2020-09-02 Mindfulness of Thinking (3 of 5) Types of Thinking
3:15PM Sep 2, 2020
With this third talk on mindfulness of thinking, I'll continue to try to lay out the territory of thinking, some of the different aspects of it and components and distinctions within the domain of thinking that can be supportive for meditation practice, mindfulness practice. Because the more we can see distinctions, see difference between different component parts of something, the more there are spaces for freedom, for choice, for non-attachment. And the more that everything's a swirl of just one big thing, abstraction, it's harder to find our freedom with it.
So we're thinking. It's maybe useful to think that there are different layers of thinking. And I've talked a little bit about this last week. Some of the layers are not so useful for meditation, and some are part of meditation. So meditation is not meant to be coming to a mind that doesn't think at all. There can be a very quiet mind, with seemingly no thoughts. But that's not necessarily the purpose of meditation.
For the purposes of meditation, it's useful to shift how we think, and think in ways that are beneficial for meditation. Or in the Buddha's language, he has this wonderful teaching where he doesn't want to categorically say something is right or wrong or something is the thing to do or not to do. What he says is - he has a long list of things to make this point - "If something is unskillful to do, unhelpful to do, unwholesome to do, then don't do it. But if it's skillful and wholesome to do, it's helpful, then do it."
So thinking that leads to greater freedom, to greater calmness, settledness, and peace, please do that thinking, as long as that's useful. But thinking that leads to agitation, to contraction, to alienation even from ourselves, that's not to be done. And so we find our way. We don't have a categorical idea about what thinking is. To begin being curious, "What is this phenomenon of thinking and why of the different aspects of it?"
So the the coarsest layer of thinking I call "discursive thinking." I think it's very common in meditation circles to call it that. Discursive thinking is conversations, telling stories, and playing out scenes, remembering in great detail what happened in the past, imagining what's going to happen in the future, and just being in fantasy - the whole story is a fantasy. To really be absorbed in that world of discursive thought, storytelling mind, conversation mind is often very compelling, so much so that we get alienated from ourselves. We might not think that - or realize that - because we're so identified with the thinking mind. We're so identified with those stories. That that's where we find who we are. We're establishing who we are. We're creating who we are, making up who we are. And it feels very real.
Discursive thinking has its place in life. Is it skillful or unskillful? There are skillful and appropriate ways of discursive thinking. But it is alienating, when done too much. And to leave that world behind, for some people is a bit challenging because of being strongly identified with it. We believe that that's how we establish who we are, we know who we are, we get what we want. or we figure out who we are in relation to other people. Sometimes it tells us wonderful stories that prop us up and make us feel great. And sometimes it tells us terrible stories, and makes us debilitated and depressed.
But to not give so much authority to that. Or to bracket it. Or to put it aside temporarily, and at least in meditation, to experience ourselves in a radically different way. It can be disorienting to make that shift if people have lived most of their lives is in discursive thinking. If you come down layer or so in the mind, there is thinking that is not so discursive. It is still thinking about something, but it's thinking about what's happening in the present moment - but not in ways that are elaborate and taking us away, but rather, in ways that are almost even connecting us to what's happening here. It might be very simple sentences like, "This is a dinner of salad. Here's a salad, and in the salad has tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce and so forth." And it's kind of simple. And it might be, "Oh, this isn't the nicely made," or maybe very simple statements about what is right here in front of us. What's in the direct experience?
Some of that can be questions. "I wonder. My left knee hurts as I'm meditating. And I wonder if maybe I should bring attention to it. So my left knee hurts, maybe I should bring attention to it. Okay, let me do that." It's a very simple kind of thinking. It might be so simple that some people don't recognize it as thinking. It seems like the only thinking is discursive thinking. And this more quiet recognition - wondering, and turning towards the knee - might just feel intuitive. But it does involve cognition, ideas. There have to be ideas, but pain, ideas about the knee, ideas about me practicing, the use of attention, where I put my attention. All those things come into play. I call those 'cognitions' - our form of thinking.
Maybe it's subconscious for some people. As the mind gets quieter and quieter, even the subconscious thinking floats into consciousness. And we see even the very, very subtle things that usually we miss in everyday life. So there is this very quiet, maybe quiet, sentences, and questions, and wonderings, and probing of what's happening here in the present moment, which involves some layer of thinking.
There's another layer of thinking which is recognition This is a fascinating place, which is closer to what I'm talking about today, knowing something. If you step out of the house on a rainy day, you don't have to analyze, "I wonder if it's raining. How would I know if it's raining? I wonder if there are a certain number of raindrops per cubic inch that qualifies as rain? And maybe measure. All this abstraction in order to decide whether it's raining. We don't do that. We just go out and it's raining. We don't have to even think about whether it's raining. We know it is raining.
You go for a walk down the street, and you you know that it's safer to walk on the sidewalk. You know what a sidewalk is, but you're not thinking 'sidewalk.' You're not actively recognizing it, but something inside of you, in fact does recognize sidewalk. In fact, there's a lot of recognition going on all the time, subconsciously, which just arises effortlessly - like the example I gave before of sitting down at a table, and knowing to use a spoon for the soup, or a fork for the salad. This doesn't take any kind of algorithm of thinking, wondering, and analysis, and sitting there for five minutes with mathematical formulas to figure out exactly which is the most efficient way of eating. We just know. There's a knowing that arises.
It's fascinating, and very helpful to meditation, to start learning to recognize the very simple knowing that arises before we start thinking about something. In fact, there are some things we do that we actually start doing before, we think about them. Something knows inside. So for example, when I'm cooking dinner, sometimes I played. Somehow at dinnertime I find over the years delight in this how this works - that I know my way around the kitchen and cooking well enough, that there's something inside that knows when to go to the stove, when to go to the sink, when to reach out for something, and when to start cutting, and go to the refrigerator for the vegetables. There's almost a quiet knowing, a recognition that wells up before I start thinking about it.
It's also possible for me to live in the thinking about world, and it's a fascinating thing to see in the kitchen and cooking that many times it's after the fact. I already know what I should be doing. And then I have simple thoughts about that. Telling myself that I should you go to the refrigerator and get vegetables. I know. I've already decided to do that. There's already that knowing there.
So the simple knowing of the experience in the present moment, that's a whole, that's a much deeper layer. It's more effortless; it's quiet. That's the layer that we're dropping into for mindfulness practice. Mindfulness uses the simple recognition of phenomena. To help that out, people use mental noting, which can feel coarser and more energetic than this quiet knowing I'm talking about. But somehow that noting, simple noting, which is in the mind, the silent mind, like knowing out loud. To get the habit of it, and to stay in the flow of it, and by saying it in the mind - these notes will get into the rhythm of just knowing, knowing, knowing.
As we start being in the mindful knowing more, then it's fascinating to begin discerning, seeing, feeling, and experiencing the difference between what it's like to live in the world of thinking about - and living in the world of this deeper wellspring of knowing that can be here.
And so that's the topic for today: the difference between thinking about something and knowing something. In meditation, we're not trying to get rid of thinking, but we are trying to drop down a layer or two in how we think, so that the thinking supports more and more being present. Being here in a nonreactive way, non judgmental way, just here, without the abstractions that we often live in - often abstractions of self, me myself and mine.
So you might today, in the next 24 hours, give some thought to, or think about the difference between thinking about and directly knowing. You might talk to friends about it. You might journal about it. You might do exercises like cooking, or doing simple things, and see what kind of deeper knowing might precede the world of thinking about what you're doing. Just explore this territory and get to know it better.
Thank you so much, and I'll see you tomorrow.