The Brain as a Sense Organ

In connection with my post on Writer’s Block, let me add a useful way to think about how your brain works.

It’s common in Buddhism to regard your brain as a sense organ, just like your eyes, ears, etc. This isn’t anything mystic; it’s simply an observation about similarities between thoughts and the five senses.

You only have partial control over your senses. For example, you only have partial control over what you hear. You can listen to specific music, you can avoid places that you expect will be noisy, and so on. Still, you can’t control everything: you hear every sound that reaches your ears. Inevitably, your ears will deliver sensations you don’t expect.

The same applies to the other four conventional senses. You see whatever is in front of your eyes, you smell whatever wafts into your nostrils, and so on. You can try to control your life’s circumstances, but you’ll always end up with surprises.

And the same applies to your brain. Your brain delivers thoughts, just like your eyes deliver visual input. You can partly control your thoughts, but only partly. Inevitably, your brain will serve up thoughts you don’t ask for, and maybe thoughts you don’t want.

We’ve all had the experience of walking down the street and suddenly remembering some embarrassment from long ago. We’ve also found ourselves having inappropriate thoughts, unkind thoughts, prejudiced thoughts, etc. At times like this, I find it useful to consider the brain as a sense organ. Just as our eyes sometimes show us sights we’d rather not see, our brain sometimes serves up thoughts we’d rather not have.

And that’s okay. We don’t have to think about such thoughts as us, any more than the things we see are us. The brain is not our complete identity; it does a lot of stuff without our input.

What matters isn’t some random thought we never asked for, but how we react to the thought. We have a great deal more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts.

Or at least that’s the goal. We sometimes have trouble controlling our actions too―we get caught up in emotion and do things we aren’t happy with. But that’s a topic for another time. (Hint: it’s related to the seven deadly sins.)

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