I guarantee that most of the important decisions you make in your life are not dependent so much on what you know but on how you think.
As the famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained in an online lesson I watched recently, usually when we are confronted with something unfamiliar, we can’t just walk away and say “I am not trained for this.” But if we are sufficiently intrigued, we might follow our own thoughts and begin to ask questions—to investigate, to start right where we are with the spark of curiosity that can become the restless fire of inquiry. When confronting truth, one has to have walked the path of enquiry, as it the builds muscles that support a greater truth than we could not possibly hold by merely being told about it.
Reading a million books, taking numerous workshops, and hearing teachings—all of which are so important—is not enough unless we are merely looking to feel safe in some source of knowledge, without taking the steps to eventually become it. We fool ourselves by holding a library in our heads and thinking: “the work of reason is done.” True intelligence, however, demands way more than that.
Let’s consider the development of modern society as an aspect of our own mind, a collective mind. When we think we’re being smart, we are probably being manipulated into thinking that we are smart. Let me touch upon a couple of points in history that have inspired me to write about manufactured desire and how we have grown so rapidly into a consumer-based society.
In the late 1920s, a guy called Edward Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud, created the field of public relations and propaganda. He described the masses as irrational and vulnerable to herd instinct, and developed the skills of using crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control and influence society in desirable ways. How? By encouraging people to think that they can be beautiful, powerful, rich, and attractive. Most people would do anything to feel that way, especially if everybody else is doing it!
One interesting episode was when tobacco companies wanted to sell more cigarettes by encouraging women to take up smoking. At that time, it was taboo for women to smoke, and this meant that tobacco companies couldn’t sell to half of the adult population. Bernays made the interesting assertion (probably coming straight from his Uncle Freud) that cigarettes were a symbol for the penis and that if women could posses them, they would feel powerful and men would feel challenged. So, during an annual parade in New York City, Bernays assembled a group of beautiful women to smoke in public and to be noticed by the massed media representatives who had gathered to cover the parade. The group of smoking ladies said they were proud to be smoking cigarettes as they were actually the “torch of freedom.” Bernays constructed a whole ideology of women smoking with freedom, empowerment, and sexuality. All this is not to mention emphasizing how women’s over-sexualized bodies became a symbol for desire—a product to posses and to exploit. Everybody wanted a taste of this, and cigarettes soon began to sell like never before.
Eventually, people began asking the right questions, and we soon realized that tobacco does great damage and has nothing to do with freedom—actually quite the opposite. Countless people have suffered immensely as a result of the addiction caused by tobacco. And we have seen similar changes within the industries of alcohol, diamonds, fashion, shoes, cars, wine, restaurants, resorts, and so on, under the strategy of selling status, titles, and the idea of self image—such as being blonde, thin, sexy, rich, chic, spiritual, intellectual, and on and on. The school of social capitalism and mass consumption did a great job in learning about the skill of thinking and used that knowledge to recreate the world in the interests of the few.
And so these ideas took root for controlling the masses, grabbing them by their deepest desires to be special and safe, and directing them toward a “solution” in the form of consuming some product or or service or experience. Knowing what people would pursue, made them more predictable, which is better for running a capitalistic an economy more consistently. Not a bad plan for those who know how to think. But take a closer look; most people had never had so much in their lives, yet never before had the rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety been so high. Why? We drove ourselves crazy by giving up our most precious commodity: our capacity to think and feel for ourselves. Instead, we feel and want what the crowd shouts. We sold our souls to the devil, some might say.
You may think that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy or rich, and I agree that it feels very good. But where I’d like to go with this line of thought is in the title of this article: thinking is a skill. Is the image that you desire for yourself perhaps constructed by a crowd-sourced psychological effect? Are your desires actually yours? Is what you call “purpose” actually constructed by your true self? What is the true self? What feeds our primordial desire to struggle so furiously to get something or go somewhere or be someone?
So I agree with Prof. Tyson: the key is to question, to enquire. And I would like to affirm that the primordial quest for freedom is to know oneself, to question oneself. Why do I desire what I desire? What am I and everybody around me addicted to that makes it feel all so normal? We should learn to explore these questions. But the next step can be even harder; when you find out that giving up these beautiful illusions of a man-made-world means facing reality. One of the facets of reality that I have pondered deeply this year is that of impermanence, perhaps the most prevalent characteristic of reality. It is happening all around us and yet it’s usually the last fact that we are willing to accept. We buy things, we enter into new relationships and marriages, houses and jobs, as if there will never be an end to it all. Of course we know that it will end, at least theoretically, yet when things do come to an end, we are shocked and deeply hurt. Like children, we struggle to deal with impermanence, death, and change with any sort of maturity or dignity.
This manmade world offers us a blindfold so that we can avoid facing this uncomfortable reality and instead indulge in pleasures and pain avoidance. But if we make the effort to think for ourselves and to grow up, we can learn how to truly appreciate life just as it is, with all its beginnings and endings. But while we are not trained to grow and think, we run for the perceived shortcuts—straight to happiness. But this “happiness” comes from somewhere else; it’s not coming from you—it’s in the hands of something or someone else, and it cannot last because our level of bliss is proportional to the level of pain that we intake and cultivate. As to suffering, this is also a skill: one can cut oneself bit by bit into tiny pieces, or one can sculpt oneself into a work of art.
Self-enquiry is the first step. Second is sitting with reality, which is basically meditation: seeing things as they are and bearing it until it doesn’t cause any more discomfort and desperation and we surrender to what is. This moment of surrender brings such a deep sense of peace—nothing to grasp, nothing to run from or toward—and still life is happening without desperation or control. Life still rules unshakeably.
Own your thoughts. Empower yourself by connecting to Nature—the supreme master of reality. See things nakedly. Don’t hide, don’t wear an inner mask, but see beyond the masks of others, beyond the words and promises. The more connected you are with your core, the less separation you will feel from the cosmos. The more you stand for yourself, the less you will need. At this point, you might become a real guide for others, but be careful not to become a product yourself! The path of enquiry never ends while we still breathe in this world.
Since you have perceived the dust of forms,— Rumi (Masnavi, Book 6)
perceive the wind that moves them;
since you have perceived the foam,
perceive the Ocean of Creative Energy.