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The thought “maybe everything is meaningless” might be intolerable. In your experience, it may lead immediately to full-blown nihilism. So you choose not to think it.
It’s hard to choose never to think of something. (“Don’t think of a pink elephant.”) To suppress a thought effectively, you have to recognize warning signs that it’s coming. For instance, there are thoughts that tend to lead you to the one you want to avoid. “Maybe there’s nothing in particular I’m meant do with my life” can lead to “so maybe everything is meaningless” (although it need not). So it’s better not to think that either. And “I don’t really know what I’m meant to do with my life” leads to “maybe nothing,” so better not think that.
Since meaninglessness is so common, a multitude of observations and thoughts could eventually lead you to the wrong conclusion that everything is meaningless. The more often you apply thought suppression, the wider the domains of experience you have to blank.
One tactic for stopping an unwanted train of thought is to apply a counter-thought.1 Among these are thought-terminating clichés.
A cliché is a fixed thought that ends an authentic line of inference. For example: “everyone is put on earth for a reason.” That ends patterns of thinking that might lead to “nothing really has any purpose.” This thought is not something you are likely to come up with yourself; it’s part of the thought soup of our culture. You hear someone “wise” saying it when you are teenager, and take it over as your own. There’s no good reason to believe it, but you accept it originally on authority and then because it makes you feel better.
Here are some more examples:
- There is someone for everyone.
- His time had come, I guess.
- Everything happens for the best.
- Everything is part of the unfolding plan for the universe.
- God works in mysterious ways.
The term “thought-terminating cliché” comes from Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. This book has useful insights into several of the eternalist ploys. He writes:
“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis. In [Chinese Communist] thought reform, for instance, the phrase ‘bourgeois mentality’ is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments. And in addition to their function as interpretive shortcuts, these cliches become what Richard Weaver has called “ultimate terms”: either “god terms,” representative of ultimate good; or “devil terms,” representative of ultimate evil. In thought reform, “progress,” “progressive,” “liberation,” “proletarian standpoints” and “the dialectic of history” fall into the former category; “capitalist,” “imperialist,” “exploiting classes,” and “bourgeois” (mentality, liberalism, morality, superstition, greed) of course fall into the latter. Totalist language then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, ‘the language of nonthought.’”
Punishing bad thoughts
Another tactic is punishing yourself for thinking unwanted thoughts.
Eternalist authorities recommend actively rooting about in your psyche to find bad (“sinful”) thoughts and punish them. These might be labelled as morally bad (so they deserve punishment); but they can be anything that contradicts the stance you are trying to maintain. For eternalism, lack of faith is a sin.
Thought suppression leads to deliberate stupidity.
Thought suppression can be involved in any confused stance. Every confused stance involves not-seeing something about meaning; suppressing thoughts that would lead to that could always help maintain the confusion. However, thought suppression is particularly characteristic of eternalism, because eternalism is particularly simple and stupid.
Thought suppression also leads to a sensation of claustrophobic imprisonment within a limited set of safe thoughts; of timidity in the face of the unfamiliar; and a strangled inability to express oneself.
A fascinating personal account of the harm of thought suppression was posted as a comment on this site.
The antidote is to allow thoughts.
For this, mindfulness meditation may be particularly useful. That mainly consists of non-judgmental awareness of thoughts. Since thoughts are mostly just junk we’ve taken over from our culture, you can regard them as not-particularly-mine. Therefore, they don’t say anything about “me,” which makes them less frightening.
In practicing mindfulness meditation, you discover what you think. This comes as a surprise to everyone!