Everything great and inspiring and true, everything which has forwarded the evolution of humanity, had to begin with an event in consciousness — a thought. The Eiffel Tower, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the iPhone… everything we can reference as great in any dimension had to be preceded by an event in someone’s mind.
Everyone can recognize a picture of the Eiffel Tower. It was an engineering marvel at the time, unprecedented in architecture and design. It has been duplicated and copied countless times since. But the original in Paris was not a copy of anything: it was an example of Radical Brilliance. Of course, before work could begin on the tower, it was necessary to have detailed engineering plans. Those plans were drawn up by Gustave Eiffel and his colleagues. Prior to the detailed plans, Monsieur Eiffel created rough sketches in his notebook. Prior to those sketches, he was able to visualize — to imagine — the tower in his mind. Because this was not a copy of anything else, his visualization came not from imitation, but from within himself.
Exactly the same is true of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which he composed when he was deaf. Almost everyone can recognize the refrain. In just the same way: before an orchestra could play the music, it was written as a score. Before the notes were written onto the paper in Vienna in 1823, the Maestro had to hear the refrain in his mind. But he was not remembering something he had heard before. It was an event in consciousness that had no precedent.
Not every event in consciousness creates the Eiffel Tower, or a great symphony, or the icon-based system on the Macintosh computer. Research done at the Laboratory for Neuro-Imaging at the University of Southern California estimates that we each have approximately 48 thoughts per minute. That’s about 2880 thoughts per hour — 70,000 thoughts a day — if we assume, as they do, that these events in consciousness continue in some way during sleep. With 7 billion people on the planet, it means that 483,840 billion thoughts are being generated every day. 176,601 trillion events in human consciousness happen every year. How many of those thoughts would you imagine turn into radically brilliant, life-changing ideas? How many become great music, cutting-edge technology, great art or architecture? How many of those events in consciousness eradicate suffering or contribute to our shared evolution? Obviously, the answer is very, very few. When I have asked participants in seminars this question, people guess that it must be much less than .0001%, or one in a million. Even that is probably hopelessly optimistic. Based on that wild guess, it means that 99.9999% of the thoughts that pass through our minds are actually not original, life-changing, or brilliant.
I want to suggest to you now that there are in fact two kinds of thought. They look very much the same on the surface, in the sense that both kinds of thought could turn into speech, and writing, and action, and visible material results. But the source of each kind of thought is very different.
One kind of thought, infinitely the most common, we could call “recycled thought.” These are thoughts that are imitative, repeated from something which has been heard, or read, and then remembered. For example, during the day, you open up Facebook on your phone and casually scroll through your timeline. You find one of those inspiring quotes: “Before you complain about anything, remember all the blessings in your life.” This kind of statement is often superimposed upon a sunset, or a very, very wrinkly old person’s hand holding a baby’s hand, or a gentleman in a business suit inexplicably jumping off a rock in the desert with his arms outstretched. Later that day, your partner returns home. “How was your day?” you ask. “Terrible,” your partner replies. “I got stuck in traffic this morning on the way to work. I was late for a meeting, and when I got there everyone stared at me. I didn’t get my report in on time and my boss told me my job is on the line. I’ve had a terrible headache, back pain, and then on the way home I got a flat tire.” Just at that moment, you remember the quote you read on Facebook that inspired you so much earlier in the day. With a smile on your face you say to your partner, “Well, honey, before you complain, remember all the blessings in your life.” But now this is not a fresh, alive response to life. It is repackaged, secondhand, borrowed. It was repeated from something you heard before. It is recycled brilliance, and may not necessarily lift your partner’s mood at all.
Most thoughts are like that: repetition of something we have heard before. Every great world religion is composed of the recycled thoughts and statements of its founder. Most education (mercifully, not all) is dedicated to passing on recycled thoughts. So is most philosophy, the majority of art, the way people do business, and the way they create technology. The way we have relationships, the way we parent our children, the way we spend money, and the ways we earn money are all based on accepting and acting on recycled thoughts: beliefs we adopt from someone else and then obediently regurgitate into a predictable life.
At one point, every recycled thought was original, fresh, new, and brilliant. There had to be a time when it was thought for the first time, without a precedent. For example, if you grew up with Christianity as the religion in your family, you probably often heard the phrase “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” These words are from the Sermon on the Mount. How many times do you think they have been repeated and quoted since the King James Bible was printed in 1611? There was a day, back in about 30 A.D., when Jesus was sitting on a hillside with his disciples. Then, quite out of the blue, he started speaking.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“I like it, Josh,” replied Simon. “Keep going…”
Then Jesus threw in another jewel, about mourning.
“Excellent!” said Andrew.
“Awesome!” said James.
“Blessed are the meek,” Jesus went on, feeling encouraged. Now John and Philip perked up too. “Yeah. It’s good. Don’t stop.”
“For they shall inherit the earth.”
“All right!!” they chimed in together.
Jesus continued to challenge the conventional way we think of meekness, mercy, and purity of heart, while all twelve disciples and other friends became increasingly and loudly enthusiastic. So you can imagine, when Jesus got to the bit about the lilies, the crowd went wild. Hollering, clapping, and whistling. This must have been a completely, incomparably, brilliant moment. Probably breathtaking. But once you have heard it repeated hundreds of thousands of times, it gets to be a little dusty. The very repetition kills the brilliance. In just the same way, at the end of his life, Buddha said to his friend and student, Ananda, “Be a light unto yourself.” You might imagine Ananda feeling completely transformed by those words in that moment. But once the phrase is recycled enough times, the power is lost.
Obviously, not all thought is repetition, because there is a moment when an event in consciousness happens for the first time, without any precedent. When a thought is not repeated, or recycled, where did it come from? When I have taught this in Radical Brilliance seminars, we use a diagram to make things clear. You could imagine recycled thoughts as being horizontal, like small bubbles floating on the surface of the pond. One thought causes another, which causes another, which causes another. Each thought is precipitated by a previous thought.
Original thought does not originate on the surface of the pond, but from the depth. We could call it a vertical thought. It starts at the bottom of the pond and bubbles its way up to the surface. Thoughts which originate in this way begin as very, very subtle and fine impulses, but as they bubble up to the surface, they become more vivid and pronounced.