We use language to describe the world in our experience. However, the world in itself is not divided up according to the same lines as the words we use. In our minds, we split the world up into pieces according to the concepts of language.
Our bodies present to our minds a picture of stimulation from the outside world that we can never know in itself. When we think in language, we view the world through language and according to its structure. This means we focus on some things and ignore others. Of course, we also do that without language, as we direct our attention to features of interest. But when we do think in language, we technically think about language and not what it represents.
Thinking is not fundamentally different from not thinking
When we consciously control our minds to focus on certain aspects of experience or form mental pictures, linguistic or other, we expend effort to direct our thinking, but in doing so we ignore other aspects that would be immediately available as experience. This always involves tension. Thinking is an act, which involves choosing some things over others.
However, thinking also influences our actions, and causes us not to notice aspects of our experience that we don’t find relevant. While we could say that conceptual thinking makes us focus on abstractions and generalizations in our mind over direct experience of reality, however this is not the whole picture. Our thoughts are a feature of the world that we experience. Whether we are actively thinking or not, we are still in a sense watching a show about the world.
At any given moment we can either experience a show about the world as our body presents it to us, or we can experience our thoughts, a mental simulation of words stored in our long-term memory. In either case, we experience an event that happens in our body and is given form by it. Both active thinking and simply receiving sensory inputs are things that our bodies do. When we experience the world, we actually experience our bodies from the inside, so to speak.
Active choice or simply going along?
Thinking about the world under consciously controlled thought is strenuous and cannot be constantly maintained. There is necessarily a balance of activity and passivity in our moment-to-moment experience. A lot of our reactions to the world involve simply reflexive actions and going along with our customary responses.
When we need to achieve some result that we prefer over its alternatives, for whatever reason, we have to consciously control our thoughts and actions. The roles in which we participate in society are fundamentally formed around needing to think and do some things and not to think and do others. All societal institutions are involved with this kind of selectivity, and they produce a constant tension from needing to choose some things over others. This defines our social roles.
In order to produce a certain real-world result, we must act based on a picture in our mind – words, memories or directions – that we associate with achieving the result. This is the essence of active choice. Active choice is in contrast to passive desire, or things we simply want or don’t want without any deliberation. However, we often expend active effors to achieve things that we desire, as desires motivate our actions and give meaning to our efforts.
Navigation in the flow of life necessarily involves a balance of action and awareness. How we experience the world, the form we give it in our thoughts, as well as the desires that motivate us to action, are rooted in our bodies. In turn, our bodies for the most part function autonomously, including our minds, and are subject to influences from the outside beyond our control. Carl Jung’s idea that the consciousness is an island amid a sea of the unconscious could be expanded to include that even within our minds, conscious choice is an island amid a sea of simply going along.