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Reflections on Thinking

The previous chapters of Inquiring Deeply have provided some primary layers for systematic inquiry into experience. Before going on to explore deeper layers of inquiry into how self and other live in the internal world, it will be important to elaborate a bit about the nature of the thinking mind and how it functions.

The mind is essentially dynamic, always moving and changing. Its rhythms of mental energy comprise a complex musical signature for each person, interwoven with rhythms of mood, reactions to life events, and repetitive melodies that reflect our life narratives and personality.

How the mind creates experience presents an important question that sits at the heart of both psychotherapy and Buddhism. This is a complex question, one with many layers and more than abstract significance: without a clear understanding of the mind, we lack a clear and valid view of what causes suffering; and without understanding the cause of suffering, there can be no clear strategy for alleviating it.

So it is essential to understand “mind” and its functions. Although Buddhist and Western psychologies have important differences, there is common ground too. Both recognize that the mind is involved in constructing the world; both recognize conscious and unconscious components of mind; and both conceive of the mind’s basic functions as sensing, perceiving, thinking, and feeling. Moreover, there is a shared understanding that experience by its very nature is “in” the mind—or is the mind (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1961).1 Many differences between Buddhist and Western psychological ideas follow from the fact that contemporary psychoanalytic views about how the mind functions (as with most other contemporary psychologies) are informed by cognitive neuroscience.2

Dharma practice addresses how experience is held in the mind and the suffering that results. It gives a theoretical account of how the mind gets entangled in the world it creates, with particular reference to mental processes of clinging and resistance. Psychoanalysis addresses some of the same issues but through a very different lens. It gives a theoretical account of internal dynamics and how these tend to get enacted in the outer world.

The human predicament is that we often are not aware of what is going on in our minds until it takes form in who we have become and the situations we find ourselves in. Both mindfulness practice and relational psychotherapy illuminate the role of mental process in the “dance of life” (Moffitt, 2008) and how our individual lives unfold.

This chapter concerns the importance of the thinking mind—both conscious and unconscious—in determining experience. It presents a series of reflections about cognitive organization that blends psychodynamic and Buddhist views.

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