictions that we see everywhere.
The root of all addictions is the desire to escape the current mental state by means of distraction. And it is necessary for people today to immerse themselves in various distractions on a constant basis; they wouldn’t be able to function in the System without them. The emptiness, futility, and alienation would all be too apparent and too painful to endure for the average person. And it is when people become dependent on these distractions that they become addicted to them. Addictions to food, drugs, entertainment, information, career, ideologies, beliefs, and so on, are superfluous in our modern world.
But above all, there is one particular addiction that is so widespread and insidious that it isn’t even recognized as one. That addiction is our addiction to thoughts.
Just as something both natural and life-affirming as food and sex can turn into sources of addictions, thinking too can become addictive when we become embroiled by our own thoughts that cause discord, worry, and vexation. Thoughts are also very easy to get addicted to as they resides right within us, available at any moment to provide us with the distraction we crave.
Before I go on any further, I think the distinction between thinking and thoughts should be made clear for the purpose of understanding this article. To put in simple terms, thinking is the mental processing of what you observe and already know to reach a better understanding or a favourable outcome. Thoughts, on the other hand, are prepackaged mental products in the form of memories, fantasies, narratives, opinions, or beliefs that you access as a response to an external stimuli. Or, it may serve as a means of distracting yourself from feelings of emptiness.
The biggest trouble with thoughts are that they remove you from facing the reality while offering nothing of value in return. When you are engaged in thoughts—as opposed to actively thinking about a solution—you are removing yourself the present moment where everything matters. Instead, you are travelling to the past by engaging in memories long gone, or travelling to the future to engage in fantasies about what might be. A study has shown that staying in the present moment will lead to happiness and contentment whereas having your mind wander off from the present moment will lead to dissatisfaction and suffering. And this is also the main difference between thinking and thoughts. Thinking is usually rooted in the present, and pragmatic as a result, whereas thoughts have no relevance to the reality of the moment.
Think about it. Aren’t all of today’s mental suffering the cause of thoughts? Aren’t guilt, regrets, and resentment the result of thoughts about the past while worry, anxiety, and discontentment the result of thoughts about the future? You simply can’t win by engaging in thoughts. When you have thoughts about something good, you suffer because it is not real anymore or not real yet. When you have thoughts about something bad, you suffer because it was real or might be real—either way, it feels real.
In spite of it all, thoughts are addictive because they soothe our mind temporarily—often without conscious prompting. It also doesn’t feel like a distraction or an addiction because it gives us the false impression that it’s a way of striving for a solution. But no, that is a mistake. Engaging in thoughts must never be confused with thinking.
Thoughts poison our experiences through interpretations that distort how we perceive our reality. Having thoughts in the form of opinions and beliefs can filter the information that enter your mind so that you will be opaque to new information that challenge your preconceived beliefs. Even one of the greater intellectuals succumb to the power of their own thoughts and allow themselves be victims of selective perception.
Thoughts also cause needless conflict not just within yourself, but with others as well. All that stress and antagonism is not necessary if you don’t identify yourself with your thoughts. You won’t have unnecessary enemies if your thoughts don’t paint others and situations involving others with labels. When your thoughts tell you that you were victimized and you decide to buy those thoughts, you are essentially turning yourself into a victim.
I myself suffer from excessive amount of thoughts that plague my mind: thoughts about all the things I must do and all the things I haven’t done, thoughts about conversations I might have in the future, thoughts about global affairs that I have no control over, thoughts about all the mistakes I have made in the past, thoughts about the individuals who have tried to ruin me, thoughts about missed opportunities, thoughts about what I would do in the distant future if I secured everything I desired, thoughts about all the possible disasters that may be lurking in the future, thoughts about how much energy I had in my younger days, thoughts about what death would be like, thoughts about thoughts, and many more. All these thoughts do absolutely nothing to improve my life. In fact, these thoughts merely harm me by distracting me from taking action in the here and now.
There are intellectuals, thinkers, and philosophers who would argue that thoughts can advance human life. They are half right. Thoughts can advance human life, but only if it occurs concurrently with action. Thoughts that do not accompany action are either intellectual masturbation or what psychiatrists call rumination.
You cannot cure yourself of your thoughts, you can only tame them through discipline and mental focus. If you try to suppress your thoughts, you will only find yourself digging deeper into peril. The only thing to do is to practice being aware of the present moment by refocusing your attention to the here and now. Be fully engaged in whatever you might be doing. If you are not engaged in an action, just practice being present. Meditation is doing just that, and it is an excellent way to practice being aware of the present moment.
Our living conditions in modern society burdens us with meaningless thoughts because it deprives us of our connection to our body and to our natural environment. We live in a culture that overwhelms our mind with excess of information because of the way our education system, jobs, and entertainment are designed. Addiction to thoughts is something to be expected in such conditions. It is imperative for our humanity to take steps to overcome it.