Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.
Often beginners to meditation think of thought as “the enemy.” They want to stop thinking altogether, to “have their minds go blank” (as if the mind would be blank without words running through it). This is a misunderstanding, but it’s a reasonable one, which is no doubt why it’s so common. After all, who isn’t oppressed by the sheer quantity and the nature of their thoughts?
Thought runs wild. It’s relentless, seemingly tireless. Trying to suppress thought is like a crazy game of whack-a-mole. If you try to force a thought out of your mind it pops up behind you.
Thought is obsessive. It grabs hold of a topic and gnaws away at it like a dog worrying a bone. You can take the bone away from the dog a hundred times, but the next time you look the dog’s in action again.
Thought is like water. Try to hold it back and it’ll find a way through. If you try really hard to dam thought back it simply increases in pressure until it bursts through your barriers.
Thought is like lightning over a dry forest. Thought ignites our emotions, sparking envy, doubt, ill will, longing, and fear. And as we try to beat out the flames of one unwanted and destructive emotion sparks fly up to start new fires.
Thought does, undoubtedly, cause us problems.
But thought can also play a useful role in meditation. Thought can be channeled and can become a tool to help our meditation practice go deeper. To take the most obvious examples, in the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice we use thoughts like “May all beings be well, happy, and free from suffering” in order to awaken an attitude of care, kindness, and concern from ourselves and others. In mantra meditation we repeat a phrase that evokes the qualities of the enlightened mind. And it can also be useful to do what the Insight Meditation tradition calls “noting” where we label the sensation, emotion, or process that’s most prominent in our experience. For example we can say “anger, anger” when that emotion is present. Or we can say “pulsing” or “burning” when pain is present. In all these examples thought is consciously used as a way to help the mind develop positive qualities such as lovingkindness, compassion, and mindfulness.
But Lawrence’s quote suggests that thought itself can be a form of meditation. What he’s talking about of course is not the random stream of images and words that so often wells up in the mind. And as he points out he’s not even talking about “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas” — as usually happens when we’re thinking about work, or our schedule, or about politics. Lawrence is talking about something much more profound, which is reaching into the depths of our being and tapping into an inner source of wisdom. He’s talking about learning from life and from self-observation. He’s talking about reflection and contemplation.
So how do we do this? How do we learn to reflect and to contemplate? How do we learn to use the very act of thinking as a form of meditation?
There isn’t room in this short article to fully explore this, but here are a few suggestions.
1. We need to set aside time for reflection and contemplation. Genuine thought, of the kind D. H. Lawrence is praising in his poem, requires a combination of mental stillness and time, and this can’t be achieved in the odd moment of repose in a busy schedule. We need to set aside time for just sitting, or perhaps even better, for walking.
2. We need to cultivate the habit of silence. If we’re always living on the surface of our minds, as we do when we’re engaged non-stop in chatter, we’ll find it hard to go deeper. Real reflection emerges from inner silence. So we need, at least sometimes, to “unplug” ourselves from stimulation — from the TV, the iPod, the newspaper, the radio. And we can look for opportunities to experience silence more profoundly by spending time alone. We need to learn to be comfortable with silence, which is another way of saying that we need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves.
3. We need to adopt an attitude of wonder, which in turn involves letting go of the assumption that we already have the answers. Much of the time we see not-knowing as a sign of failure, as something to be avoided. In fact, admitting that we don’t know, and being comfortable with the discomfort of not-knowing, is the start of wisdom. It’s only when we let go of the assumption that we have all the answers that we’ll look more deeply.
4. We need to be self-critical and “test of statements on the touchstone of consciousness.” Much of the time we’re happy with the first answer that pops into our head when we ask ourselves a question. But “first thought” is not always “best thought.” Our first thoughts are often conventional thoughts, or “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.” They’re still valuable however, because they can act as a springboard to more authentic reflection if we are prepared to question them and to look for their flaws (as well as whatever truths they may contain).
5. Genuine reflection involves “man [i.e. a person of whatever gender] in his wholeness.” Contemplation involves not just discursive thinking (in the head, as it were) but the testing of our thoughts in the heart. The litmus test of genuine reflection is whether it leads ultimately not only to greater understanding, but also to greater happiness and compassion. Now reflection may make us uncomfortable. For example we may come to realize that there’s something profoundly wrong with the way we’re living our lives, and this is something that is bound to promote a sense of unease at the very least. But even with discomfort such as that there is also a sense that we are on the right track. We can feel in our heart that there is something real and true about the conclusions that are welling up into consciousness. And this is the fruit of the genuinely reflective live — the sense of a life well-lived.