Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

In 1976 Richard Dawkins made the interesting observation that ideas—such as views, fashions, beliefs, practices, theories—behaved like genes: the successful ones survive. Concepts that thrive are not necessarily the benevolent, but simply the ones that spread and adapt well with their host ecosystem: human minds. Thoughts that survive are not always in our best interest; some ideas—selfish, fearful, biased ideations—thrive by engaging the most fearful regions the brain, driving us to distraction via conscious repetition, while activating and tensing our underlying sympathetic nervous system. 

Some concepts, difficult to defend in isolation, endure because they interact well with other views and opinions. For example: ‘there should be no limits to how much an individual can accumulate and consume’ is difficult to defend when examined alone, but it integrates well with other ideas prevalent in capitalist environments, and so it perseveres.

As genes are a set of instructions that determine how an organism will biologically develop and ultimately survive, ideas are instructions for mental and physical behavior. Their most basic and common instruction is simply “keep thinking me and I'll make you safe and secure.” An idea that simply lodges in memory without returning to conscious memory will not last. Successful views and concepts trick us into believing they'll make us invulnerable to loss or pain. While they can't deliver on these promises, they become prevalent by returning again and again to consciousness, replaying and echoing until we feel compelled to express them aloud to others. (Ideas that are rehearsed have a greater the chance of spreading than concepts we mull over only once in awhile.) 

And so thoughts spread from one mind to another, lodging and burrowing, often acting like parasites that consume the health of their host. As a result, when we're in constant contact with idea hosts—other people, television, social media, texting, magazines, etc—it can quite difficult to clear the mind of ideas, for there are always additional ideas being expressed that will try to grab our attention, for that is how they endure. 

From this perspective it can become quite difficult to know just who or what is doing the thinking in our minds: once an idea gets ‘inside the head’ it attracts other ideas that mutually cooperate with it; the ideas attract other ideas, and they proliferate. Our heads quickly fill up with a barrage of opinions that are not our own, simply thoughts we've heard in movies, television programs, Facebook, workplace chats, barbecues, etc. While we like to believe there's an “I” in there picking and choosing our thoughts, its interesting to note how many millions of us walk around with virtually identical views and opinions: is this because we're individuals with selves, creating ‘new ideas’? Or are we more like hosts to ideas that infect and spread—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” being the most accurate cultural analogy.

Once infected, the mind filled with repeating, fearful ideations, there's only one way to kill the parasites: We sit, in meditation, observing each idea arising, though from a different perspective than our mundane, day-to-day mindset, which will give undivided attention to any thought that pops into the mind. In meditation, a good part of our awareness is kept outside of thoughts: we maintain cognizance of the breath, body sensations, or background sounds, and from this vantage can observe how each thought is working on us. From this detached view, we witness how ideas are not ours; they are self-interested cultural units programmed to be repeated and expressed at all costs. 

Unfortunately for these opportunistic ideations, when we relax the body and keep the mind spacious, when we refuse to act out on them or give them additional attention, eventually they begin to starve and wither. Weakened, the most opportunistic and selfish ideas run their course, and a new set of ideas appear: altruistic, compassionate, wise thoughts begin to take their place. Fortunately for us, these ideas don't repeat as ferociously as their predecessors. They leave us enough room in the mind to take in life's rich sensations; not only can we open to life, but we can actually decide which ideas are in the best interest of ourselves and other beings, thus freeing ourselves from the bondage of the selfish, violent, biased thoughts that swirl around us. And so liberation doesn't arrive by not thinking, but rather by selectively hosting skillful thoughts.