Jem’s Path to the Land Beyond Thought

A wisdom tale

by Richard Hawley Trowbridge, PhD, Editor, The Flourishing Earth

Chapter 1. An Odd Meeting, and What Followed

The inner journey we make through life is far more important than the outer one. After all, it is the mind that ‘can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.’ We haven’t quite been able to do that in the external world yet. The mind selects certain aspects of the world to heed, and ignores the rest. It must be trained if it is to go beyond appearances, habits engrained by education and enculturation, and self-evident truths that are not true. In the past three centuries, humans have revolutionized their outer experience. The time has come to revolutionize our inner experience. Here is one way to do that.

Let’s say you are at the café counter and someone walks up and says, “You must sit without thoughts for one hour. This is your task.” 

            Let’s say you take a breath, preparing to reply something like, “What are you talking about?” But he continues before you begin: “That is, sit for an hour without engaging in inner speech or images, emotional scenarios, fantasies, or sleepwaking mental drift. Without attending to messages from the external senses, but rather, completely focused on what the mind itself is doing. If you do eliminate intrusive thoughts and mental drifting, you will be twice as aware as otherwise, and twice as alive. But when you succeed, you can tell me whether I am right or not. I’ll be back.” And then he walks out the door while the clerk is handing you your triple berry smoothie.

            This is what happened to Jem; and she decided to accept this task. She was curious, and asked herself, What is the mind doing when I sit with nothing else to do but keep it quiet and attentive?

Feedback for gauging progress

Having the specific goal of sitting without thoughts for one hour, Jem felt she also needed a way to measure her progress in reaching the goal. She thought it might be of interest to take an inventory of the thoughts that appear all by themselves when she was sitting attempting to keep the mind quiet. She found that most of them involved the to-do list, plans, memories, mentally explaining something to someone, figuring something out, reliving emotional situations, forgetful mental drifting, fantasies, sexual feelings and images, food, and musical tunes. They often seemed so trivial that she would say to herself, This thought interrupted peaceful attentiveness for that?! After a couple months of inventorying, she decided the most useful feedback would be just to count how many thoughts occur while sitting.

            Over the following years, she tried several ways to do this. Using a set of prayer beads, advancing one bead with every thought, worked well for a long time. She devised a way to count up to a hundred on her fingers. Finally, the best and least intrusive gauge of progress appeared to be actual success in keeping the mind thought-free. But when she was still a beginner and a thought was occurring more than once a minute, keeping count and watching the score slowly decrease was most useful, and as much fun, in its own way, as solving puzzles, her favorite hobby.

            There are advantages to counting thoughts: in addition to providing information about which strategies work and which don’t, it forces you to pay close attention to what the mind is doing. It makes you accountable, and increases motivation. Without a reminder to maintain focus, Jem found she tended to become lax, allowing thoughts to do what they naturally did when unmonitored. A strictly accurate count is not important. The point is to attain a fairly consistent method for determining the extent to which the mind, when unoccupied with a task, is unpreventably engaged in making habitual, indeed compulsive, thoughts.

The zone game: focused practice

As months went on, Jem felt the accuracy of the Enlightenment philosopher who maintained that “The brain produces thought as the liver produces bile.” But she became increasingly certain that this was the case only for an untrained mind, and that we are as capable of gaining control over unruly thoughts as a child is of learning to walk. When she managed to remain attentive, and free of distracting daydreams or thoughts for a while, the image appeared of leaving a busy, noisy lobby, and entering a garden. The feeling of being in the garden was that of being in the zone, the state athletes describe when performing at their peak. Meditating became a game, which she thought of as “the zone game”; and once she had a goal and a way to measure progress, she never again felt like skipping a day. There are two different kinds of zone game: one similar to meditation, the other played during daily activity.

To play the first kind, take one breath that is thought-free. It doesn’t have to be perfectly thought-free, just acceptably so for you at this time. Then continue in that mode of awareness. That’s all there is to it.

            Find a quiet place where you will be minimally disturbed for however long you want to play. Take a couple full breaths before beginning, relaxing body and mind. While elimination of intrusive thoughts is the goal, even being able to continuously interrupt intrusive thought is good.

Focus and concentration. There is nothing to the game other than

  1. finding the right spot to focus on;
  2. maintaining unfaltering concentration on the spot; and
  3. returning to focus after realizing attention has strayed.

Attention focuses on the mind, seeking awareness itself – including faint, only partly-conscious feelings and images that disappear too quickly to be observed. These are sought out like precious gems. Instead of allowing them to vanish before any of their features can be noted, they are grasped and examined. Attention is learning to look in a place it has never looked before, and at objects the likes of which it has never noticed before. The right spot of focus, ultimately, is Home.

Aids to success

The ‘good-enough’ principle. A focus that seems acceptable is all you need. It doesn’t need to be perfect. As you progress, you will undoubtedly develop a better focus, and better concentration. Until then, good enough is good enough.
Never stop refocusing. You may feel you are performing so poorly that it is not worth trying. Do not give in to that temptation. Doing your best is fine. Keep the mental monitor active, no matter what.
Never get discouraged. You can do this, and along the way your life will become far richer, more in touch with the world around and within. You are no longer creating thoughts with ‘me’ as subject, versus ‘world’ as object.
Caught by thought. Don’t attend to the content of thought as it goes on and on, but to the flash of its first appearance. To awareness before it is turned into a thought.

Concentration must be unwavering, rapt, always here now. In order to do this, it will help greatly to enter into the world of primary thought.
Ask, What thought will appear next? By doing so, you are reminding yourself to be watchful, and the next thought will not occur as soon as it otherwise would.
Follow the breath until you reach silence; then let it go, remaining with silence.
Until the zone becomes the default mental mode, you can remind yourself to stay there. That is not an intrusive thought.
Thoughts popping up and crossing through the mind are not a problem. Following them is the problem.

The greater the space between thoughts, the more the tangled reality you have created dissolves, allowing a new picture to form. In the space between thoughts, you perceive deeper thoughts, responding more closely to your deeper being. The default mental mode changes from unattentive wandering to unwandering attention. You win the zone game when you keep from getting caught by thought for one hour, overcoming the control that intrusive, compulsive thinking has over you. But the path leads on. You really win when you find Home.

As Jem grew more familiar with the spontaneous productions of the mind, it occurred to her that they appeared first as pure perceptions, images that burst forth and disappeared before she could make out their content. All she was aware of was that something had flashed through the mind. She called it undertalk: like murmuring background conversation of other groups at a large gathering. It was a long time before she was ready to enter this dimension of consciousness and perceive its manifold nature.

            She had never noticed these minithoughts, because they were so fleeting and seemed irrelevant to practical life. But it now occurred to her that the thoughts she was familiar with, and the objects of the material world, might be constructed from these primary perceptions that flashed through the mind too fast for conscious awareness, shaping secondary thought according to expectations, and what the external senses were capable of perceiving.

            The forms and structures of the practical, material world are abstracted and conceptualized from the limitless potential of the world, made to fit the needs and desires of a material entity. The following chart describes the two stages of thought: awareness, and its appendage.

Interior – becoming the perceptionExterior – observing and manipulating the perception
Instantaneous. A sudden flash of understandingExtends in time. Planning, thinking things through
Direct perception, unmediated by conceptPerception translated into words, concepts, mental scenarios
The source of thoughtThe content of thought
Little involved with the practical, socially-consensus material worldAlmost entirely concerned with the practical, socially-consensus, material world
Fluid sense of identityStrong sense of separation from that which is external to the organism
External forms perceived as an interpretation of awarenessCommonsense realism
Attention is trained, intentional, and activeAttention is untrained and often not active
Reality includes the extrasensory, nonconceptual and nonmeasurableReality is restricted to the sensory, conceptual, and measurable
Always newHabitual, repetitive
Complete and integratedPartial abstraction from the whole, little integrated

We work to make and build up secondary thought. Awareness simply appears.

            Thought has a valuable place in the practical, material world. However, the practical, material world is not fundamental reality. It is dependent on awareness. Thought is not the only type of perception. It has all the shortcomings of any language. Language is an attempt, often misleading, to separate out particular parts of the universe, to conceptualize an experience that is beyond conceptualization.

The Spot of focus

Jem soon learned that the task became easier if she had a particular place to focus on. At first, she was content to focus on stopping thoughts – that is, stopping inner speech, fantasies (often based on strong emotions), and mindless mental drift, which hijack attention so that we follow them.

            But before long, she realized that it was more productive to focus on what she was trying to achieve rather than trying to prevent. Just as with counting thoughts, she progressively found better spots on which to focus attention.

            It occurred to hir that it was better to keep attention on the exact spot, or the exact feeling, where thoughts percolated up from a region below conscious awareness. Later, she was to question this. Mindfulness is mindful of the mind itself. Attention must be right on top of that spot, in contact with it. It must not let go even for an instant, or habitual thoughts will rush in. A small but uninterrupted effort is necessary in order to keep attention on the spot. Finally, Jem realized that attention becomes one with the Spot of focus, and no longer a witness to it.

            The spot of focus is a sort of seed, pregnant with a world beyond thought. By finding and focusing on this spot, we nurture the seed. It will sprout and open up a new dimension of reality, beyond the world of concepts and thoughts, beyond the world of interpretation of experience, of living inattentively and only awakening when a problem or a task appears –  it is something unknown.

            When she centered attention on the Spot, it felt to Jem as if attention is balancing in the air, without falling into thought. She also mentally saw a bare field whose surface was the boundary between submerged, unconscious (at first) pure perception, and its springing forth into thought. Once a thought bursts into being, it quickly races down a rut, well-worn by many previous thoughts, until wearing itself out, or being stopped by another, newer discursive thought. Such weeds can’t burst forth if attention is vigilant. When focus is unmoving, the mind is not distracted or inattentive. It begins to perceive the primary intuitions that are so much quicker than ordinary awareness can register. These can be called threshold mental events, or limina, as they are the passageway to the perceptions from which beings create the material world they live in.

The threshold images, or limina

Within the silence of a focused, attentive mind we begin to perceive the vast realm of primary intuition, or primary messages from the world.

            Now is the time to begin to disentangle these thought-flashes from within the thick blanket of silence. They do not enter through the five senses, so do not attend to what the senses are conveying. These limina are difficult to spot because they pass so quickly through the mind, and because their content is so different from the everyday, practical, material, socially-consensus world. Furthermore, you have not yet learned where to turn the mind to perceive them, nor how to do so. The inner sense or senses are still unopened.

            The threshold lies on the far side of the thought that carries attention away. Passing through, one enters the area in which liminal events live, unfolded. Or is it that, by simply letting go of all mental control (as when we fall into sleep), these images and scenes appear?

Making notes

After a little over a year of playing the zone game, Jem felt that she should write down the frequent insights that appeared while doing so. They were gifts given for a purpose, and constituted the record of her journey to the land beyond thought. Writing them down never felt like an intrusion into peaceful concentration. After all, she was still not concentrating long enough so that stopping to make note of a helpful insight could actually interfere with it. And she was certain that valuable insights would otherwise be lost forever. It seemed that by preserving these insights, a portrait of her developing psyche was forming, as she made the journey to freedom from the mind-forged manacles.

            The inner world really is a world, as real as the external material one. She came to believe that self-control of the mind was just as important to being human as walking upright is, or toolmaking, or symbolic speech. This fourth great accomplishment has taken far longer to achieve because it is far more difficult than the others.

The zone game in daily activity

Primarily, if not exclusively, success in maintaining focused awareness in everyday life means that you are aware and attentive without conceptualizing, without mental drift, without substituting conceptions for perceptions. There is no extra layer of interpretation between you and what you experience. Thought is not necessary for most of our actions  – not even for engaging in an intelligent conversation. The proper words will appear without your having to think about them, if you are fully present.

            The soul’s need for awareness, union, and ever-finer distinctions works upon the material realm, creating a material body as its tool, a channel for satisfying that necessity. The body dies, but our true identity is the nonmaterial consciousness striving for more holistic awareness and union, together with the discovery of ever smaller parts. The material world is good in itself, a wondrous realm. But it is no more than one particular mode of reality.

Jem realized that all things are constantly communicating, although she was invariably too wrapped up with her usually unimportant personal concerns to notice. In order to receive their messages, it is necessary to become a sensitive receiver. This requires being attentive, and undistracted by thoughts – during daily activity and not just while zoning. She would never become a clear channel free of distortion until she could perceive the world without translating it into conceptual terms. Even more important is to perceive the messages coming from each thing.

            The material world began to appear to her as the senses’ interpretation of a protean reality that could be experienced in countless different ways. Just as in near-death experiences, beings at the far end of the tunnel are often said to communicate telepathically, without words, humans are meant to go beyond the relatively crude medium of words to a more profound and sensitive mode of communication – with all beings.

SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE. The fewer distractions, and the less pressing they are, the more space you allow for the embryonic new ability to come forth. Minimize involvements and responsibilities in the practical, material world. How can we achieve integrated wholeness if we are completely occupied by a welter of relatively trivial concerns in the minor realm, and ignorant of our actual center?

            Our primary world is the psyche, which uses the material world for its purposes. The demands of material survival, and the desires of the body, are so great that we become lost in the material realm, and forget our true home. Eliminate those things that are easy to eliminate first: time wasters and inattentive drifting throughout the day. Then, all external concerns not necessary for fundamentally nonmaterial beings, whose purpose is to become more fully aware of the messages we are receiving and transmitting.

            The way to grasp this original perception is by ending the mental distraction caused by unmonitored, intrusive thoughts, fantasies, mental drift, and sleepwaking – being mentally asleep while physically awake. Stay attentive at all times without being drawn into narrowed focus more than is necessary. Learn to return to direct, unfiltered perception as soon as possible. Use transitions between activities to return to pure awareness. Always wide awake and watchful, do not just go from one thing to the next: create space between activities as well as between thoughts. Sit and simply be present with the world.

You can play this game every moment of your life. Keep attention focused on the world without sleepwaking – drifting into daydream, inattentiveness, or getting caught by the mental associations attached to events or objects. Prepare. Have a plan.

Preparations. Before leaving home, center with your intent, reminding yourself of the goal and the desired mindset.
As much as possible, do not hurry. Beyond haste lies the key, in adequate space. As much as possible, go slow. As much as possible, Stop.

Maintain focus. Have a clear and simple plan, brief enough to repeat as you go through the day, until it becomes second nature, and you are always centered.
Continual recentering. Remind yourself throughout the day to be here now. You can’t do this too often if you want to be here now always. One breath is sufficient.
Everything is communicating, almost always without words or concepts. Receiving the signals requires paying attention, keeping the mind open. Listening. Not preoccupied with your own personal, practical affairs. It requires learning the nonconceptual languages of all beings. Empathy is a good term for this. Become sensitive to the vibes you are picking up, the iridescent feelings that stir as you pass through the world.
Monitor success and progress. Note situations that convey the feeling of a significant connection. Be aware that for a long time, most of these feelings will be related to physical and psychological “needs”.
Note insights. The messages often become apparent after the encounter is ended.
Centering before entering. Before entering a building, or a situation, take a single breath and recall yourself to your purpose.

General aids to keep in mind

The internal world must become as full and interesting as the external world. We must be able to leave the external behind during focused practice. Being a construct from the primary psychic world of nonmaterial consciousness, the external world does not belong in the primary world. It is an appendage, no more than one possible form, and certainly not the most highly evolved one. But at first, this is not how it appears to us material beings.

Keep working on ways to improve ability. E.g., There is nothing you have to think about during the game but primary intuitions. Nothing.
The importance of faith: the knowledge of, and total confidence in – things that are, but are not physically perceptible.
Understanding the messages in dreams is essential for complete human being.
Progress is cumulative. Every effort you make, every advance, no matter how small it seems, brings you closer to the goal.
Remember how deeply fear, love, and seeking the easy path are engrained in all beings.

Simply paying attention to the spontaneous, uninvited productions of the mind, is a valuable awareness. Then, refraining from engaging with them. Next, preventing these secondary thoughts from sprouting, and paying attention to what appears in their absence. Finally, entering the world of primary thoughts.

The Price

Living attentively, in accord with unfiltered reality, rather than following commonsense, practical reality, requires ceasing to live according to the body’s natural inclinations. Most difficult to control are perhaps the assumption that the organism, separate from its context, is all that we are; and temptations to overindulge in food, sex, and thought. The tendency to mentally drift and to cease paying attention, switching over to automatic pilot. The urge to rush from one thing to the next without any thought.

            Self-discipline in every aspect of life is a different way of living. It brings new understanding of who we are, and joys unimaginable to one enslaved to the body and to the mind. We come to know and follow the inner guide ever more wholeheartedly. Perception is awake practically every second, free from former assumptions regarding the nature of self, other beings, and reality. Constant effort is the price of constant awareness.

            Avoid exposure to temptation, and when it first arises, refuse to fan the spark by thinking about or visualizing it. Engaging in some other activity will help distract you till the urge passes – and it will pass. Ultimately, your goals are consciously present at all times. The positive desire for freedom grows, and experiences of the fuller world are so extraordinary that they help you move toward matured human life, maintaining the proper balance between inner and outer. Everything has its legitimate, proper place.

In this way, Jem continued her voyage into the zone. Three years after the man in the café gave her the task, Jem had a dream. She dreamed she had just sat down to zone, and the man appeared in front of her and said, “Can you take one thought-free breath? Can you take two? What does it feel like? You must be able to describe it to me. You must be able to describe clearly and thoroughly what that silence feels like so that another understands. You must show one other human how to achieve that silence.”


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