Inquiry and Mindfulness: To Think or Not to Think Is Not the Question
This discussion has highlighted the fact that the mind is never without ongoing processes of cognitive organization. The question is not whether to think or not to think; thoughts arise when and if they do, and regardless of what emerges into conscious awareness, cognitive processing is always occurring. The question, instead, is how to relate to thinking in a way that optimizes the mind’s organization, flow, and balance. This question is fundamental to dharma practice and to meditation. It is also an explicit question in the interpretive frame of inquiring deeply.
The essence of the predicament is this: the effort to not think (a strategy wittingly or unwittingly adopted by many meditators) is essentially suppressive (Siff, 2012). It imposes control where the underlying purpose is to learn to let go of control and to rest in the experience of not-knowing. Trying not to think is counter to the open and receptive state that leads to generative inquiry.
To clarify the comparison between mindfulness meditation and mindfulness in the process of psychotherapy, it may be helpful to distinguish between open awareness meditation practice, on the one hand, and self-reflection, on the other.11 Both are processes of receptive introspective awareness, but they are somewhat different.
In open awareness mindfulness meditation practice, we sit and watch the mind with the simple frame of intention to be mindfully present. Various contents of mind present themselves—sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings—and we try to pay attention to them without getting caught up in them. Attention may be stable or it may not, we may be focused or we may be distracted, but the process is to come back again and again to whatever is arising in the moment. The content of what arises in the mind is less important than the embodied experience of the present moment and the context of open, receptive awareness.
Self-reflective awareness practices in inquiring deeply have a different aim: to become aware of the network of associations connected with some particular problem or area of psychological interest. Maintaining relaxed, receptive attention is conducive to this purpose, but emphasis is placed on noticing the content of experience. This is the primary difference from meditation practice.
The capacity for self-reflective awareness is facilitated by the trait of “psychological mindedness.” Many people who are attracted to meditation are introspective by nature; they seem to be innately psychologically minded and tend to be organized around their inner experience. I have seen many such individuals in my clinical practice; I think of them as “seekers.” For them, there is a two-way street between meditation and psychotherapy: what is discovered in psychotherapy often shows up in meditation practice, and vice versa. This makes the impact of mindfulness conjoined with the impact of psychotherapy; they cannot be neatly compartmentalized.
As the relational field of self-and-other is highlighted in inquiring deeply, psychodynamic and relational awareness are developed in psychotherapy. Each in its own way, both mindfulness practice and psychodynamic awareness enhance the capacity for self-reflection by helping us pay attention to how and what we think. Both generate insight into the way that the mind is organized.
The development of self-reflection and its importance in relational/psychody- namic therapy are explored in the next chapter.