What are you thinking?

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.”

By Robert Prummel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0

By Robert Prummel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0

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.

By Paul Hudson from UK [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By Paul Hudson from UK [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D


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:

Inner language

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.”

By Conor Ogle from London, UK (Spin) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By Conor Ogle from London, UK (Spin) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

“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.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in book review, sceptic, science, zen and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What are you thinking?

  1. Warren says:

    I once took a nap on a Sunday afternoon at home waking only to think it was morning when it was actually the late evening. I spent the next hour showering, getting ready for school (I was a high school student at time) ate breakfast all the while my mother watched in silent until I was about to leave for school did she say anything.

    I empathize with the tie man.

  2. David Yerle says:

    Great! I feel your post perfectly compliments mine, by going into the kinds of spacing out that are counter-productive in depth. I agree that obsessing and reminiscing (and especially obsessive reminiscence) can be especially harmful, having done both. Hopefully I’m in a more enlightened state of mind now!
    I also find daydreaming quite relaxing. I don’t think I’d like to give that up…

  3. Excellent! The inner language is a big one, and given how powerful language is (and how it can seem to shape reality/emotions) it can be worth a study all in itself. I also like the attitude to thoughts. Brains produce thoughts, that’s what they do. We don’t try to “not see” or “unsee”, so why do we try to “not think” or “unthink”? In fact, the attempt to do so seems to indicate we are attached to the thoughts. The only non-attached attitude would seem to be to let them be.

    • That’s how I look at it. It makes no sense to unthink or to judge ourselves for thinking. The next step would be to look at that inner language, probably. I also suspect that could flavour reality. Or what we perceive to be reality. 😉 If we add emotions to the mixture, it becomes even more complicated. Thank you for your comment!

  4. rose says:

    I think life is a little like religion -you live it through the prism of who you are,which you can’t change. If one is the meditative type, one tends to think that meditation is a great thing, if you’re more keen on laying down the law,you choose Mormonism or something. Can we really help thinking what we think or feeling what we feel? Dunno.

    • Thank you for your comment. I don’t think we can help what we think or feel, in a sense, because I don’t believe in free will. People do seem to get results in moderating what they think to a certain extent. And what you think obviously influences your emotions. In fact, it looks like it often works the other way round. It’s a complicated process. I’d love to know more about the exact way our brains work!

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