I have been more and more interested lately in the utility of viewing the capacity of cognition (i.e. thought - including perceptions, memories, planning, overt intention, symbol-creation capabilities, etc.) in a similar way as we view sensations. In his model called the Wheel of Awareness, Dan Siegel basically does this by calling it a "sense" (he considers - allegorically, I imagine - intero-ception as the 6th sense, cognition as the 7th sense, and the impression of the self as a node on an interdependent web of being - a map of "we" - as the 8th sense). Dr. Dan may or may not consider the stream of thought as functioning like an actual sensation of the body, but in this post I am suggesting that there may be some benefit to doing so.
[This post is intended to complement my last post "Presence of Mind, Absence of Mind, the Stream of Thought, and a Word on 'Mindfulness'", and I will be idea-borrowing fairly heavily in this post from some of Dr. Andrew Olendzki's writings, particularly his book "Unlimiting Mind" (which is awesome!).]
Thought as a "Sensation"
Data from the outside (and inside) world received by the sense organs, interpreted by the various sense cortices (and the insula/vagal nerve), and assimilated by conscious awareness; mind-moments (patterned on what's "out there", but organized by the needs and limitations of the observer); snapshots of the condition of the brain multiple times per second; and the stream of conscious thought that emerges as an illusory experience of constant flow - the result of the rapid "flip-pad" motion of those snapshots...
This sequence describes (in a nutshell) what happens in our minds literally at every conceivable moment of thought because of our capacity (proclivity, really) to construct a representational account of reality. This doesn't mean that what we think isn't real, but it does indicate that how we perceive what is real may not be what we assume it is. This is relevant to the present discussion because many of us may make the assumption that cognition is a foundational condition of human beings and that it is wholly separable from the process of sensation-perception. One of the reasons I would argue against this assumption is because, as we search for what is real, we tend to start by trying to find something that is permanent (pretty good place to start, I guess), and the cognitions of the mind seem to be one of the furthest things from that goal. If you have ever sat still and quite to pay attention to the workings of the mind, you will know that it is not an animal that likes to "sit and stay". The proliferative appetite of the thinking mind is insatiable and almost always wandering on the prowl.
As data from our inner and outer worlds are textured by feeling-tone and coagulated into mind-moments that are then filtered through our intentional stances of need, want, and limitation - and the snapshots of our brain down to the microsecond are "cinematographized" into the impression of flowing experience - there just seems like there is no way we can rely on the cognizing brain (or even the ratiocinative processes assumed therein) to be a source of permanent stability and consistency... Reading this may leave one feeling like, "well, shoot. If I can't rely on my own mind to be stable... now what?", but I would claim that realizing this is actually a benefit. When this becomes our new way of conceptualizing the mind's thinking, we can actually feel the freedom of observation; we can become familiar with the thinking mind in a way that alleviates us from feeling the necessity to impulsively intervene with our thoughts. Viewing thought in this way can allow us to sit back and simply witness - much like the ease with which we can sink into, say, the sense of hearing.
The "sense" of thinking is obviously a more complicated mechanism than just hearing a sound, smelling an odor, tasting a flavor, seeing a sights, or feeling a touch-sensation. In fact, the thinking process is partially what brings these outer senses to life! Through practice, however, we can begin to encounter the currents of the racing, rushing, swirling mind or the dense fog of sticky, swarming, obsessive thoughts with a stance of linked proximity and dispassion; in other words, with a sense of equanimity.
Equanimity means something like "evenly-minded". It can also be thought of as "observing what is unfolding in front of you without reaction or interference". I like the latter description because it is nicely counter-balanced against its opposite, grasping. "Grasping" in mental life is experienced when we identify ourselves with the objects of experience: when we think we are our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This seems to be most easily done within our thinking life. It is so easy to be carried away with the onslaught of memories, images, plans, anxieties, visualizations, etc. that sometimes imprison us within our own heads. Adopting a stance of equanimity, however (through thoughtful and practiced introspection), can lead us down a path of greater facility when dealing with the "sense" of thinking. Simply watching. Not with our eyes, but with the attention. Witnessing with equanimity - without interfering by grasping for the fulfillment of expectation - the arising and passing of each data-filled, need-filtered mind-moment as they collect with other mind-moments to construct a flip-chart of lived experience can break us free from the bondage of learned automaticity and over-identification with the elements of experience. As this occurs, and as we interject wisdom into the proximity we find between our observing vantage point and the elements of our experience, we are on our way to developing and maintaining the freedom of choice: what is freedom, after all, if not to be able to choose how we respond to things?
I may seem off topic, but the crux of the above paragraph is this: treating the stream of thought as though it were merely another sense door of experience to be observed in action can result in mental freedom. Freedom to follow; freedom to not-follow; freedom to witness; freedom to choose. And what's great is that there's "proof in the pudding", as they say. Try developing a habit of viewing the contents of the stream of thought as something that arises and passes away as the objects of the physical senses do: you see a sight, it changes; you hear a sound, it decays; you smell an odor, it is replaced by another; you taste a flavor, it dulls and dissipates; you notice a touch-sensation, it transforms or drifts from the spotlight of conscious attention... Each of these phenomena occurs, exists, and slips away - just like every thought you have ever had.
Feeling and Practice
One more element of this possibly-new stance toward the stream of thought has to do with our qualification of the thoughts we experience. Value is assigned to the contents of the thought stream as the thoughts are occurring. Recognizing this co-arising is important because without knowing that it happens leaves us as puppets of our own appraisal system. Things that are experienced are accompanied by feelings of "this is good", "this is bad", "this is neither good nor bad", or shadings in between. I stress the accompaniment aspect of this process because, like the identification of self-as-experience mentioned earlier, feeling-tone is often identified as some essence of the things we experience rather than merely coloring those experiences. This coloring is not inconsequential, however; it conditions the next moment of perceiving, feeling, response-formation, and action. It is thus very important to discern which feeling-tones should be suspended and skillfully examined. The distinction between the contents of the stream of thought and the feeling-tones that color them grants us yet another layer ripe and ready to be peeled back in the process of understanding more fully what is happening to us at any given moment.
As this is practiced, and the experiences we have are seen on an increasingly subtle level, our view of a flowing stream of thought can move to a sequence of mind-moment snapshots, then to a feeling-colored set of mental data, then to the continual transformation of sensation-into-perception, then to... well, then what? Then, we are witnessing ourselves witness ourselves: observing the "place" of the observer - paradoxically, without actor or audience. I'll stop writing there, because, if you've found yourself there, nothing I write can add much...