To Think Or Not To Think: That Is Not The Question
Inquiring Deeply Newsletter
As is often said, the mind makes thoughts like water makes waves. So to think or not to think is not the question! The more appropriate question is how we relate to the process of thinking.
In my view, thinking in meditation is not merely the unwanted source of ruminative distraction it is often painted to be. To the contrary, there is transformative opportunity in paying attention to the content of the conversations that take place within our minds during meditation. The word “conversation” is useful in this context because it highlights the fact that thinking itself is a relational process. By paying close attention to inner dialogue, we can discover a great deal about our different “voices” or part-selves and can gain insight into the way we relate to ourselves.
Inner conversation is revealing. We may notice replays of actual conversations we have had with others, showing us what remains unfinished or where we have gotten emotionally snagged. Our minds may host soliloquies or arguments, even fantasize entire interactions with others. Inner conversation, like our communication with others, has many layers, interwoven with emotions and the bodily sense of our symbolized experience.
The themes represented in our mental narratives say a lot about how we “show up” in our interpersonal lives. We have an opportunity to get in touch with the stories we tell ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) about self and other. Our inner dialogues reveal our interpersonal assumptions, the interpretations and projections we tend to superimpose on others when we talk with them.
One important and often neglected dimension of the thinking mind in meditation is awareness of the mind’s relationship to itself. We can begin by noticing the judgments and thoughts that we have about thinking. There is often a bias to view thinking as a kind of stepchild in the inner family. We may implicitly feel shame about the amount of mental band-width devoted to “story-teller mind”.
Apart from the content of our mental narratives, there are also subtle aspects of our inner conversation that can be revealing. Do we feel ourselves to be Speaker? Listener? Neither? Both? Do we create sufficient space around what we say to ourselves to feel into the meaning of our inner conversation? Do we feel pushed around by our minds, driven crazy by our thinking? Do we rely on a kind of “thought police” to stifle our inner voices rather than to kindly investigate them? To the extent that we view our job in meditation as managing and controlling the thinking mind, we may unwittingly enact a power struggle which is a form of self-violence.
It is ultimately the climate of our relationship with ourselves that allows transformative change to come into being. Any thought which we must not think often represents a part of ourselves which has felt rejected, disappointed, frightened, ashamed, or otherwise hurt. Alternatively, when we make space in the mind for the process of thinking— when we can be present with thoughts and bring self-acceptance, compassion, and wisdom to investigating them— that creates the possibility for deep healing.
* For more on this topic, see Ch. 7, “Reflections on Thinking”, in Schuman (2017) INQUIRING DEEPLY https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T