Do Your Thoughts Define You?: The Search for the Unsinkable Thought Titanic

By Adam J. Pearson

Dramatic sky over West Vancouver

The Quest for the Unsinkable Thought Titanic

When I was younger, I felt a desperate need to find an -ism that I could hold on to, a perfect way of thinking that would tell me what kind of -ist I was. I yearned, in short, to find the perfect label for myself. I longed for an intellectual position with which I could identify and I wanted it to be iron-clad, strong, and resistant to all criticism. I wanted an Unsinkable Thought Titanic that could sail on no matter what criticism icebergs you threw at it, a ship on which the Jack and Rose of my identity could live and love forever. Okay, maybe I pushed that metaphor a little too far, but you get my drift.


Why was I so obsessed with finding the ideal -ism? For a few reasons. On the one hand, I was looking for truth, and the view that would best stand up to criticism, I thought, was most likely to be true. On the other hand, I had an emotional or psychological reason for wanting an Unsinkable Thought Ship; I wanted to feel safe. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable to criticism.

I felt that if I identified with a strong enough -ism, then I, as the -ist of that -ism, the believer of that school of thought, would be less vulnerable to attack. I’d be safely camped out in an ivory tower so solid that it could resist any criticism that could be leveled against it, my own personal Philosophical Fortress, my Socratic Citidel, my Kantian Castle. Abandon all hopeall ye who enter here, I’d be able to exclaim at my intellectual opponents like the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno; I can take you! 


The Great Philosophers: Masters of the -Isms

Wherever did I get this strange idea that I could derive an identity from a way of thinking?
I learned it from the philosophers that I admired. I wanted wisdom, I wanted truth, and these guys and gals seemed to have it, so I strove to imitate them. When I read their writings, I noticed that every philosopher wanted to know exactly what kind of –ist he or she was. They believed that by doing philosophy, by examining arguments and carving out a solid position, they could figure out which -ism is most defensible and take a stand as an -ist of that -ism.

This was true both historically and today. If you ask a philosopher who they are, they might tell you something like: “I’m a Husserlian phenomenologist and Singerian utilitarian.”

That’s a bigger mouthful than a 10-foot subway sandwich,” you might be thinking. And you’re right.


Australian philosopher, Peter Singer.

The nice thing about this habit of self-labeling, however, is that it’s convenient and conversationally parsimonious; it tells you a great deal in only a few words. Differently stated, if you know who Husserl and Singer are and what phenomenology and utilitarianism are, then you also roughly know where this person stands, and you can converse with them accordingly.

In short, their choice of –isms tells you what they believe to be true. To add some delightful jargon to our discussion, this is the practical, conversational, or discursive function of philosophical labeling; it makes it easier to discuss points of views economically. Provided the people you’re talking to are hip to your nomenclature, that is.


Ya Get It, Then Ya Lose It: Safety and the Psychology of Self-Labeling

However, for me, at least in principle, this kind of self-labeling not only had a conversational function, but also had a psychological or emotional function of giving me a sense of safety. The idea that I am my thoughts, that I am my intellectual position was something I took for granted since all the other philosophers I studied seemed to believe it as well. In psychology terms, they had learned to include their ideas in their self-schema, or mental representation of who they believed they were. In short, they wove thoughts into their identity. And for years upon years, I followed their lead, like a carefree lemming off a psychological cliff.


At least for me, though, this identification with intellectual positions had some interesting effects. When someone would attack my beloved -ism or intellectual position, I would feel like I was under attack, like a papa bear swiping at anyone who went near his baby. My cherished opinions were my fragile cubs.

Because I had woven my view into my sense of self, my ego would feel threatened by attacks on the positions that it had incorporated into itself. While I remained open to philosophical debate and discussion as a pathway to truth through reason, I would also often end up feeling emotionally stirred up when I engaged in them. I was an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-sexist; if someone said anything contrary to these positions, then they were attacking me.

This often made me angry and defensive and made it harder for me to think clearly. Because it’s hard to be a paragon of clear-mindedness when you’re screaming through a face that’s redder than an Oxheart tomato.


I noticed something else that I found fascinating. It happened on many occasions through my intellectual journey that I would come to see a thought system I had previously identified with as fraught with difficulties and vulnerable to objections that it couldn’t answer. When this would happen, I would have to drop it, like Jack and Rose leaping off the sinking Titanic.

When I did that though, it would feel as if I were losing part of of myself, because I literally was; a thread in the tapestry of my egoic identity was being pulled away and that made part of the tapestry unravel.


For a while after dropping a beloved thought system, I would feel lost, until I found a stronger position than the last that I believed I could trust. Then I would identify with the new position in place of the old. It would be my new tower, my new citadel, my new fortress. And the champion of the new philosophy would become my new master. Surely this one would succeed where the others had failed, I thought. Surely this Titanic wouldn’t smash on the iceberg of reality… right?

As I found out again and again however, every thought system had its limitations. Despite this fact, however, I stubbornly refused to give up hope that the perfect philosophical -ism was out there. Like Fox Mulder on the X-Files, I wanted to believe.


Thus, I moved from Thales to Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Epicurus to Democritus to Diogenes to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to Augustine to Aquinas to Descartes to Locke to Berkeley to Hume to Kant to Kierkegaard to Husserl to Heidegger to Russel to Wittgenstein to Derrida to Zizek to Wilber. And while I did this, I also moved from Christian to Muslim to Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and masters. Because surely one of these religious guys and gals had to have an unassailable answer, if the philosophers didn’t. Or so I believed.

And thus it came to be that I would seek shelter in the views of one thinker until the cracks and limitations and unanswerable objections became too multitudinous to ignore. Then I would drop their system, feel lost, find a new teacher, and start the cycle anew. Because I identified with my thoughts, my identity was also constantly in flux. And on I ran, like a confused hamster in a crazy hamster wheel.


Are we our thoughts?

Despite the constant failure of each new thought system to provide the unassailable certainty for which I yearned, for years and years, it never occurred to me to question the basic idea at the root of my endless intellectual searching.  Rene Descartes‘ “I think, therefore, I am” (Cogito Ergo Sum) had, for me, become “I am what I think.” And I was determined to find an iron-clad philosophy so I could become an iron-clad -ist of its -ism.

In time, however, when I was no longer able to ignore the growing mountain of Unsinkable Thought Titanics that lay in a sunken heap behind me, I started to question this unquestioned assumption at the core of my search for the perfect -ism. And I found reasons to doubt it both from the Western tradition and from the Eastern tradition alike.


For example, in his book, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Bertrand Russell famously critiqued Descartes by pointing out that “I think, therefore, I am” is not as self-evidently true as Descartes had thought. From the observation that “there are thoughts” or that “thoughts are arising,” Descartes had assumed that there was a mysterious permanent and separately-existing “I” that was thinking those thoughts. According to Russell, Descartes had then deduced from this assumption that a separate thinking self existed behind the thoughts. In truth, all that direct experience was telling him was that “there are thoughts.” Talk about putting a pin in a treasured birthday balloon of perfect certainty.


Ralph Waldo Emerson also gave me reason to question whether it was wise to identify with my thoughts. In his essay, “Intellect,” Emerson famously wrote that:

Truth is our element of life, yet if a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth, and apply himself to that alone for a long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself, but falsehood; (…)  every thought is a prison also.  I cannot see what you see, because I am caught up by a strong wind, and blown so far in one direction that I am out of the hoop of your horizon.

In other writings, Emerson went on to suggest that not only is every thought a prison, but every new thought offers us a ‘key’ out of the prison of the previous thought. However, there’s a catch; the very same thought that freed us from the prison of the previous thought itself forms the bars of a new prison that imprisons us afresh. Therefore, if I identify with my thoughts, then I will always remain in prison and in search of the next golden thought key that will liberate me, only to imprison me anew. The absurdity of this process might be enough to give Samuel Beckett a wet dream.

Samuel Beckett lol'ing.

Samuel Beckett lol’ing.

In addition, as Robert Anton Wilson argued, the thoughts that we hold true form the boundaries of our personal ‘reality tunnel;’ they define the limits of how much of the world we actually perceive. This psychological effect results in what I call the Believer’s Paradox, the striking fact that the more we believe, the less we perceive. 

Hindu and Buddhist teachers also gave me reasons to question whether, in some fundamental way, I really am my thoughts. After all, there are moments at which there are few if any thoughts arising in my mind. And yet I do not have the sense that I vanish or cease to exist during these times. I don’t pop out of being like a pop tart vanishing into the mouth of a hungry 8 year-old. Instead, even in the absence of thoughts, I still have the sense that, in some sense, I am still here.


Building on this insight, the Advaita Vedanta sage, Ramana Maharshi recommended that to find out who and what we are, it is more helpful to focus, not on the content of thoughts, but rather on the question “to whom does this thought arise?” or “what is aware of this thought?” We could use the question, he taught, to trace the thought back to its source in formless awareness, and then find out directly if we remain when the thought has faded out.  Implicit in this practice, of course, is the suggestion that we are not our thoughts.

Similarly, My Zen teacher, Myokyo, the abbess of a Rinzai Zen monastery, often reminded her students that in meditation, we simply watch thoughts come and go without being “swept away by them.” The fact that that my thoughts are in a process of constant change also means that there’s no permanent “me” to be found in them; they are, as Buddhists often say, “empty of a separate self” (anatman). And if my thoughts are empty of a ‘me,’ then I can’t be my thoughts. Makes sense, right?


What does this mean for the Search for the Unsinkable Thought Titanic?

As you might imagine, all of these consideration led me to see that I can neither be limited to my thoughts, nor defined by them in any meaningful sense. Granted, it does seem to be the case, as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy points out, for instance, that “our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour.” As a result, Cognitive Behavioural Therapists often try to get their patients to see that their thoughts impose a story or interpretation on their sensory impressions, which shapes how they feel and behave. However, does this influencing effect mean that our identity can meaningfully be reduced to our thoughts? I don’t think so, for reasons like those I discussed above.

To me, the considerations that I laid out above cumulatively mean that the search for the perfect -ism, insofar as it is pursued as a means to achieve a sense of emotional safety, will always ironically undermine the very sense of safety that it aims to achieve. This is so because our thoughts must always change in the light of new evidence and greater data; if they don’t, then, as Emerson pointed out, we remain stuck in the prisons of our old beliefs, trying to shut out the voice of contrary evidence as we unconsciously succumb to confirmation-bias. Quite like a kid with his fingers in his ears yelling “LALALALALA, I can’t hear youuuuu!


Of course, science is always evolving; its models and theories and paradigms are always changing as theory and experimentation and the technological and mathematical tools that promote them evolve with them. The same is true for every other area of human knowledge. Moreover, as models like Spiral Dynamics point out, as thoughts change, values tend to change with them, becoming more inclusive, more integral, more holistic, and less bound by the limitations of previous thinking. To remain mired in an old way of thinking limits the amount of reality that we are able to include, perceive, and consider.

For these and many other reasons, therefore, contrary to the anti-intellectualism that plagues much of the modern spiritual scene, I see much value in the advance of intellectual pursuits, disciplines of knowledge, and inquiries into truth. Transcending the limitations of old thought systems to include more of the world literally expands the scope of human consciousness. However, the fact that our cognitive models are always changing means that there is no wisdom in ‘clinging’ to any one way of thinking, and identification is the ultimate form of clinging.


The Good News: If We’re Not At Stake In What We Think, Then We’re Free to Think More Clearly

The implication of these facts, for me, is that my sense of self is not at stake in my views or thoughts. I witness thoughts arise and find them more or less useful and more or less able to accommodate the evidence that the universe offers, but these thoughts do not define me, nor do they constitute my ‘self’ as many philosophers had previously assumed. These thoughts will always be changing in light of new evidence and are thus best held flexibly as ‘thought models’ that express partial truths rather than as unshakeable ‘beliefs.’ By ceasing to identify with my thoughts, I also cease to be personally invested in debate. I cease to place myself with Leo and Voldemort on a sinking Unsinkable Thought Titanic.


And here’s the fascinating twist: quite ironically, ceasing to look for a sense of security in our thoughts makes us feel far more secure. If someone attacks “my thoughts,” then I am not under attack, for I am not my thoughts. As a result, I can consider intellectual positions more objectively than I could if I felt like my very identity was invested in them because I cease to see your criticism as a proverbial punch to my proverbial face.


Not identifying with intellectual positions also allows us to consider them more flexibly and objectively. If our goal is to be as integral in our thinking as possible, by which I mean, to include as many valid partial truths from as many points of view, models, theories, and disciplines as possible, then not identifying with our thoughts allows us to think more freely rather than get stuck on any particular way of thinking. I don’t have to blind myself to the limitations and weaknesses of a particular position if I’m not desperately holding onto it as part of my identity. This is very liberating. It enables us to see the merits or partial truths nestled within even conflicting theories on the same topic. In Hegelian terms, it allows us to see the points of synthesis between a thesis and an antithesis, a view and its opposite view.

Being free to flow between multiple theories and models is fruitful for intellectual inquiry, because, as the quantum physicist Niels Bohr pointed out, while “the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is also true.” A way of thinking that can encompass as much truth as possible is more inclusive, more integral, and more reflective of the vastness of the universe than a limiting conception that leaves much out. To put a picture to this idea, a map of Canada might tell you something about the world, including maps of all the other countries would tell you a whole lot more. Adding all of astronomy’s maps of the entire universe would give you an even more-encompassing picture.


Thinking With Rather Than Against: A Different Approach to Discussion

Furthermore, not identifying with thoughts changes the whole quality of debates and discussions. If I am my position, then by arguing an opposing view, you are attacking me, and my goal, for the sake of self-defense, must be to make your view wrong, in order to protect myself. In contrast, if I am not at stake in any view being definitive, then I can really listen to what you are suggesting. I can look for the ways in which your view reveals the limitations of my own view even as I see how my view reveals the limitations in your own. Together, we can approach dialogue with a view to integrating the valid partial truths in both of our positions and transcending the limitations of both of our views.

Practically speaking, the question of the person who is identified with their position is: how can I make you wrong, to make me right?

In contrast, the question of the person who does not identify with their position is: how are we both right, and how our views both limited?


In many ways, this change of focus also changes the emotional tone of the discussion. When we know that we can’t be defined by our positions, then we are less likely to get angry, hurt, and defensive when criticized. As a result, we naturally tend to find it easier to remain clear-headed. Less subjective identification tends to result in greater objective reflection. And as we all know from experience, it’s far more fun and fruitful to converse with someone who doesn’t take the discussion personally. Ceasing to identify with our thoughts releases the personal stake from the discussion. With its passing, a peaceful curiosity remains where guarded defensiveness once held sway.


Conclusion: From Prison to Freedom

If we yearn for freedom as much as we yearn for truth, then it is wise to think in a way that maximizes our freedom rather than a way that limits it. Identifying with our thoughts binds our happiness, sense of self, and a dimension of our felt sense of safety to them. Because thoughts are by their very nature limited and subject to change, this in turns places our sense of safety and contentment in jeopardy. In contrast, if we see that we not our thoughts, then we can impersonally consider both their limitations and also the partial truths that they contain and be more open to consider other people’s views in the same way. Less personal investment in thinking makes us less likely to irrationally hold on to a view after we have become aware of its limitations and falsely pretend that it is unassailable.

This shift in relationship to thought from bounded identification to uninvested flexibility results both in greater freedom of thought and also greater freedom from thought. Thoughts come, change, and go, and we remain in their absence. While we are identified with thoughts, we find ourselves constantly hopping from one thought prison to another in an endless cycle of shifting imprisonment.


In contrast, when we see that we are not our thoughts, we cease to bind ourselves to any one thought system. Instead, we get to flexibly flow between them, linking partial truths to other partial truths, transcending irrational exclusionary thinking, and moving past the limitations of narrow views.

In closing, far from being bound to one Wilsonian ‘reality tunnel,’ we can peer through other people’s reality tunnels, dive into other rabbit holes, and range freely through what Emerson calls the “unbounded, unboundable empire” of human thought. More contemplatively, we can even rest in the inner silence that shines within, the inner space where thinking gives way to wonder, and which Hillsong United once called “the great unknown where feet may fail.”


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