Thoughts Can Be Our Best Friends

It is common in alternative spiritual circles to glorify the emotions at the expense of the mind. “Get out of your head and into your heart,” as the saying goes. In many versions of this view, raw emotion is primary; pure feeling, which exists prior to and independent of discursive thought, is where the action is. Thoughts, on the other hand, are secondary artificial constructs that distance us from that raw emotion. Spiritual growth, then, comes primarily from setting aside the artificiality of thought entirely, so we can get back in touch with our unadulterated feelings. But is this really true? Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard suggests that from the perspective of both Buddhism and recent brain research, there is no raw emotion independent of thought. Emotions are inseparable from thoughts, and therefore a powerful pathway to spiritual growth is to cultivate the right thoughts. A Course in Miracles would wholeheartedly agree.

I came across Ricard’s views in his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, which is about how to find happiness through spiritual practice. The book is full of interesting and helpful insights on the nature of happiness and how to achieve it. In a nutshell, Ricard believes that happiness comes from cultivating the proper state of mind. Given this view that one’s state of mind is paramount in the quest for happiness, the question naturally arises: What is the relationship between thoughts (which are products of the mind) and emotions (like happiness)? Ricard discusses this issue in a striking paragraph that I’ll quote it in full:

Despite their rich terminology for describing a wide range of mental events, the traditional languages of Buddhism have no word for emotion as such. That may be because according to Buddhism all types of mental activity, including rational thought, are associated with some kind of feeling, be it one of pleasure, pain, or indifference. And most affective [emotional] states, such as love and hatred, arise together with discursive thought. Rather than distinguishing between emotions and thoughts, Buddhism is more concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run. This is actually quite consistent with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and emotion. Every region of the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition. There are no “emotion centers” in the brain. The neuronal circuits that support emotions are completely intertwined with those that support cognition. This anatomical arrangement is consistent with the Buddhist view that these processes cannot be separated: emotions appear in a context of action and thought, and almost never in isolation from the other aspects of our experience. It should be noted that this runs counter to Freudian theory, which holds that powerful feelings of anger or jealousy, for instance, can arise without any particular cognitive or conceptual content. (p. 109)

There’s a lot in this paragraph, but here’s my paraphrase. We commonly believe that emotions have a life of their own, independent of our thoughts: the Freudian theory that feelings “can arise without any particular cognitive or conceptual content.” But Ricard says (with a few qualifiers) that actually, emotions do not arise apart from thoughts. Traditional Buddhist languages don’t even have a word for “emotions as such”; in the Buddhist view, emotions and thoughts always occur together. Brain science supports this view. “There are no ’emotion centers’ in the brain”; the parts of the brain that produce emotions are “completely intertwined” with the parts responsible for thought. Not only are emotions and thoughts inseparable from one another, but Ricard says elsewhere that there is a causal relationship between them. Emotions inspire thoughts, and thoughts in turn cause us to experience the emotions that naturally follow from them.

This leads to the practical application of this theory, which Ricard says here is the main concern of Buddhism: “understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful.” If we can gain this understanding, then we can learn how to cultivate thoughts that generate positive emotions. Indeed, Ricard says that “the inability to manage our thoughts proves to be the principle cause of suffering” (p. 99). If, then, we can learn how to manage our thoughts more effectively through spiritual practice, we can overcome suffering and experience happiness.

Though Ricard’s views are not identical with those of A Course in Miracles, there are strong parallels. The Course firmly refutes our belief that emotions have a life apart from thought, saying that “it is always an interpretation [a thought] that gives rise to negative emotions” (M-17.4:2). In the Course’s view, every emotion we have, without exception, is caused by a thought (though we may not be consciously aware of the particular thought causing a particular emotion). Moreover, although thoughts precede emotions in logical sequence—thought is cause, emotion is effect—the two actually arise together: “Thinking and its results are really simultaneous, for cause and effect are never separate” (W-pI.19.1:4).

This leads to the Course’s own practical application. As Ricard says of Buddhism, the Course’s central concern is to help us to understand what kinds of mental activity are conducive to our and others’ true well-being, and which are not. With this theoretical understanding, we can then practice cultivating thoughts that lead to the happiness and peace of God, and undoing thoughts that lead to suffering. This ability to “manage our thoughts” (to use Ricard’s phrase) is what the Course calls mental vigilance. It is what we’re doing when we repeat the idea for the day from the Workbook. This working with the constant stream of thoughts in our minds is the Course’s central practice. Through this mind training, through setting aside our ego-based thoughts and “chang[ing our] mind to think with God’s” (T-4.IV.2:5), we will ultimately leave suffering behind and experience the happiness God wills for us.

This emphasis on thoughts doesn’t mean that there is no value in getting in touch with our feelings. On the contrary, precisely because thoughts cause emotions, the Course is constantly encouraging us (see T-4.IV.8, for example) to notice our emotions as a way of identifying the thoughts behind them. (Ricard encourages this practice as well: “When a painful emotion strikes us, the most urgent thing is to look at it head-on and to identify the immediate thoughts that triggered and are fanning it” [p. 100].) Nor am I suggesting that there is no value in practices that involve setting aside our normal stream of thought entirely. The Course (like Buddhism) has numerous meditation practices with this very goal in mind, and they are essential to the journey.

My point here is simply that we shouldn’t take an attitude that divinizes raw emotions and demonizes thought. Since emotions and thoughts are inseparable, the spiritual journey has an important place for both. True, the wrong thoughts can be “enemies” that distance us from what is real and true in us, but as Ricard says, “thoughts can be our best friends” (p. 98). Cultivating right-minded thoughts is the royal road to happiness.

Source of material commented on: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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