Thinking can seem a sometimes involuntary, mostly random experience, something that just happens as we go about our lives.

Environmental cues occur, input from our extraordinary sensory system demands attention, and thoughts respond. The stimulus can be anything from a minor change in ambient light or temperature to the touch of a breeze or the speech of another person. It can come from our own, internal signals, too, such as hunger or fatigue. Sensory input demands and focuses our thinking; it’s our connection to every other physical thing. And it is pretty involuntary and automatic.

Then there’s the idle and constant replay of past events and future possibilities, the rolling sequence of unintended thoughts that is the “monkey mind” of Buddhist teaching. It’s the reconstructing of memories of earlier events, embarrassments and losses, and the lovely reminiscing about past pleasures, learnings and victories. It’s where we create fictions of our past, and attempt to resolve old, unsettled emotional issues. It’s rewriting the scripts that you lived out earlier in your life. It’s also forecasting future conversations and behaviors, planning events, selecting possible strategies and choices. Sometimes it’s even listening to internal and remembered music.

All these kinds of thoughts run in the background while we handle the prosaic activities of our days, activities that don’t require much focused attention. Focusing our attention requires that we dampen or mute these unintended thoughts, that we allow them to be set aside while we choose thoughts that support our needs or desires.

Researchers tell us there is nothing in the universe as complicated and no computer as powerful as the human brain, with tens of billions of neurons (brain cells) making trillions of connections, all that functioning all the time, even in sleep. The quality of your life is very much tied to your ability to put all this to use, to focus your attention on those thoughts, ideas, concepts and possibilities that support your basic values, your joy, growth and freedom. Doing this by intention is doing art, the art of thought.