As a child going shopping with my parents, the shops I liked best were the special tool shops. I recall watching my parents combing through the different sections and shelves to locate the exact tool they needed. Because the number of tools offered in those shops was so large, finding the right tool—the one that would get the job done rather than hold it up—was of great importance. With the passing of time I’ve watched this process occurring in other areas: locating the right doctor for my son from the long list of physicians working in the area, choosing the right area of focus in my university studies, and so on.
Since the same processes, when well defined, can be observed on different scales, we can use them to teach us about ourselves. We can start by examining the functioning of our own minds. When we watch our thoughts we see that they come in an endless stream, with one thought following the other, mostly by association. Since they almost never stop, our mind is blocked or simply overloaded with them, and is unable to attend to the function it was originally designed for: serving the higher Self.
Fortunately this is not always the case, however; there are times, and brief flashes, when we have experienced something different. For some reason, in a moment of joy or surprise or grief or nothing special at all, we have managed to separate ourselves from this cloak of thoughts. The experience is so penetrating that we try to find our way back to that moment. We could not wish it or make an effort to regain it if we had not experienced it before, and this fact gives us the energy to keep trying. How can we create these special moments intentionally, and make them last longer?
'One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.'
`One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT?' thought Alice to herself.
`Of the mushroom,' said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud;
and in a moment it was out of sight.”
Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland
Going back to that endless stream of thought, we can call it the many ‘I’s, because the thoughts revolve in and around ourselves and so often say ‘I’ (I want, I need, I should . . .). The many 'I's in our head make us “grow shorter,” as the caterpillar wisely says, shorter in the meaning of taking us farther away from the instant we are in right now, and this is done simply by taking the place in ourselves where a higher consciousness could exist. Luckily there is the “other side” that makes us grow taller, closer to presence. While we are feeding on the wrong side of the mushroom, one can say, suddenly the desire comes to move to the other side, a desire that can cause something to happen, so that we grow taller and taller, rising above the trees until we can finally see what is around us.
and when I say non-kosher cows, I mean bad thoughts.”
Rabi Nahman of Breslav
Esoteric schools teach us to have good thoughts, thoughts intended to separate our higher Self from the many 'I's. These thoughts are called work 'I's . While the many ‘I’s only perpetuate themselves by generating more thoughts, work ‘I’s have the opposite aim. These “kosher” thoughts help us stop the flow of thought, with the aim of clearing a space in which consciousness can enter. A single work ‘I’, working properly, is selfless and so will create in the moment the needed separation from the many 'I's, like a small army defeating a larger one.
A work ‘I’ is a short word that helps us connect to the moment we are in, to the greater world surrounding our small selves. For example, saying to ourselves Look, when we are walking down the street, can clear away the many thoughts clouding our vision in that moment. Another example is Hear, when we listen to music. The aim of these words is to return us to the moment we are in, and to hold us there until the next work ‘I’ is needed. Now our mind is working in the way it was designed to work, by focusing our attention toward the present.
By observing our 'I's, we learn to distinguish a great difference between the work ‘I’s and the thousand other thoughts that simply happen to us. When we are not aware of ourselves, the many ‘I’s seem very real; however, when we actively direct our attention with a work ‘I’, we are already in a different state, and this state needs to be supported and prolonged.
A work ‘I’ is the right tool given to us to build awareness, allowing us to have a glimpse of the moment, an awakening breath. As we gain experience we can collect a set of these special 'I's that will suit every moment or activity in our daily lives, and we can train ourselves to introduce them when the wish to be present arises. Slowly we fill a tool box that we can carry with us always and everywhere, using the right good tool when needed and laying it aside when its function is complete.
my love the one thing that I cannot think,
for God can be well loved, but he cannot be thought.”
The Cloud of Unknowing