Mind: Working With Thoughts – Dr. Mark MuesseJune 20, 2012
While these posts on Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology that deal with natural attitude and the turn we make to the phenomenological attitude called the phenomenological reduction may seem puzzling to you, they will be especially so if you are unfamiliar with the practice of mindfulness and mediation. So let me insert this here.
This post takes up a lesson from my mindfulness course taught by Professor Mark Muesse – 70% off, go for it. In it you will find a discussion of mind and how to deal with thoughts. I think if you regard this and return to Robert Solokowski’s discussion of Phenomenology you will see some obvious connections. If Muesse is speaking to a daily practice of living, then Sokolowski is preparing a mindset for the practice of philosophy. Where Muesse is helping us to identify which thoughts to entertain and develop and which to observe and release, Sokolowski is informing us which intentionalities to identify and hold in abeyance. Read on and see if you don’t see the similarities…
You may also note that I place mindfulness under the category of prayer, as I believe the practice will strengthen the discipline needed to approach St. Augustine’s idea of “unceasing prayer.”
We may not be able to control particular thoughts, but we can influence the conditioned mind that gives rise to particular thoughts. We can prepare a fertile mental soil that increases the likelihood of germinating wholesome, skillful ideas and decreases the likelihood of growing distracting ones — but such a mind must be tended with a watchful eye. Unwholesome thoughts grow fast and wild and leech vital. nutrients from the thoughts that are conducive to our freedom and happiness.
The Tamed Mind
The mind is a double-edged sword: It is capable of doing us great, benefit as well as great injury. Naturally, we want to cultivate our mental processes in such a way that we maximize the mind’s capacity for doing good and minimize its tendencies for causing suffering. The skills we refine as we develop moment-to-moment awareness in sitting meditation are the same used in shaping the mind to function in more wholesome ways.
As we’ve observed both casually and in formal meditation, the untamed mind tends to operate in a rather haphazard way, bounding from thought to thought with little or no apparent prompting or direction. The mind seems to have a mind of its own. Thus, it might appear that our thoughts are thoroughly beyond our control — that we have no choice about the kinds of things that drift across our minds.
Although thoughts may seem to come out of the blue, they are, in fact, conditioned by previous patterns of thought. The thoughts that our mind produces now have been shaped by its history of thinking.
Recent neuro-scientific research has shown that routine patterns of thought make incremental but substantial changes in the way the brain is structured and the way the mind functions. These structural alterations make the brain more effective at doing what it is asked to do.
If we habitually think in certain ways, the mind becomes more adept at those patterns of thought. Thus, as the concept of conditioning suggests, wholesome thoughts create a propensity for more wholesome thoughts, and unwholesome thoughts predispose the mind to produce more unwholesome thoughts.
Fortunately, we can use this dynamic principle to our advantage. While we may not be in conscious control of each and every thought, meditation practice shows us that we can choose which thoughts to entertain and develop and which to observe and release. In this manner, we can influence the kinds of thoughts we are likely to produce in the future.
In the meditation practices we’ve discussed so far, our practice of releasing thoughts has been indiscriminate. We’ve been training the mind to drop any thought as soon as we become aware of it, without regard to its content or quality. The purpose of this particular practice is to reinforce our ability to focus and be attentive.
When we have become sufficiently proficient at using these techniques, we can add another component to the practice that will enable us to manage our thinking more consciously. In this new method, we will endeavor not only to become aware of thoughts as they arise, but also to identify the kind of thoughts we are having. Once identified, we can make conscious choices about how we will handle them.
The Unskilled Mind
Because of our conditioning, the great majority of our thoughts are not conducive to our well-being. In the mindless state, our thoughts can be highly critical of others — and of ourselves. When you attend carefully to the quality of your thoughts, you might easily conclude that most of them serve little constructive purpose in our lives.
Because of the mind’s overproduction of unwholesome thou; it redounds to our benefit to be able to respond appropriately immediately when such thoughts arise. Doing this, of course, requires sharp attention and the capacity to discern wholes from unwholesome thoughts.
Unfortunately, the unskilled mind finds this difficult to do. Just as the untrained mind has difficulty even knowing when it is absorbed in thought, it finds it hard to know when a thought is edifying or corrosive. Often, the undisciplined mind even fails to appreciate the importance of this distinction.
The mindfulness tradition offers very specific ways of identifying harmful thoughts and enables us to see why they are problematic; according to this tradition, an unwholesome thought is one that is not conducive to freedom and happiness but, rather, promotes suffering. Conversely, wholesome thoughts diminish suffering and foster happiness and freedom.
Unwholesome thoughts may be recognized by certain telltale traits. Specifically, unwholesome thoughts — which we can also call unskillful thoughts — are connected to selfish desire, hatred, or delusion.
Thoughts associated with selfish desire are predicated on our voracious appetite for pleasure. An unwholesome thought of this sort may prompt us to act or speak in a way that provides us with momentary gratification.
Whereas thoughts based on selfish desire draw us toward an act that we believe will give us pleasure, thoughts associated with hatred repel us from people or situations we think will cause us pain or make us feel uncomfortable.
Deluded thoughts are at odds with reality and result from our failure to see ourselves and the world as they really are. On the basis of delusion, we can generate grandiose thoughts about our own importance or our own worthlessness, or we can somehow come to believe that we are immune to the vicissitudes to which everyone else is subject.
It requires skill, of course, to recognize these unskillful thoughts, and ultimately, it takes knowing ourselves very well — the kind of self-knowledge that comes only with ruthless honesty and dispassionate observation.
To give you some practice at identifying unskillful thoughts, try this simple exercise the next time you meditate or sit in the park. Whenever you catch your mind drifting in its usual haphazard way, take a moment to examine the character of the thought that has captured your attention.
The great danger of entertaining any thought that arises from selfish desire, hatred, and delusion is its eventual effects on the shape of our minds. Even the thoughts that remain confined to the interior of our skulls can proliferate, generating habits of thought that form our personality and character.
Attending to Unwholesome Thoughts
The mindfulness tradition offers a variety of very practical ways to assist us in disempowering unwholesome thoughts and relaxing their corrosive effects on the mind. They’re all forms of relinquishment, and they’re all dependent on our ability to recognize an unwholesome thought when it arises.
In some ways, replacement is the simplest and most effective method of disarming a harmful thought. When an unwholesome thought arises, we immediately supplant it with a wholesome one. The Buddha likened this method to the way a woodworker might knock out a coarse peg with a fine one.
This approach is most effective when the unskillful thought is replaced by a skillful one that directly counteracts it. Thoughts based on selfish desire, for example, can be substituted by thoughts about the impermanence of the object of desire. Thoughts grounded in hatred can be replaced with notions of friendliness and compassion. Finally, thoughts founded on delusion can be overcome by thoughts based in reality.
Initially, the technique of replacing thoughts may seem awkward and artificial, but if you act in a certain way over time — even when it doesn’t feel authentic — those actions will eventually begin to feel and be real and genuine.
- Reflecting on Results
We can also contemplate the consequences of the unwholesome thought by reflecting on the results. When unwholesome thoughts arise, we think about the effects of holding these unwise notions. Consider the kind of person you become when you entertain and foster a particular unwholesome thought. If mind shapes our experience, then our thoughts have ineluctable consequences.
Follow the trajectory of an unwholesome thought. It’s not even’ necessary to reflect on the consequences of acting on these thoughts; you can simply think about having your mind packed with such ideas.
The Buddha compares the unwholesome thought to a snake or animal carcass around the neck of a well-dressed person. Such a thought, he argues, is unbecoming to a wise and compassionate human being. When the unskillful thought appears, don’t denounce it; just let it go, reminding yourself that it is not reflection of who you truly are.
Redirecting is simply diverting attention away from the unwholesome thought to something more beneficial. The Buddha compared this technique to averting one’s gaze to avoid staring at certain objects.
In sitting meditation, when the mind has been distracted by thought, we simply escort the attention back to the breath. Thus, our practice of meditation strengthens our ability to employ this technique.
Redirecting attention relies on the impermanence of reality to work. We’re all aware that everything in the world will change and pass away. That thought usually occasions within us a feeling of sadness or melancholy. However, the impermanence of reality can be a source of comfort and happiness when we accept it, and we have to be constantly reminded to accept it.
Redirecting attention helps us to accept the impermanence of the world and to use that fact to our benefit. Thoughts, like everything else, pass away. To maintain a thought, we have to renew it, which is why we have to be reminded of life’s transience. Of course, if we renew the unwholesome thought, it will arise again, at which point we escort our attention elsewhere. Eventually, by redirecting attention, the unwholesome thought will lose its power and fade.
Redirecting attention need not use the breath as its anchor; any wholesome thought or activity can suffice. Far better to keep oneself diligently engaged with wholesome activity lest the straying mind comes to dwell in greed, aversion, and delusion.
Reconstructing involves analyzing the formation of the unskillful thought. In reflecting on results, we contemplate the forward trajectory of an unwholesome thought, considering its consequences for the future. With reconstructing, on the other hand, we examine the antecedents that have given rise to the unwholesome notion.
Through the process of reconstructing, we can begin to examine the assumptions supporting a particular belief. This allows us to see. how unwholesome thoughts can be rooted in untenable assumptions that we make about the things that will make us happy, and it allows us to examine those assumptions more rationally.
When we’ve analyzed the root causes of envy enough times, we come to recognize a peculiar pattern of unskillful thinking that most of us routinely practice. It’s a manner of thought strongly encouraged by our competitive culture.
The mindfulness tradition calls restructuring “comparing mind,” which is the insidious habit of seeing how we measure up to other people. Our culture is obsessed with it and, in a sense, thrives on it.
The foremost disadvantage of comparing mind is the unnecessary suffering it causes: We not only feel bad about ourselves, but we often begin to wish ill upon the person we envy — sometimes to the point where we take steps to realize those wishes.
Whether we judge ourselves favorably or unfavorably, the practice of comparing mind is unwholesome. It causes us harm, expends our precious mental energy, and erodes our relationships with others.
Although it is generally unskillful, there are times when comparing mind can be used skillfully, but doing so is an advanced practice that requires great wisdom. For most of us, however, certainly in the early stages of mindfulness practice, it is a habit that is best acknowledged and then relinquished.