“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.”
(from The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha)
I would be embarrassed to admit to a majority of the things that I am aware of passing through my mind. Little petty thoughts, jealousies and judgments, far too much trivia. The thoughts I like are fleeting and hard to hold and, by far, the greater portion of what goes on in my mind runs automatically, without any real awareness on my part at all. If, as the Buddha teaches, “we are what we think,” then a large percentage of the time I am a reflection of my baser nature.
I think this saying of the Buddha reflects a fundamental principle of religious understanding--that our subjective reality within us matters as much as the objective reality around us. But more than that, I think it presents a challenge to the idea, championed by Freud, that religion is an infantile wish fulfillment of a longing for protection by a strong and benevolent father. Religion, this line of thinking goes, is a way of taking refuge in a comforting illusion, never growing up, staying a kind of dependent child.
But, far from suggesting dependence, the Buddha’s words are an encouragement to independence and responsibility. “With our thoughts we make the world.” We are, in large part, responsible for the kind of world in which we find ourselves. The religious attitude is not one of resting in the comfort of an illusion. Rather, it is the difficult work of seeking truth by examining the way that we see and understand the world.
I don’t believe that “with our thoughts we make the world,” means that we are responsible for things like disease or natural disasters. I think it means that we are responsible for how we respond to the events of our lives. Do we deepen and grow, becoming more compassionate with others and ourselves? Or do we shrink and atrophy through bitterness and resentment, refusing to give up the role of victim? Personally, I know that my own victimhood is never far from my consciousness.
For me the saying, “we are what we think” is a call to vigilance. When I read this line I feel a heavy weight of responsibility. To me it is a saying that demands our attention to and participation with the world. The way that we see the world is a major factor in determining the quality of the world in which we live.
A similar thought is expressed by Jesus when he says: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matt. 13:12) At first glance, this seems a harsh thing to say. Why should the person with more get more and the person with less get less? It seems more like a parody of present-day economic disparity than deep, spiritual wisdom.
But the point is that what we bring to our encounter with life is important. The quality of our consciousness matters. It is the abundance or scarcity in our own hearts that is the essential thing. In my own experience, I remember things like the awe I’ve felt at the beauty of a simple sunset, or the amazement of feeling truly seen as I gazed silently into a loved one’s eyes. And I have known, in those moments, that I am rich beyond measure. This is the part of me in which abundance and gratitude are active. But there is another part of me in which a kind of narcissistic entitlement reigns. At these moments everything I do have counts as nothing because I am always hungry for more, usually for something like love and attention, admiration and praise.
I know in which of these two worlds I’d rather live. If I could just hold on to that thought.