The Sea of Thoughts

The Sea of Thoughts

 How much more suffering is caused by the thought of death than by death itself.  – Will Durant

By: Håkon Bjørn Due, English Bachelor
Photo: Li Yang

Like most people I’ve spent a great deal of my life being anxious and concerned about all sorts of things. I’ve been ashamed and embarrassed about what has happened in my past. I’ve been nervous and stressed about what I think might happen in the future. I’ve been endlessly worried of what others think of me and of how people talk about me when I’m not around. After arguments and discussions where I’ve felt like I couldn’t get my point across, I’ve continued to argue with people inside my head for hours on end, until I’ve played out every outcome of the discussion where I eventually ‘win’. In the last two years however, I’ve had a great shift in the way I relate to all these difficulties. This text is an account of why I’ve come to believe (with the help and guidance of thinkers like Alan Watts, Wim Hof and Sam Harris) that my relationship to my mind and my thoughts determines the quality of my experience of life.  

In my experience, our thoughts and the way in which we relate to them shape the nature of our experience. Even the character of our physical sensations is in large degree determined by our thoughts and our relationship to them. As a person who practices ice-bathing, this has become abundantly clear to me. The first time I deliberately lowered myself into freezing water, I felt an excruciating pain and discomfort. My whole being was solely intent on getting out of what felt like a pool of a thousand frozen needles. I knew that I wouldn’t die or suffer any significant injury, but this didn’t make the feeling any less gruesome.  

Fast forward two years and I find myself diving head first into water of the same temperature with a body that is relatively similar to the one in use two years prior. But instead of feeling like I’m going to die if I don’t get out of the water immediately, I feel an overwhelming sense of power and vitality. To what do I owe this great change of experience? To some extent, my body has gotten used to the feeling of being immersed in cold water, but the most significant change has happened in my mind; in the way I relate to my thoughts: I have conditioned myself to have positive thoughts and feelings about the sensations that come about when I swim in icy water, partly because I know how good it’s going to make me feel for the rest of the day.  

The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. – Robin Sharma

I dare say that most people who find themselves reading this text will have no wish or intention of learning to enjoy swimming in cold water. But on some level, we are all swimming in a sea of thoughts every single day, and you know as well as I that the water in the sea of thoughts can be quite disagreeable.  The nice thing about ice-bathing is that you can get out of the cold water whenever you want. But from the sea of thoughts, there is no escape. At least not for the living. Most people you will ever meet have no choice but to suffer the fluctuating temperatures of the water they find themselves swimming in.  

This might sound very depressing, but in my own experience I’ve found that there is an alternative to perpetually suffering the shifting temperatures in the sea of thoughts. This alternative is a type of practice which introduces a mode of being that differs greatly from the way in which we normally live our lives and go about our day. It is a practice which reliably and predictably can alter the way we generally feel. I am reluctant in naming this practice, because I fear I will lose the interest and attention of many readers by doing so – readers that might confuse the term best suited to describe what I am talking about with some kind of mystical endeavour or hippie-related pastime.  

The practice I’m talking about is called mindfulness, but we needn’t call it that. We could just as well call it thought-management. There are many ways of practising mindfulness and the word itself can mean very different things to different people. In the interest of keeping this short and sweet, I will not make any efforts to try and categorize the varying practices that the word ‘mindfulness’ might include. Rather, I will try to explain my personal approach to what I think of as ‘mindfulness’.  

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations. It is to pay attention to one’s experience here and now, without trying to get away from, or closer to any of these thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Once you find yourself lost in thought about something beyond the present moment, try to observe the thought itself and gently return the attention to one or several of the factors that make up your present experience: sounds, visual input, thoughts or most commonly, the sensation of breathing. This type of mindfulness is a non-sectarian practice, which means that no one owns it, and you don’t have to believe in anything beyond secular ideas to practise it. It is readily available to anyone who is willing to try it, and while it is easy to learn, gaining mastery of this skill can take a lifetime.  

In my own life, I have no expectation of reaching some permanent state of enlightenment by practicing mindfulness. On this note I’d like to take things back to what I call the Sea of Thoughts. We are all in it, and we are all seeking pleasant temperatures. You might find a nice, warm spot, but the sea is in motion, and sooner or later the temperature will change. And what will you do when that happens? Will you panic, or will you try to accept that the temperatures will keep changing? Will you accept it, keep on swimming and hope that the water might be warmer just around the corner? When I had my first real breakthrough experience with mindfulness, it felt very much like I’d found a way up to the surface of this sea, where I could breathe deeply and calmly observe all the thoughts beneath the surface without judging them or engaging with them in any way. I’m sure everyone reading this has their own way of dealing with their thoughts, but personally I haven’t found any other reliable way of consciously taking a step back from the drama that is playing out in my mind, to realize that it is all just thoughts. The writer Robin Sharma wrote very eloquently in one of his books that “The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” I have a hard time believing that anyone can subdue their mind completely at all times, but maybe we don’t have to if we can learn how to improve our relationship to it. 

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