papañca

Benefits Before Mastery

Benefits Before Mastery

Mindfulness meditation is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it isn't easy to perform. True mastery might require special talent and a lifetime devotion to the task, and yet a genuine transformation in one's perception of the world is within reach for most of us. Practice is the only thing that will lead to success.

~ Sam Harris

We Will Ourselves Oblivious, We Wake

Dream House, 2002 by Gregory Crewdson

Meditation on Ruin
by Jay Hopler, from Green Squall

It's not the lost lover that brings us to ruin, or the barroom brawl,
           or the con game gone bad, or the beating
Taken in the alleyway. But the lost car keys,
The broken shoelace,
The overcharge at the gas pump
Which we broach without comment — these are the things that 
           eat away at life, these constant vibrations
In the web of the unremarkable.

The death of a father — the death of the mother —
The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive! But the broken
           pair of glasses,
The tear in the trousers,
These begin an ache behind the eyes. 
And it's this ache to which we will ourselves
Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there's a 
crack in the water glass
 —we wake to find ourselves undone. 

Listening is Much More Effective

Derailing My Train of Thought, Thomas Wightman

Papañca, the Thinking Mind Run Amok
by Ajahn Amaro, from "Thinking"

First, it isn’t the case that the mind is inherently thinking all the time. Rather, thinking is a highly conditioned activity. In the teachings, the process is described in this way: We come into contact with things—objects in the world or our own thoughts. Each moment of such contact is accompanied by feeling which is pleasant, painful, or neither. Whatever is being cognized is then named. The Pali word for this is sañña. Most often, it is translated as perception but the English word “sign” comes from the same root as sañña. Sañña is a kind of designation. There is a raw sensing of a stimulus and then our memory moves in and names it. “That is the sound of a dog barking.”

Conceptual thought begins to cluster around that naming. That is, that which we name, we then think about. This is called vitakka. We may think, “I wonder who owns that dog.” “Is that the same dog I saw yesterday?” Then vitakka takes off. It blossoms into what is known as papañca. This is conceptual proliferation. It is the mass of thoughts and conceptions, which burden the heart and mind.

In this process there is a simple raw feeling, sensation or thought. There is no particular feeling of self or other with that. But as the process takes off, as the naming takes place, we begin to get a sense of me in here experiencing the sound of that dog out there. As the thinking (vitakka) kicks in, the sense of self and other becomes more concrete and the sense of me not only experiencing this but also being burdened by it becomes more and more solid.

As meditators I am sure you have seen this pattern. With practice, we start to recognize this pattern. We see how it works.

Usually we are caught up in the activity of mental proliferation—half way through our great novel or fully through the saga of how our first marriage could have been “if only…”—before we wake up and remember that we’re actually still in the meditation hall, and that it all started with the sound of the dog barking. “That sound reminded me of Binker, our dog. We got the dog when we first got married. Maybe if we hadn’t had the dog, the marriage would have worked out.” Then we track it back and see where it began.

As meditators we see how this pattern occurs over and over again. The mind’s propensity is to think habitually. It takes almost nothing to trigger it. For example, I spent most of my youth listening to rock music at every opportunity. So when I entered the monastery in Thailand, I spent the first few years singing inside my head. My mind was so used to listening to music that for the first few years everything that happened at the monastery was a cue for a song. It could be a leaf falling off a tree or a car going by. It could be the clanking of a kerosene tin or comments that people made. It could even be just the random thoughts in my mind. Any one event, word or thought could translate into a lyric. It was like a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movie: “That sounds like a cue for a song...” Before you know it you are playing the entire soundtrack. I was staggered by the amount that the mind remembered and conjured up!

That is the mind’s habitual mode. It picks things up, chews on them and keeps creating—all from a moment’s stimulation...

So for myself, I have learned that the best way to deal with excessive thinking is to just listen to it, to listen to the mind. Listening is much more effective than trying to stop thought or cut it off. When we listen there is a different mode employed in the heart. Instead of trying to cut it off, we receive thought without making anything out of it.

Plagued by Doubt, Thomas Wightman

See also:

Amaro, A. (July 20, 2010). Thinking: I. Understanding and relating to thought. Mindfulness1, 3, 189-192. Retrieved from Springer Link

The Medium is the Message by Thomas Wightman

We Can Free Ourselves

Excerpt from "What Does Science Teach Us About Well-Being?" by Richard J. Davidson, Huffington Post, May 10, 2013:

Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.

The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness. Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.

Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wanderingnot paying attention to what he is actually doing. By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future. This in and of itself can powerfully facilitate well-being and reduce suffering.

Read the entire essay...


See also:

A Place to Step in and Change Things

The Hero's Luck
by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting 

When something bad happens
we play it back in our minds,
looking for a place to step in
and change things. We should go outside
right now, you might have said. Or:
Let's not drive anywhere today.

The sea rises, the mountain collapses.
A car swerves toward the crowd
you've just led your family into.
We all look for reasons. Luck
isn't the word you want to hear.
What happened had to,

or it didn't. Maybe
the exceptional man can change direction
in midair, thread the needle's eye,
and come out whole. But even the hero
who stands up to chance has to feel
how far the world will bend

until it breaks him. He can see
that day: the unappeasable ocean,
the cascades of stone. A crowd
gathers around his body. He sees that too.
someone is saying: His luck just ran out.
It happens to us all.

 

From One Thing to the Next

"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself. What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not. You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly. [There are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.] Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time. You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks. They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them."

~ Earl Miller, a Picower Institute Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, quoted in “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again,” by Jon Hamilton, Morning Edition (10.2.08)

 

Paying Attention

From "The Myth of Multitasking," Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis (Spring 2008):

When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention. When asked about his particular genius, Isaac Newton responded that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”

The Principles of Pscyhology William James, the great psychologist, wrote at length about the varieties of human attention. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), he outlined the differences among “sensorial attention,” “intellectual attention,” “passive attention,” and the like, and noted the “gray chaotic indiscriminateness” of the minds of people who were incapable of paying attention. James compared our stream of thought to a river, and his observations presaged the cognitive “bottlenecks” described later by neurologists: “On the whole easy simple flowing predominates in it, the drift of things is with the pull of gravity, and effortless attention is the rule,” he wrote. “But at intervals an obstruction, a set-back, a log-jam occurs, stops the current, creates an eddy, and makes things temporarily move the other way.”

To James, steady attention was thus the default condition of a mature mind, an ordinary state undone only by perturbation. To readers a century later, that placid portrayal may seem alien—as though depicting a bygone world. Instead, today’s multitasking adult may find something more familiar in James’s description of the youthful mind: an “extreme mobility of the attention” that “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.” For some people, James noted, this challenge is never overcome; such people only get their work done “in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” Like Chesterfield, James believed that the transition from youthful distraction to mature attention was in large part the result of personal mastery and discipline—and so was illustrative of character. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” he wrote, “is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”

[Thanks New York Times!]