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Meditation: It Isn’t What You Think

It is a function of the mind to think; the mind makes thoughts like water makes waves. A clear understanding of the process and function of thinking is helpful in elucidating differences between psychotherapeutic and Buddhist perspectives on the causes of psychological suffering.

One of the first things noticed in mindfulness practice is that thoughts constantly arise in the mind. The simplest thought branches off in many directions in rapid succession, distracting attention away from the present moment of embodied experience, and carrying it off into thoughts of past and future. This quality of subjective experience is often termed “discursive thinking” (papanca, in the language of the Buddhist sutras). As the Buddha described it, it was as if thoughts were like mud continually spun off some great flywheel in the mind. A colloquialism for papanca, based on the way monkeys swing from branch to branch among the trees, is “monkey mind.”

Papanca can be defined in neutral and inclusive terms as the experience of the subjective world elaborating itself in language and concept. Experience is named and then elaborated into a labyrinthine network of concepts. In this circuitous process, concepts condition the continual unfolding of reality. The Buddha described this as a kind of conjurer’s trick, where the mind creates the world through a process of illusion (Nananada, 1971). As one modern writer put it, man’s mind mirrors a universe that mirrors man’s mind (Pearce, 2002).

The recurrent process of discursive thinking is in some ways well described by the term “monkey mind”: the mind feels restless; it rambles and digresses. However, as Buddhist psychology and psychoanalytic theory both recognize, associations in the mind are highly determined events—not random. A network of “causes and conditions” in the mind gives rise to cognitive activities of various kinds.

The underlying intention in mindfulness practice is to not get caught up in papanca in a way that takes attention away from the present moment of embodied experience. As relaxation increases during any particular session of mindfulness practice, the backdrop of proliferating thoughts tends to become more subdued. States of awareness in which the mind is highly focused and less restless can be developed through mindfulness practice.7 Papanca is a function of arousal in the body/mind; the mind can reorganize itself into states that are calm, steady, and quite still. States of concentrated focus—samadhi—can be developed through the practice of Buddhist meditation.

It is important to recognize that discursive thinking has a range of qualities, textures, and energy. For example, deep thinking about something is quite different from “monkey mind.”8 Experientially, we can discern a wide variety of cognitive activities that are subsumed under the term thinking: reasoning, planning, remembering, fantasizing, speculating, judging and evaluating, worrying and ruminating, etc. The mind generates endless ideas about our daily activities, our relationships, our projects, our problems, or any current topic of concern. Generally speaking, it engages a full-time program of problem solving. As it responds to constantly changing inputs, it constructs cognitive models of each particular issue or problem “space,” integrating information from past experience (memory), and generating possible solutions for the future. In this way, potential courses of action are assembled and conscious experience emerges. This sort of problem solving seems to be one of the primary “design functions” of the human mind.

Two important categories of thinking that can be generally distinguished from one another are analytic thinking—“figuring things out”—and “intuition,” in which processes beneath the level of awareness lead to conclusions without the need for conscious reasoning. While this is an important distinction, it would be oversimplifying to say that psychotherapy is analytic while mindfulness practice is intuitive. Psychotherapy is not merely analytic; it involves a great deal of intuitive awareness. Conversely, despite the fact that mindfulness practice is fundamentally about the felt sense of things, there is analytic thinking involved in study and practice of the dharma. In a simile used by the Buddha, concepts can be utilized in a wise way to undermine “unwholesome ideas and views” just as a carpenter may drive out a blunt peg with a sharper one (Nanananda, 1971).

To function smoothly, the body/mind develops strategies to maintain its homeostasis and support coherent behavior in the world of lived experience. These strategies are organized into stable schemas and patterns, the “structures” of ego, self, character, and psychological defense in Western psychology. It is not the purpose of the present discussion to describe these, but simply to state the generally accepted view that the overarching purpose of psychic structure is to regulate stimulation and arousal, including protecting the brain/mind from the dysregulating effect of emotional reactions. This function is both interpersonal and intrapsychic (Siegel, 2012).

In overview, the mind can only respond to experience in one of several fundamental ways: (1) It can initiate action; (2) It can think about experience by representing (“re-presenting”) it in symbolic form and then further elaborating this symbolization (thoughts). Thinking can be verbal—the mind essentially talking to itself in implicit language—and/or mediated by visual or other sensory images; or (3) It can defend against the experience by excluding it from further cognitive processing. This way of thinking about the mind provides a useful context for understanding the role of narrative.

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