Friday, November 14, 2014

“Thought as a system” by David Bohm: A book review

David Bohm’s “Thought as a system” begins with a bombshell. He says, “What is the source of all this trouble (that humanity is facing – war, corruption, conflicts etc.)? I’m saying that the source is basically in thought. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems is the source of our problems.” It feels as though Bohm is pulling the rug under our feet. What is wrong with the thought?

Imagine you cross your boss in the office corridor and you see that he is looking particularly unhappy and avoiding eye contact. Then you recollect that he would have seen your email that your teams’ delivery will slip this time as well. Now, it is clear to you that he is really going to take some action this time. You go to your seat and immediately start browsing job market sites. Soon you are convinced that boss is going to fire you. You start sending mails to your close friends looking for help in finding a job. You are not able to focus on your work and you come home worried. A couple of days pass in this state. And then you get a mail from boss for a one-on-one meeting. Boss says, “Why are you looking so tense these days? I strongly suggest you should take some time off. And don’t worry about the slippage. I know how the customer requirements changed last minute. You have done a good job in making sure the schedule doesn’t go out of hand.” And you say to yourself, “Oh! My boss is really not mad at me. I suffered unnecessarily past few days.”

This is an extrapolated version of a short story Bohm narrates in the book. It highlights the role thought plays in altering our perception. The thought “My boss is mad at me” muddles up our perception and we start seeing the world as if it is real. Our actions of browsing job sites, sending resume, not focusing on work result from that. When we persist with incorrect perception in spite of contrary evidence, Bohm calls it “sustained incoherence”. Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against the problem it is producing. In this case, thought doesn’t know that it has imagined that boss is about to fire me and it is struggling to overcome the “firing” problem. Taken to extreme, my behaviour at work might be affected so much that boss might eventually fire me confirming my belief.

Sustained incoherence may result into “seeing” every person from a particular nation or religion or community as a “bad person”. In its milder form, this might result into shouting at your daughter or student. In its amplified form, it may lead to mass killings. A thought such as “I am the greatest” may lead to building a twenty seven storied house for a family of five. More importantly, thought is responsible for significant portion of our suffering in our day-to-day life and incorrect action that flows from it. Bottom line is – thought affects our perception and we don’t even know it.

Why don’t we see that the perception is muddled up by a thought and doesn’t hold real ground? Well, thought is built to resist everything that weakens its role. Thought operates very similar to how a knee-jerk happens. You hit the bone and knee jerks automatically, reflexively. Similarly, you see boss’ frowned face and like a reflex a thought pops up saying he is mad at me. Thought is a system of reflexes all ready to be fired at the press of a button. And what presses the button? Well, it could be a word, an image, an emotion, another thought etc. A thought such as “I am the greatest” or “I am useless” can create a chain reaction that can last a lifetime. The reflexes are continuously being adapted by new thoughts and being strengthened by repetitive thought patterns. Thought as a system of reflexes is constantly creating a huge amount electrochemical smog in which we live and suffer.

What do we do then? Here is how Bohm offers hope. He points out to a bright spot we already possess i.e. our ability to see the relationship between our intention and the movement of our body parts.  It is called proprioception. Proprioception makes us aware that it is my intention that is moving my hand.  On the other hand, the car passing by on the road is not being moved by my intention. Good pianists, dancers, gymnasts have highly developed proprioception at least for some of the body parts. What happens when we lose proprioception? Bohm tells the story of a proprioception impaired woman who got up in the middle of a night screaming and hitting herself. Only when the light was turned on she realized her mistake. It was her own hand that had touched her and she thought it was someone else. Thus proprioception plays a crucial role in our daily movements.

Bohm feels that thought is a close cousin of our body parts. Hence, we should be able to see its movement just like we see the movement of our hand and feet and its relationship to our intent. And we should be able to see how the story the thought is spinning is muddling up our perception. Most of us have lost our ability to see the movement of thought just like the woman who has lost it for the entire body. Can we build the ability of proprioception of thought? If so, how?

Bohm suggests we make a note of “boss is mad at me” kind of repetitive stories that lead to our suffering and identify the buttons which get them started. A button could be a word or an image (say of an ice-cream or french fries) or a thought. In an earlier article I had mentioned one of my buttons – someone cutting the line in which I am waiting for my turn. First thing is to observe how the button press and story spinning happen like a knee-jerk – automatic and reflexive. The next thing is to invoke the word that presses the button voluntarily and see its mechanical reflexive nature starting from your own intent. This helps us drop those stories which are not getting validated e.g. “boss is mad at me and will fire me”. This weakens the reflexes. Eventually, it may reduce the interference of thought substantially leading to a more coherent perception and more meaningful living.

“Thought as a system” is my third David Bohm and it was published in 1992 the year Bohm died. I read "Wholeness & the implicate order" in 1997 and "Science, order & creativity" a couple of years back. “Thought as a system” is clearly my most favourite among the three. It is an edited transcript of a seminar Bohm conducted in 1990 in Ojai, California. It is not a light reading and is in the form of a dialogue. I have a special liking for a dialogue / interview narrative as compared to a single person narrative. Hence, I was able to appreciate it even more. I am thankful to my dad and his friend Harshad Shah for suggesting and making it available to me.

Bohm talks about the worst thing a reader can do with a book like this. He tries to understand the concepts with thought and says, “I got it.” That’s where you lose the game. The concepts get incorporated into the system of reflexes and that adds further fuel to the electrochemical smog producing engine. In Bohm’s words, “Thought can deceive us about anything and everything. There is no limit to its power of deception.” Watch out for the thought-trap if you read the book and even if you don't read the book.

Related articles:

The limitations of thought” - David Bohm explains the basic concepts in the book in this interview by Michael Mendizza done in 1978.

Video coverage of some of the sessions in the 1990 Ojai seminar on which this book is based are available on 
YouTube. Check out Friday evening session and Saturday morning session.

"The Matrix as a system vs thought as a system", compares "The Matrix" from the movie to thought, Jul, 2015

I am thankful to my dad Padmakar & my wife Gauri for giving inputs on the first draft of this article.

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