Part IV – Chapter 25

Observe the mechanisms of thought.

It is normal for thoughts to arise during meditation. Look upon your thoughts with a non-judgmental, benevolent attitude, to begin with; you do not want to get into conflicts with them. You want to get to understand thinking, before you can hope to master it.

To the beginner in the art of introspection, thought appears as a long series of obscure mental goings-on, a unitary mental event that zips past almost uncontrollably. Slowly, as one becomes more proficient, one learns to analyze one’s thought processes in various ways.

The realm of what we call “thought” is very broad, much broader than some people realize. In its largest sense, the term refers to any content of consciousness other than apparent direct experiences of matter, mind or self. Thus, it excludes, firstly: purely sensory perceptions; secondly: mental percepts when they are not taken to symbolize or refer to something beyond themselves; and thirdly: intuitions of one’s self and/or its functions.

Notice first the different specific forms of thought. Thoughts may, as commonly supposed, take the form of “verbalizations”, i.e. verbal sentences “inside the head[1]” or spoken out loud to oneself or to other people. But some thoughts take the form of visualizations and (visual memories or imaginations) and the auditory equivalent of that (“auditorizations”, let us call them) – audiovisual mental projections (“perceptualizations” would be an appropriate general term), which may or may not involve words.

Note that concrete memories seem to be the storage of past experiences; whereas concrete imaginations are mental projections about what past, present and/or future might be, or even fictions without precise temporal location.

Moreover, what we commonly call “thought” is often more precisely acts of will, or velleities (incipient acts of will), or intentions (to will), or valuations. We know most of our personal acts of will, as well as velleities, intentions and valuations, directly through intuition (or apperception). This self-knowledge may be memorized; and in turn, these intuitive memories may be used as elements in imagination.

Such imaginations relating to will may or may not be accompanied by audiovisual imaginings and/or verbal thoughts. One may also, by mock will[2] within oneself (with or without perceptualizations and/or verbalizations), mentally project will, velleity, intention or valuation on oneself or other people (for example, I may thus imagine the girl I desire desiring me back).

Many of our thoughts are or involve value judgments, which may be positively or negatively inclined. These thoughts constitute our affections and appetites, and often generate emotional responses, in one’s body and/or mind. These emotional charges may in turn generate additional thoughts on the same issue, and increase or decrease our previous valuations. Thoughts may also imagine emotions through words or preverbal intentions, or by audiovisual imaginings (e.g. a woman crying and wailing).

Notice furthermore, the abstract, conceptual domain that we seem to derive from the concrete perceptual (material and mental) and intuitive (self-knowledge) domains. The latter, experiential domains serve as data and springboards for our eventual ratiocinations, comparisons and contrasts, conceptualizations, logical checks, theories, rationalizations, and all such non-experiential aspects of our beliefs.

Thus, all told, there are many different formal building blocks to what we commonly refer to as our thoughts. One “thought” may involve various combinations of these different formal elements.

Note in particular that an apparently purely verbal thought involves mental projection of word-sounds (or very rarely, the visual images of written words) and the intentions that give meaning to these words. Very often, little noticed behind these words, there are additional visual and auditory memories and imaginations, as well as volitional-evaluative events and emotive phenomena, all of which further enrich the verbal elements.

Logicians further analyze verbal thoughts into “logical forms”, with reference to their semantic content. For instance, “X is Y” is a logical form, “X is greater than Y” is another, and so forth. We may also in this context keep in mind grammatical distinctions, like the first person, the second person, etc., or like the past, present or future tenses. Analyses of discourse such as these help clarify and evaluate our thinking procedures.

Logicians, and indeed all thinkers, are also of course concerned with issues of the truth or falsehood of thoughts. It is important in this context to distinguish deductive (analytic) and inductive (synthetic) reasoning. The former can yield truth or falsehood, the latter only probabilities (degrees) of truth or falsehood. Most thinking involves both kinds of reasoning.

But during meditation, we are not all that interested in the epistemological evaluation of all our thoughts, because this would only perpetuate and multiply thought. We are in a receptive posture of observation, rather than active posture of research. We must of course be honest in our observation, i.e. not distort or evade the information at hand, to ensure it is truthful. But we should with discipline leave more complex cogitation concerning the data to another time.

All that is one level of analysis of the phenomenon of thinking – identifying its elements. These elements are usually put together in different compounds, or scenarios. For example: I imagine a scene where I tell my friend: “sing me a song!” and she answers: “no, I intend to go home”. Note that all this is going on in my head – my friend has nothing to do with it (though she, if she at all exists, may in the past have behaved in a similar manner).

The elements in this scenario are: “I imagine [the whole scene]”; “I imagine myself saying something (‘sing etc.’) to someone”; “I imagine that someone having an intention (‘to go home’)”; “I imagine that someone answering verbally”. Each of these elements is in itself a thought of some form, and the elements come together in the overall scenario, not necessarily by mere addition (like a series, like beads in a necklace), but often nested (imbedded one inside the other).[3]

We each often reenact the same scenario in recurring patterns of thought. For example, a loser in matters of love may always imagine a girl he would like to accost rejecting him. Yet another way to analyze thought is thematically. This refers to the overriding driving force behind the thought process. One chain of thought is moved by lust; another by avarice (financial greed); another by self-justification; another by family attachments; another by scientific curiosity; another by piety; and so forth.

It is important to distinguish these various aspects of thought. When a thought arises during meditation, if you are instantly able to thus analyze its structure and understand its causes, it ceases to absorb you so much. Its underlying foolishness and futility are made apparent. You become relatively immune to the hypnotic power of your thoughts and you can disengage from them more readily.

Pursuing further, we have to distinguish two aspects of what we call mind: the volitional aspects and the unconscious-involuntary aspects. The latter could (for our purposes here) be called ‘the automatic mind’. This ‘mind’ seems to have ‘a will of its own’, in opposition to our own will. However, this is only a figure of speech, for the automatic mind has no volition – it is merely a theoretical construct, which we figuratively hold ‘responsible’ for our unconscious drives, involuntary acts, etc.

The memories and verbal thoughts that arise and go on (in some direction, for some time) seemingly spontaneously and automatically, in meditation (and in the rest of living), are productions of the brain for which we are not necessarily directly to blame. But they are not usually as random and haphazard as they appear – no, they are driven by our desires, dislikes, hopes, fears, etc. And these affections and appetites are not mere happenstance, but are consequences of the soul (the self) over time having certain preferences and making certain choices in action.

That is, they imply volitions of sorts, at one time or another, if only on a very low level of consciousness. Once our at least indirect personal responsibility for seemingly random thoughts is realized, it becomes easier to overcome them in meditation. They become more intimate and tractable. It is important to observe how “random” thoughts arise during meditation:

I may notice an emotional charge affecting me. I realize I am suffering a little. I can (or assume I can) trace that feeling to something someone said or did – e.g. they made some philosophically erroneous remark. I then try to alleviate this suffering of mine, by preparing or planning to prepare some countermeasure – e.g. the counterarguments I will offer to correct the error. This gets me thinking about different options.

In such ways, thought is driven on and on. We get caught up in it, trying to redress wrongs or improve our situation in one way or another. This is “samsara”, the entanglement and unending grind of our minds. It is better to disregard suffering or fancies, and move on. It is better to act than to react. It is best to be content, unafraid and satisfied. Thought, however random it seems, always has underlying causes.

Meditative awareness of one’s thoughts can be described as mentally placing oneself “above” one’s own thought currents, so that one is watching them with some detachment as they proceed. In this impassive spectator’s posture, thoughts appear as mere mental events in which one is not too involved – as relatively objective flutters of activity. This is sometimes called “self-awareness” (inaccurately, in my view).

We must however distinguish simultaneous thought-awareness from ex post facto awareness of one’s thoughts. The former is the more difficult to attain, though it becomes easier as one’s mind gets calmer. Most thought-awareness is after the fact; it is really awareness of the final echoes and the memories of thoughts, rather than awareness of the thoughts themselves. Simultaneous awareness is strong enough to transcend thoughts in full bloom, whereas retrospective awareness allows us to get feebly caught up in them for a while.

Note that meditation itself calls forth some initial thought. Meditation instructions are thoughts, so are philosophical observations and reflections about meditation. Such thoughts are sometimes useful and sometimes even necessary to meditation – but one must be able to eventually stop indulging them, too, otherwise one misses the whole point of the exercise. One can instead direct one’s course through wordless intentions and volitions.

When I give myself instructions in meditation, like “try counting your breath” or “go back to breath awareness” or again “okay, now let go all techniques” – I am acting like my own guide or guru. This role is at first necessary to regulate one’s meditative activity, and try and reach a favorable state of mind by the shortest, most effective route. Every sitting is different in this respect, so you cannot use a standard roadmap. However, the more often and longer one meditates, the quicker one gets there and can drop off all voluntary discourse.

Meditation is largely an empirical process of self-discovery. One cannot be told the way fully in advance by other people, but must gradually learn it by practice. The methodology is mostly trial and error, though philosophical insights can clarify one’s ways and means as well as goals and ends. Thus, thought is not all bad, but can give us direction, motivation and inspiration. But in excess such thoughts can become impediments, so one should tread them lightly and drop them a.s.a.p.

[1] Or, as people used to say, “in one’s heart”.

[2] Note well that mock will is not mere visual imagination of will, for will is insubstantial, i.e. non-phenomenal (known only by intuition). If I imagine my arm moving, it does not follow that I am imagining that I am moving (by will causing the movement of) my arm. I must either conceptually add on “suppose I am moving it” – or I must, more concretely, by volition produce a representative micro-movement, or faint velleity of movement, or mere intention to move, in my physical arm right now. Such symbolic will, in which a real will stands in for an imagined will, often underlies so-called mental projections about one’s own or other people’s acts of will (into the past, present or future, or without time location).

[3] There is an infinite number of possible scenarios, of very variable complexity and nuance. I imagine X; I imagine myself imagining X. I intend to do X; I think I intended to do X yesterday; I think I will do X tomorrow. I imagine Mr. Y doing activity X; I imagine Mr. Y intending to do X. Etc.

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