I’ve read about a scientist who went upstairs to change for a dinner party. When the guests arrived, his wife went looking for him and found fast asleep. He said: “I found myself upstairs, with my tie in my right hand. Assuming I was about to go to bed, I undressed and went to sleep.”I don’t remember who did this, but it could have been just about any famous scientist I know of. In his recent post on spacing out, David Yerle mentions quite a few inventions and adds:
“All of these great ideas happened because somebody was obsessed enough with them to spend every waking hour playing with them in their heads. They didn’t come from being in the moment, but from the opposite: from thinking in the abstract while walking, talking or washing the dishes.”
So how could this be the equivalent of a cardinal sin in mindfulness terms? I don’t think it should be. After all, whatever we think happens right now, just like what we see or smell. However, some kinds of thinking might be more beneficial than others.
In buddhist philosophy, thinking (called mental formation) is one of the five aggregates. This puts thoughts in the same realm as the input from other senses. Maybe the problem doesn’t lie with thinking, but with taking what goes on in our minds so seriously.
“I don’t eat when I work; digestion slows me down.” Sherlock Holmes
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the mindfulness movement, sees our thoughts as overpowering. “They can take our senses along with them whenever they take off,” he says in his book “Full catastrophe living”. If this happens when we’re driving a car, we unwittingly rely on our autopilot. Most of us can still drive effectively while thinking of other things. Who could say this is bad, I wonder? I would argue that without it, we might live in a more mindful way, but probably still in a cave.Meditation
I think the most common misunderstanding about meditation is that you are supposed to stop thinking when you do it. Or try to suppress your thoughts. Kabat-Zinn says:
“Trying to suppress them will only result in greater tension and frustration and more problems, not in calmness and peace.”
Again, the problem is not thinking itself, it’s grasping. Grasping is a buddhist term that is associated with hankering after the things we want and pushing away the things we don’t like. Both are exactly the same. Each time we grasp something, whatever it is has got a firm a hold on us.
What are we thinking?
Martine Batchelor has written a book called: “Let Go.” She identifies some mental habits that are not productive. These are just some of them:
The running commentary that goes on and on in your head. It’s interesting to look at the feeling tone that accompanies it. It can be very harsh and compulsive, Batchelor says.
“I must, they must, it has to be, it cannot happen, they should, he never, she always…”
Be alert to words like fair/unfair, right/wrong and mine. We could play around with the words to change them or identify trigger words that will set off certain familiar patterns of thought. According to Segal, Williams and Teasdale, who developed a mindfulness based therapeutic approach for depression, negative patterns like these play an important part in the thinking of people who suffer from depression. And they can be changed.
Rehearsing and plotting
“Generally it starts with a memory popping up about something somebody did or said that was painful and you start obsessing about it. This actually brings pain from the past info the present.”
After you have hurt and obsessed for a while, you move on to the future and you plot revenge. Since this is all about you and only about you, it’s not a very fruitful pursuit.
“If I win the lottery, then I would be completely happy.”“What if my partner died, I’m sure I couldn’t live with it!”
Judging and Comparing
I know we all do it. Sometimes it’s useful, most times it’s not.
Batchelor doesn’t advise it, unless you find yourself imprisoned. I am not so sure. To me, daydreaming can be as relaxing as watching a film. She does advise meditative creative thinking. You could sit down and concentrate on a subject for half an hour, without dividing your attention. Then let go of it for the rest of the day. If you’re like me, the associating will go on somewhere else in the brain and things might pop up regardless what you’re doing.
I know a lot of creative people who meditate, either this way or the conventional way because it helps them to write, paint or play music. Just letting thoughts go by like a river seems to enhance creativity. Going for a walk might have the same beneficial effect.
It’s just thoughts
I am familiar with obsession, but to go into that would be a whole new post. Same goes for emotions in relation to everything mentioned here. My most important point is that thoughts are just input from the brain. It’s what brains do: they produce thoughts, whether we pay attention to them or not. What we might need to realise is that whatever we think, we still have a choice. Everyone who has tried meditation must be familiar with the urgency of some thoughts.
“I have to write this down; do this now or the world may come to an end!”
It rarely does. And if your life is actually threatened in the here-and-now, you’ll find your thinking is clearer than ever. Trust me.