Getting to Know Your Thoughts

Rabbi Itmar Swartz (Author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh)
Link to post from which this post was excerpted.
Link to whole sefer on this topic.

Our Goal – Reaching Our Soul So That We Can Become Close To The Creator

We will attempt to study the power of machshavah (thought) in a person.

“The end of actions is first with thoughts”. First we need to learn what the purpose of this study is before we learn about what it is.

The purpose of learning about our thoughts is not for the sake of developing our thoughts, but it is only a tool to reach a greater purpose – to reach our soul.

There are three parts to the soul – the Nefesh, the Ruach and the Neshamah. To be specific, the Nefesh is located in the liver, the Ruach is in the heart, and the Neshamah, which is the Godly intellect of a person, is located in the brain[1]; the Neshamah is the highest part of our soul. Building up our mind is thus essentially to reveal our Neshamah. The reason why we should want to reveal our Neshamah is because we want to become close to Hashem. The Rambam[2] writes that we are attached to Hashem only through our minds, and that is why we should want to develop our mind.

In short, that is the purpose of this book. We will now, with the help of Hashem, begin to explain the foundations of how we build our power of thought.

Our Thoughts Can Take Us Beyond Our Limits

What are our thoughts? Thoughts are termed by the Sages as “a bird flying in the sky.” A person can be lifted up by his thoughts and fly away from where he is, when he thinks of something that isn’t in front of him.

All of the physical senses – such as smell, hearing, and speech – have limits. The root of all senses is the brain, but the brain itself can go above limits. Thoughts are not limited to any one place or time – a person sits in one place, but his thoughts can go to another place. This is why thoughts are called “a bird that flies in the sky”, because thoughts can fly above all boundaries!

However, the disadvantage to our thoughts is that we can fly too much with them. Our thoughts, if unbalanced, will be unstable and fly around too much, just like birds that can fly wherever they please.

We are referring to the problem of dimyonos – imagination. When a person’s thoughts take him too far, he enters into his imagination. Reb Yisrael Salanter[3] wrote that a person’s imagination roams around to go wherever it pleases – which is detrimental. Our thoughts can take us away to faraway places that we should not go – the imagination. Most people who have not worked on developing their thoughts are wandering around with their mind, and their minds are lacking stability.

When it comes to our abilities to act and talk, most people are able to stay focused. But when it comes to our thoughts, people usually don’t focus and go from one subject to another in their minds, and all this takes places very quickly.

This is why we see that most people who haven’t worked to build their thoughts have a problem in that their heads are wandering around all day with all types of thoughts. They are lacking a stability in their thoughts.

When it comes to our actions, we don’t jump too quickly from one action to another; we stay focused on what we are doing before we start something else. When we talk, we usually do not jump from one kind of conversation to another within three words; we focus on the topic at hand. But when it comes to thoughts, we think many different things in one minute!

This is unlike our actions and our speech, which we usually don’t lose focus on. Of course, our actions and our speech could also use some improvement, but with our thoughts we can see clearly that we are jumping around too much.

If a person goes over what he thought about the entire day, he would discover that he thought about thousands of different things each day. Our thoughts literally fly around like birds in the sky.

Forming A Place In Our Mind To Build Our Thoughts

If we don’t develop our thoughts, they wander to far-away places that we shouldn’t go – places which our mind doesn’t belong in.

It is written (Mishlei 24:3), “With wisdom you shall build a house.” In order to build anything, one needs wisdom. If a person’s thoughts are roaming around, he lacks structure to his mind.

The root of this is really because ever since Adam sinned, the world became mixed up with good and evil, and so our thoughts as well are all mixed up. This affected our thoughts to become shaky and unstable, lacking a certain groundwork to hold it up.

In order to build up our thoughts properly, we need to first build a foundation to lay the ground upon. Just like when you want to build a building you first clear a big space on the ground so you can have a foundation to build it on, so do we need spiritual groundwork in order to build up our thoughts.

This is the root of beginning to build it – we need the ground to build it upon. Without this solid foundation, our thoughts will not last, just like a building that isn’t founded on anything; it will topple over.

If we try (and with the help of Hashem, we should succeed) to build and understand what this groundwork for our thoughts is, then we will be able to have the groundwork to be able to build our thoughts. But before we learn how to actually build our thoughts, first we must know what the groundwork of it is.

The Effect Of Our Thoughts

Before we` build up our thoughts, first we need ground to lay upon its structure. This groundwork we need is essentially to enter a new world. We need to enter a whole different world if we are to begin building our thoughts.

The ground we need to build upon our thoughts with is not from this physical world. Just like if you go to the moon you will find different material there than on the earth, so will we need different material to build our thoughts — a spiritual kind of material. We will explain what this is.

What is this groundwork we will need? People usually think that thoughts aren’t real. We think, let’s say, if we have to do something or not…but what we actually think doesn’t seem to be reality. But the truth is that thoughts are real. How do we see this?

The Sages (Avodah Zarah 20b) warn a person not to think lewd thoughts during the day, because if he thinks such thoughts, he will become contaminated at night. Why does this happen? It is because when he had these thoughts, these thoughts were like reality to him. The reality of these thoughts are revealed at night in his sleep.

Thoughts are reality. In the example of one who thinks about forbidden thoughts, we see this in an evil usage. But the very reality of our thoughts can be either evil or good.

In the case of one who thinks evil, he is laying the “ground” for his thoughts by giving in to his thoughts for an evil desire. The evil thoughts are then built up on this ground, and eventually he will commit evil acts as well from those thoughts. He absorbs the evil thoughts during the day, which lays the groundwork for the building of further evil thoughts.

From a superficial viewpoint, thoughts seem to be intangible. But from an inner viewpoint, which is the truth, there is nothing more clearly felt than a thought.

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