There seems to be a lot of confusion about thinking and its relationship to meditation. I remember when I was first learning to meditate in a Zen context as a mere lad of 19. Thinking seemed to have a really bad rap in that context. I won’t blame my teachers for my misconceptions, but I was under the impression that thinking was not a good thing. That was a problem since I was a philosophy major at the time. For that matter, in whatever I have done since, I have had to do a lot of thinking. In fact, it could be said that I have made my living by thinking.
Certainly thinking is not a bad thing. We would be in serious trouble if it were. Being symbol using beings is what presumably separates us from “lower” beings. It has enabled us to become problem solvers who have command over our environment. (On second thought, that may not have been an entirely good thing.)
Sometimes people have the idea that meditation is taking time to reflect and think about their issues. But meditation, at least the form of meditation that I teach, is not mentation, however helpful that may be at times.
Thinking certainly shows up in meditation; in fact, it is pretty much the dominant thing that goes on when we are meditating. In the Mahasi style meditation that I teach, we are supposed to note thinking in all its varieties and to let it go. The noting actually works most of the time, although sometimes we can get trapped in some kind of obsessive train of thought and we have to deal with it in deeper ways. What we are trying to get to is sometimes described as “bare attention,” a mode of awareness that is more sensory than cogitative. It is sensory in that it is an immediate apprehension of its object, whereas thinking is by its nature mediated and so is not in direct contact with the object.
I sometimes illustrate for a client the difference between mediated and immediate apprehension of an object with whatever furniture is handy. I may take a table and start talking about the table, what it is made of, where it was purchased, my experiences with it, how I feel about it and so on. Then I stroke the table with my hand and close my eyes to shut out distractions so I can really feel the table. For me to really feel the table, I have to stop thinking about it since the two modes of apprehension are incompatible. The sensory apprehension itself may not be bare attention, but it is largely free of thinking.
I made a brief list of the adjectives that clients often use to describe their thinking processes. It is not complete, but it will do: racing, repetitive, intrusive, unbidden, obsessive, random, ruminative. These are clearly unwanted forms of thinking, examples of over-thinking. Meditation is a great antidote to over-thinking. However, it is not designed to rid us of thinking altogether. Remember we need to think, but we don’t need to think while meditating. When we meditate, we begin to be able to let go of thinking. We focus on the breath and then acknowledge whatever else shows up briefly and let it go. As we do so we gain a form of control that is not one of exclusion but one of awareness of whatever is happening at the present moment. We learn to focus and concentrate. And, guess what, when we are not meditating, we concentrate better and are not subject as much to the kinds of unwanted over-thinking to which we were formerly disposed. So when we need to think, when it is intentional and directed, we can do so. Meditation, which is not a form of thinking, is an aid to thinking in this positive sense.