I once listened to a podcast where one of the hosts – who is typically quite intellectual and takes pride in it – talked about his experience with mindfulness. He had taken a course and said he didn’t get much out of it. Why? Because the instructor said things he already knew and were obvious, for instance that “we are not our thoughts”.
Knowing about versus direct noticing
Yes, we all know we are not our thoughts, at least intellectually and from our own understanding of what it means. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about exploring it for ourselves. When we look, what do we find? What do we find in our immediate experience, outside of thought? That’s very different from knowing something intellectually.
Memory versus direct noticing
At some point, we may have a direct experience of how we are not our thoughts. This may be reflected in our thoughts. (We think about it, talk about it with ourselves.) And after, we may know it through memory. And that too is very different from noticing it here and now. Whatever the memory points to will be new, fresh, and different as we explore it here and now.
We can discover more when we set aside the idea that “I know”
In this case, with the “we are not our thoughts” pointer, it may also be that he would discover something surprising had he only set aside his “knowing mind” and explored it for himself with some receptivity and curiosity.
Perhaps he thought he was this human self, and not his thoughts? Perhaps he would have found that he instead is capacity for the world as it appears to him, including this human self? Perhaps he would have discovered that what he is, is what all his experience – including this human self, thoughts, and the world as it appears to him – happens within and as?
Perhaps he would have discovered that when we are identified with something, for instance this human self, it’s actually an identification with or as the viewpoint of a thought? On the surface, it may seem silly to say “we are not our thoughts” if we think we are this human self. But, in reality, our identifications are with thoughts – including the thought of being this human self. We assume we are the the thoughts, although we may not always notice it.
Wherever we are in the process, and however much we have discovered, there is a world of difference between the memory and thought and the immediate noticing, and there is always more to discover. If we explore something with sincerity and receptivity, we may find that we surprise ourselves.
The terrain is different from the map
As many have pointed out, this is the difference between the map and the terrain. Or reading a menu and eating the food. Or hearing about a place and being there.
I may know a lot about a place through second hand information. I may be able to talk about it as if I have been there. But that’s very different from actually being there. And even if I am personally very familiar with a place, there is always more and new things to discover.
The terrain is always more than and different from any map. The maps are different in nature from the terrain. And even within their realm of ideas, the maps all come from a certain limited point of view, reflect a certain limited worldview, and highlight certain limited aspects of the terrain. No matter how familiar we are with the terrain, they also reflect a very limited experience.
In real life: often a combination
When I write here, I notice there is often a combination. I notice something in immediacy and I write partly from memory (phrases, points) and partly from immediate noticing. They go hand-in-hand.
And it’s good to set aside the pointers for a while, even if it’s just a little while, and be with the immediacy of what it points to. It will be fresh and new, and we may discover something we hadn’t discovered before.