Much of our thinking takes the form of self-talk—conversations we have with ourselves, inside our minds.
Clearly, the original root of this verbal thinking is speech. Speech gave humans the ability to communicate with each other, share experiences, learn from each other, and amass a collective body of knowledge. Using verbal language within our own minds brought many new abilities, including the abilities to rehearse what we might say to another, to recall past conversations, and to plan future actions.
This gave us a whole new way of meeting our needs. We can understand the world around us, how it works, and take steps to improve our circumstances. This is the present root of so much of our thinking.
Needs and Wants
If you look at your own thinking, you will find that a good proportion of it is concerned with meeting a need of some kind or another—the needs for security, approval, love, companionship, status, respect, control, stimulus, comfort, etc..
For many of us, such thinking is going on nearly all the time. Sometimes, it may just be in the background, but it is there, occupying our mental resources. Most of it is a complete waste of time and energy. As Mark Twain famously remarked, “My life has been full of disasters, most of which never happened”.
Looking more closely, you will find that many of these thoughts concern imagined needs—things we imagine we need in order to be happy. We imagine we need someone to regard us in a good light, or we need some new clothes, or we need to eat some gourmet food. These are not true needs; they are “wants” or desires, or in some cases simply preferences. But still they occupy our thoughts.
When we believe we need such things or situations in order to be happy, we become fixated upon getting them, and this leads to no end of thinking about how to get the world to be the way we believe it ought to be.
The Roots of Discontent
This, as so many spiritual teachers have pointed out, is the root of our much of our suffering. By telling ourselves that things need to be different, we create a sense of discontent, a dis-ease.
This is the sad joke about human beings. We all want to find greater contentment, but many of us are so busy worrying about whether or not we will be content sometime in the future, we never allow ourselves to be at ease in the present. Instead, our minds become preoccupied with planning and scheming, worry and anxiety, hopes and fantasies. And when things don‚Äôt turn out the way we think they should, we easily fall into anger, grievance, judgment, or depression.
When we do manage to get whatever it is we think we want, we may indeed feel better. But we feel better, not because that particular thing has made us feel better, but because we have, for the moment, stopped creating a sense of discontent. We are no longer disturbing ourselves. But before too long we find something else that is missing, and again fall into discontent. And again start thinking about what we might do to make things the way we want.
Return to Natural Mind
Careful observation of the mind reveals that focusing on a particular thought limits our perception. We become lost in thought, unaware of much is what going on around us. And also what is going on within us; a mind caught up in self-talk is less likely to notice how it is feeling, or how the body feels. Moreover, all this thinking results in a background mental tension. There is a sense of tightness in the mind, a constriction in our consciousness.
The world’s mystical traditions repeatedly affirm that the mind in its natural state—that is, before it is filled with thoughts, worries, plans, and regrets—is a mind that is at ease. In one way or another, through meditation, prayer, dance, ritual, or service, they seek to undo the damaging consequences or over-thinking and return us to the state of ease that is our spiritual birthright.