That’s how it began for me. It was a question that came to me in childhood.
It was sort of a “Who am I?” type of thought. And it occurred to me I was the one who was thinking this thought.
That answered the question.
Who am I?
I am the one who is thinking this thought.
That didn’t seem good enough, even though it seemed to be totally true and the final word on the subject. The reason it didn’t seem good enough was that the thoughts I was thinking were mostly nonsense.
So, it followed that “I am mostly nonsense.”
Given this state of affairs, I sought to improve my “self” by improving my thoughts – or to work on myself by working on my thoughts.
I take the time to point this out because it was a very practical and realistic idea that initiated a study of physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, and even religion. That’s where the relevant texts are. I’m interested in these fields of study because they tell me about who I am.
Is it possible that I am not who is thinking this thought?
Is there a more essential “me” that is not necessarily connected to the thoughts in my mind? It turns out there is. And that is a tremendous relief!
Thinking is constant. Individual thoughts are brief and impermanent.
The impulse to think in this impermanent and endless way is motivated by some sort of restlessness or dissatisfaction with what is present and the craving for something else – something more permanent and satisfying.
This desire is endless; it is the cause of the continuing restlessness and dissatisfaction.
These thoughts can end.
There are ways to put an end to the incessant thinking, craving, restlessness, and dissatisfaction.
Such insights are a common result of meta-thinking – i.e., thinking about thinking. They are encountered in the notes and statements of thinkers from all traditions and are essentially the same thoughts Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, encountered. They are referred to as the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha’s codification of the Four Noble Truths serves as a description of his enlightenment.
Applied to life in general, with thought as its paradigm, they are described in various ways because the original Four Noble Truths are very brief and utilize difficult to translate language-specific words:
(From The Four Noble Truths (thebigview.com)
The First Noble Truth
THE EXISTENCE OF IMPERMANENCE
1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by; we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
The Second Noble Truth
THE ARISING OF SUFFERING BECAUSE OF CRAVING
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardor, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.
The Third Noble Truth
THE CESSATION OF SUFFERING
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.
The Fourth Noble Truth
THE MIDDLE WAY, or THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering – a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely “wandering on the wheel of becoming”, because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.