Thinking about Thought


Adam-and-EveWhen’s the last time you thought seriously about thought itself? I don’t mean the meaningless, incessant, and distracting chatter that torments us for much of our lives. I mean contemplative thought. During a meditation over the holidays the role of thought in the human being clarified for me. It’s one of those moments that when you say it out loud it sounds obvious. But on the other hand, we often miss the obvious because it’s too close for us to see. I had been reading Owen Barfield, and at his recommendation, the brilliant theosophist, Rudolph Steiner (founder of Waldorf schools). Then something coalesced.

With the gift of self-conscious awareness, (Eve’s eyes are opened after taking the apple) human beings exit a condition of undifferentiated unity with the world. For good or ill we can imagine ourselves as distinct from the world. (Which depends on how we understand and use this gift). This is unique to humans. We are that part of the world which can ideally act on the world’s behalf  through freedom to shape a future that both reflects and enhances the Wholeness that animates the world. Evolution becomes conscious of itself in, through, and as us, and thereby gains the capacity for what Owen Barfield called a “directionally creator” relationship with the world (conscious evolution).

But there is a downside, and that is the conscious awareness divides the world into object and subject—there is me, (the subject), and the world (the object)  that I am observing. It’s like humans are the 3D dimension of the world.  We “pop” out, and from that moment the religious or spiritual impulse (along with the scientific impulse) is all about finding a way to re-unite with the lost (albeit naive/unconscious) unity with the world. Self-conscious awareness separates us, and we want to find a way home. This separation is painful. It’s a lost intimacy leaving us feeling like maybe my  “I” and the world are two essentially different entities.

By the time of the Enlightenment the feeling of separation became acute, leading to all manner of screamphilosophic debate about whether or not we could actually know anything of the world. The so-called Critical Idealists came to the conclusion that by the time the objects of our perception were filtered through our senses, nervous system, chemistry, and brain, nothing of the “thing-in-itself” remained. We see the world not as it is, but as we are. A lot of new age woo-woo (there is no “reality”, only that which we create) is based on this partial truth. The existentialists got to the point of so much despair over a sense of alienation that only through the cultivation of courage could we bear existence.

There is no going back to a pre-3D world for humans or what Barfield calls “original participation”. And we wouldn’t want to go back even if we could. But that’s where thought comes in. Steiner elevates thought to almost the same status as Spirit. It’s unfashionable these days in spiritual circles to imagine thought as anything other than being “in our head”. Big mistake. Contemplative thought’s primary function is to give us knowledge or to confer a knowing of that which is not us. Try to imagine that thought is not so much something we do, but rather that thoughts come through us. Thoughts of this nature have us, we don’t have them. We are thought by the Originating Wholeness, and our role is to become conscious of the ways and wherefores that this Wholeness is thinking through us. There’s no going back, but there is a way forward.

bridgeThere are a couple different ways of knowing. One is analytic and the other is empathic and intuitive. The former emerges from and reinforces the split between subject and object, the latter emerges from soul and can overcome the division. Science uses the analytic method, and it has its merits unquestionably. But it doesn’t help us overcome this object/subject split and an accompanying feeling of isolation. In fact, it tends to deepen the divide. Empathic knowing on the other hand is our way back to the lost unity.  Through deep curiosity and wondering about the nature of what we are observing,  the “object” becomes a “Thou”. A bridge is formed  that connects us.  We take the other into our being and are taken into its/his/her being through this desire to know what is not us. Celtic Christians never lost the sense that it’s not just us knowing the world, but that the world, the land, the trees, the animals and plants, desire to know us. The urge to know, or knowledge, is the desire for reunion.

When thought is honoured in this manner— as the activity of a Wholeness that is coming through us, and as the precondition for the intimate act of knowing the other—it is really synonymous with love. And love is the key to lost intimacy with the world and each other. I wonder if whatever we mean by G_d experienced a similar separation when S/he chose to allow a world to be born that would be other than Her/Him. I wonder if the evolutionary process itself is the world slowly gaining the capacity to know and be known by this Originating Mystery. To be made in the image of G_d is to be gifted with the capacity for contemplative thought, the fruit of which is this knowing that bridges the perceived divide. I wonder if the human capacity for this knowing is our way of responding to G_d’s yearning for reunion with that which is now other than, but always connected. I wonder if  G_d enfolds G_dself into the evolutionary process as a hidden presence. The evolutionary process itself could be interpreted, then, as a divine longing to know and be known, thereby bridging the distance between Self and not-Self. It’s pretty cool that, through the process of thought, we can know the other not as alien, but as intimate other.





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  1. Don Smith says

    I guess I’m becoming a pantheist or something weird.

    I have a hard time conceiving or intuiting what this “other” is.

    I feel totally connected to the divine in everything I experience.

    How do I know that this mystical “other” is not just brain chemistry or some kind of altered state of mind?

    I only sense Unity not a lost Unity.



    • David says

      Precious moments when ‘thoughts have us’. Bit of a shame that they often prompt in the early hours. Its a richer experience than ‘when the Muse strikes’. It’s an energy surge that I ‘think’/sense- is a fair indicator of a resonance with the wisdom that fuels all-that-is. Not always comfortable, but invariably fruitful when translated into action.

      Bruce, being ‘Had’ seems a bit like the ‘new way of knowing’ that Darryl Reanney unpacked in his ‘Music of the mind’–the deep knowing that ‘comes’ when the moment we ‘get’ a paradox, when elements ‘that conflict in ignorance collaborate in knowing’. (or words to that effect)

      I often sense that you don’t WRITE your stuff — but that you ‘just’ SCRIBE it! You’ve been HAD, dear friend!!

      • Bruce Sanguin says

        David, thanks for that. Yes, I’ve been reading about the muse in Greek culture, and the modern writer’s relationship to the muse. It is sweet when we’ve been “had”, and makes me wonder how to listen ever more deeply. Much of the practice is about learning to get out of the way of it. From what I read, this muse is no respecter of schedules, thus your early morning inspirations. WLove Reanney’s “elements that conflict in ignorance collaborate in knowing”.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      I know what you mean Don. I think of it in terms of love. My partner is decidedly an other. I run up against a differing set of needs and wants, different timing, rhythms, etc. There is something about her otherness that is so precious in its uniqueness that I wouldn’t want to obliterate that. It’s the polarity that gives the charge. There are other moments, usually when we are gifted with the capacity to know each other in our distinctiveness that a feeling of unity/oneness/merging occurs. It too is beautiful and I wouldn’t want to lose that. Wilber’s three faces of G_d is a way I’ve found to honour both the I-I, mystic sense of self as one with All That Is, the I-Thou, a devotional relationship with the Beloved Other, and I-It, a contemplative state of wonder at those elements which are not personal (Great Web, Gaia, etc.).

  2. Bill says

    Absolutely loved your writing. I can feel and sense this journey of where you are and the path your walking on. A few lines and comments in your writing that speak deeply to my own journey path are:
    …….thoughts come through us…..
    ……. empathic & intuitive…… is our way back to the lost unity.
    ……..bridging the perceived divide …. ( perception of separateness, my wording)

    I am in the process of finishing a book that is my experience and interpretation of my very personal journey : “Awakening To The Journey Home – A Farmboy, The Mystery and Mysticism”. In this book is an art piece that arrived during a meditation and contemplative writing period. It speaks of the physical world process of emerging/awakening to the perception of separateness and then returning to the undivided state of Oneness.

    Bruce, I look forward to more of your writing.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Bill, I look forward to reading your book. Sounds fascinating. Indeed we seem to be kindred spirits. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Ken Alexander says

    Hi Bruce,
    I know from your comments in the video series “Painting the Stars” that you favor a “teleological” view of evolution, so I assume you might believe that the universe has achieved its “goal” of becoming conscious, and might now be moving toward even “greater” consciousness. That is, “consciousness” is a kind of magnet, pulling the universe toward it. This would contrast with a Natural Selection view, which would theorize that consciousness arose because it conferred survival advantage on the animals in which it progressively developed through random mutation.

    I’m honestly not sure what to think about this. A “teleological” view is obviously a more hopeful view, but we also don’t want to delude ourselves for the sake of “hopeful view”.

    A comment you made in the video which I completely agree with is that when scientists want to play in this space they have left physics behind and are now doing metaphysics. Some of them don’t like this idea, but they’re wrong.

    I’m reading a book right now that’s been pretty useful for my thinking about this: “The Deep Structure of Biology: Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal?”, edited by Simon Conway Morris. It’s a collection of essays by biologists who believe there might be something to “teleology” in biology.

    By the way, I’m going to be leading an Adult Christian Education program based on “Painting the Stars” next month. Many in my classes will be inspired by the ideas in the series, and I know several will be absolutely appalled—wish me luck!

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Hi Ken, that book sounds interesting. It’s hard to overemphasize, imo, the metaphysical assumptions underlying a non-teleological view of evolution. Survival at a biological level represents just one motivation, but this drive, this observation that the Whole seems to move with some kind of intention and on some kind of trajectory, reappears at higher levels, say human as the will to freedom, agency, love, admiration of beauty, love of goodness and truth, etc. To reduce all human behavior to the biological is to simply blind oneself to the dynamics of the evolutionary process as it manifests at higher, more complex levels. This reductionism is due to a belief in determinism and materialism, and not on evidence. Or rather the only admissible evidence is that which supports a deterministic worldview. As a serious and highly respected scientist, Teilhard de Chardin also was fascinated by the dynamic of convergence,(the many becoming one and being increased by one) but started with an assumption that the higher cannot emerge from the lower, even though it appears to our senses to be the case. Intelligence/wisdom and Love are the context and dynamism for the whole shebang, I figure. Good luck with the study group. If you want to Skype me in for one of the sessions, let me know.

      • Ken Alexander says

        Thanks for your generous offer. These sessions are at 9:15 Sunday mornings, which might not be an ideal time for you though…

        Something I’ve been wondering about recently is whether determinism or teleology are our only choices. We tend to assume that the overall directionality of the universe is to due to things either being pushed (by deterministic “causes” — which David Hume teaches us to be skeptical of) or the pull of some kind of teleological magnet. Perhaps there’s something else going on, shaping that directionality, that our minds haven’t yet been able to comprehend. And, despite the faith of the exponents of “scientism” perhaps we never will. We should always keep striving for understanding, but evolution provides no guarantee of the achievement of “final” theories or “ultimate” enlightenment about the way things really are.

        • Bruce Sanguin says

          I agree that there is an overemphasis on deterministic causes, especially in scientific materialism, raising the question of freedom—actually eradicating freedom. I do like John Haught’s emphasis, through Moltmann and Tillich, on God as Future. I think love provides a pretty good possibility for that other force you’re wondering about. It is non-interfering and yet persuasive. It evokes the greatest potential by simply being a milieu, as all parents know. Thanks Ken. p.s. That time can work.

  4. Jackson says

    Dear Bruce – Per usual, you are so gifted at selecting the best topics to inspire and challenge us. On the subject of “thought”, I just today ran upon Eckhart Tolle’s quote on the same: “Although the body is very intelligent, it cannot tell the difference between an actual situation and a thought. It reacts to every thought as if it were reality.” In some way this might touch on your post a bit, especially re: our intuitive knowing. However, my real interest lies in your last paragraph, where you muse on how/if G_d might have experienced a similiar separation when s/he choose to allow a world….etc. Are you not herein implying G_d might have thoughts like we persons do? Or am I reading too much into your musing? Best. J.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Jackson, Yeah, I don’t know how or if G_d “thinks”. Perhaps thinking and enacting are one and the same thing when it comes to higher orders of being. But all we have are these human analogies to ponder the great mysteries, lame as they most often are…

  5. Darryl says

    Thanks Bruce.
    You express some very “thougtful” similarities to the Baha’i perspective of the soul and the mind, esp regarding the two streams of thought. The mind being a combination of three components : the mental properties of imagination, thought, comprehension and memory ; the brain, and the energizing force of the soul. The other, intuitive thought is in no way dependent on human instruments and organs, yet it is also a power of our soul, and is a Divine knowing rather than investigative learning.

    The mind being like the rays of the sun that are beamed at the earth (or brain), and the soul being the energizing power of the sun itself. …”The mind comprehends the abstract by the aid of the concrete, but the soul has limitless manifestations of its own. The mind is circumscribed, the soul limitless” ……………….Cheers

  6. Laura M says

    By focussing on the direction of this conversation, we honour it AND our individual and collective desire for wholeness. Contemplative thought and action as CONVERSATION! Thank you for sharing your Yearning hearts and your questioning minds. We need to do SO much honest questioning in order to grow out of our slumbering habits.
    Thank you Bruce and others.

  7. Bill T. says

    I did some journal writing this morning, (my prayer method) concerns to do with my traditional Christianity. In writing this past year I have found myself wandering further and further down the path of pantheism. It is not a concern to me for I have found an emerging presence that has created awe and wonder at the ever presence of the emergence of the Mystery.

    It was really good to see your words: Celtic Christians never lost the sense that it’s not just us knowing the world, but that the world, the land, the trees, the animals and plants, desire to know us. The urge to know, or knowledge, is the desire for reunion.

    Maybe I am not to far from my Celtic heritage :-)

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Glad you picked up on that Bill. I’m not too fussed about pantheism/panentheism, but I just wouldn’t want to collapse the Great Mystery to being merely the sum of the parts, or god forbid, my ego!

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