Monday, April 23, 2012

Thinking about Thinking

“Just let go now of thinking mind.”

Affirming Faith in Mind

Our minds love to think. Casual observation of the ongoing content of our minds reveals a largely unbroken string of thoughts, ideas, concepts, judgments, and so forth. One thought appears to lead to another, which seems to create an emotional reaction or sensation in the body, which in turn leads to more thoughts. This process is endless, and typically continues until the biological death of the organism. Continuous thinking and reacting to thoughts is so deeply conditioned and automatic that we rarely notice or question it. Objective, neutral observation of our thoughts is a very beneficial practice to help bring into conscious awareness the automatic and unproductive nature of much of our thinking. However, some thought is clearly beneficial and enjoyable. Surely we are not encouraged to abandon thought altogether. Yet the profound and beautiful Affirming Faith in Mind encourages us to let go now of our thinking mind. What do we make of this? What exactly are we trying to release and set free?
As a partial answer to these questions, consider that there are three types of thinking. One type is useful and productive, another not so much, and the third type the source of all original and creative thinking. Let us call the productive type real thinking, the nonproductive type habitual thinking, and the third type nonthinking. It is easy to describe habitual thinking. It is what most of us spend most of our time doing. It is repetitive, uncreative, tedious, boring, tiring, and unhelpful. Habitual thinking does not solve problems, yet we waste considerable time and energy thinking about problems without actually solving them. The ego or conditioned thinking mind conducts this form of thinking. This mind can do only what it previously was programmed to think and do.
Real thinking solves problems without needless drama. Critical thinking that is useful is real thinking. The experiential feeling of this type of thinking is calm, neutral, and objective. It is curious, open to a variety of ways of perceiving and interpreting information, and willing to learn from others. It is the mind of science, and new information can alter its conclusions, as it is willing to allow for correction as new facts emerge.
Truly original thoughts or realizations are not the province of the habitual mind, which specializes in ruminating and obsessing. Nor is real thinking capable of stepping so far outside of the boxes that it navigates skillfully. Where then do creative and transformative ways of thinking originate? I first encountered this question in graduate school where there was much emphasis on the philosophy of science and the scientific method. We read and carefully studied a wonderful book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962). Kuhn’s argument is that “normal science” occurs through what we are calling “real thinking.” Progress in science is linear, incremental, cumulative and progressive, with one verified truth slowly building upon previously verified truths that a variety of scientists painstakingly assembled using the scientific method. Kuhn argues that real change in science cannot be the result of normal science. Rather, new ways of seeing and understanding phenomena emerge from a “paradigm shift,” a revolutionary revelation or recognition that turns much of previously agreed upon scientific knowledge upside down. In his book, Kuhn provides numerous examples from the history of science of how a radical shift in perspective changed our way of understanding and thinking.
It appears to me that these radical, original new perspectives on our world (Kuhn’s paradigm shift) are the result of what I call nonthinking. They emerge spontaneously as realizations or direct knowing from nomind. This different way of knowing, when expressed in ideas or concepts may sound like real thinking, yet it has a profoundly different source. It only occurs when the thinking mind is quite, not when it is busy. This direct knowing feels effortless, although enormous effort may have gone into the preparation for the spontaneous emergence. The recognition that suddenly arises may feel more like a gift than the result of hard labor. Such realizations are explained and verified using ordinary methods, yet come with a kind of confident assurance that is hard to attain with real thinking.
In this talk, we will explore these three types of thinking and the different ways of knowing that are associated with each. We will also continue to explore practices to reduce the influence of habitual thinking, and improve our ability to recognize realizations as they arise spontaneously.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962, 2012) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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