IV – Chapter

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
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

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
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

Such imaginations relating to will may
or may not be accompanied by audiovisual imaginings and/or verbal thoughts. One
may also, by mock will
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

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

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).

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

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

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.

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

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).

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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