(Part of a series on How to Awaken.)
Thinking is an important, useful skill that helps us make sense of life. Unfortunately, thinking can also be an involuntary habit that can cause a number of problems. In this article, I explore the nature of involuntary thinking, I describe mindfulness as an antidote to involuntary thinking, and I identify several aspects of attention that can be strengthened to support mindfulness.
Consider what it’s like to be lost in thought. When I’m lost in thought, I’m kind of like a zombie. I might be wandering around the house or driving my car, but I’m on autopilot—I’m only somewhat aware of what’s going on around me. I’m usually not even aware that I’m thinking! When we’re lost in thought, where exactly is it that we’re lost, and how do we find ourselves again? To help us explore that question, let’s define some terminology.
Conceptual Versus Nonconceptual Experiences
An experience is what happens when you’re aware of anything. (For instance, when I look out my window, I have an experience of a tree. When I attend to my feeling state right now, I have an experience of tiredness.) A conceptual experience is an experience based on concepts. (For instance, thoughts are conceptual experiences.) Nonconceptual experiences are those that aren’t based on concepts. (Visual images, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and feelings are all examples of nonconceptual experiences.)
To determine whether an experience is conceptual or nonconceptual, ask yourself, “How hard would it be to communicate this experience in words?” Conceptual experiences tend to be easier to put into words because of the close relationship between concepts and language; nonconceptual experiences tend to be harder to put into words.
For instance, I were to put my current thoughts into words, I might quickly and concisely say, “It might be nice to have lunch soon.” If I were to try to put what I’m currently hearing into words, I might have a harder time. I could say, “I’m hearing wind in the trees and some other sounds I can’t quite identify.” I might try to describe those other sounds; I could go on and on about this for quite a while, and I still might not feel that I had adequately captured what I’m hearing in words.
Many experiences have both conceptual and nonconceptual aspects. For instance, if I look at a chair, my experience of the chair includes both nonconceptual experiences (the visual image of the chair, my feelings about the chair, and so forth) and conceptual experiences (knowing it’s a chair, knowing what I can do with chairs, and so forth). When I pay more attention to the nonconceptual experiences, I’m more aware of the chair on a sensory, feeling level. When I pay more attention to the conceptual experiences, I’m more aware of the chair on a practical level. Both types of experiences seem important.
The Experience of Thinking
Now, let’s reconsider the question I posed earlier: when you’re lost in thought, where exactly is it that you’re lost, and how do you find yourself again? When you’re lost in thought, your attention is wrapped up in conceptual experiences mediated by your thoughts. Little or no attention is available for nonconceptual experiences like images, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and feelings. That doesn’t mean you stop having those experiences; however, it does mean that you have a greatly reduced awareness of those experiences.
When you’re thinking, you may (or may not) be having nonconceptual experiences of the things you’re thinking about (in your mind’s eye); these nonconceptual experiences are mediated by your thoughts. (They’re the nonconceptual referents of the concepts you’ve been thinking about.) To understand this experientially, the next time you notice you’ve been lost in thought, immediately recall what you were experiencing in the moments before you noticed this.
Being lost in thought is an extreme form of something that most of us experience frequently: involuntary thinking. We tend to consider thinking to be a voluntary process, but that’s not quite accurate. In my experience, I have some ability to steer the course of my thinking—but I have much less ability to choose whether I think. (If you don’t believe thinking is involuntary, set a timer for 60 seconds and don’t allow yourself to have a single thought until the timer goes off. Good luck!)
When we’re lost in thought, we’re usually not aware that we’re lost in thought—that’s the “being lost” aspect of it. We’re caught in an involuntary process that we’re not even aware of. In this sense, thinking can be somewhat unconscious. (Even if we’re conscious of what we’re thinking about, we are often unaware that we’re thinking or that there’s any alternative to thinking.) When we become aware that we’ve been lost in thought, at that point we’re no longer lost! (We have an opportunity to intentionally redirect our attention to other things.)
Problems Caused by Involuntary Thinking
I’m a big fan of thinking. It’s a magic power that allows me to make sense of my life. I wouldn’t want to completely give up thinking—and I think you should be suspicious of any spiritual path that suggests that one should.
However, I also believe that most of us (myself included) have a thinking habit. Those of us who are more intellectually inclined (like me) have a strong thinking habit. This creates some problems.
Reduced Awareness of Nonconceptual Experiences
As I noted above, when you’re thinking, you have less attention available for nonconceptual sensory experiences. An effect of this is that sensory experiences become less vivid. This happens so gradually that we might not even notice it.
In my 30s, I started noticing that my sensory experiences seemed a lot less vivid than they had been when I was younger; I found this disturbing. Later, this became a motivation for pursuing spiritual practice. When I started a spiritual practice routine, vividness started returning to my sensory experiences.
Those of us who are frequently lost in thought tend to have challenges with intimate relationships. That’s because intimacy requires empathy, and empathy is a nonconceptual experience that’s difficult to access when our attention is wrapped up in thinking.
Reduced Access to Non-Rational Ways of Knowing
When we’re lost in thought, we lose access to other ways of making sense of life that can be beneficial complements to thinking. Thinking has its benefits: it can be precise and methodical. However, it’s also relatively slow compared to other faculties like intuition.
Intuition is like an analog computer or a neural network that can quickly (but imprecisely) analyze large amounts of information. I use both thinking and intuition to find my way in life; I find them both valuable.
Thinking is a conceptual activity that involves (and requires) a conceptual framework—a conceptual model of whatever it is that we’re thinking about. Thinking energizes and stabilizes that framework, making it more difficult for us to escape its limitations. (Every framework has limitations since any conceptual model casts light on some aspects of what’s being modeled and obscures other aspects.)
When you’ve been thinking about a problem for a while and you feel stuck, what’s the best thing to do? Stop thinking about it! Go for a walk, take a shower, sleep on it, or whatever. When you stop thinking about it, you stop energizing the conceptual frame of reference that’s been limiting your thinking. Often, when you return to the problem, you can see it with a fresh perspective because your frame of reference has become more malleable.
When we’re thinking involuntarily, we don’t have the option to take a break from what we’re thinking about. (Most of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re thinking.) Our familiar frames of reference are constantly being energized and stabilized. The more often we’re lost in thought, the more rigid our frames of reference become.
Difficulty Cultivating Insight
What do we spend much of our time thinking about? Ourselves! This thinking continually energizes and stabilizes the frames of reference in which we’re embedded. Cultivating insight requires deconstructing these frameworks; the more energized and stabilized they are, the more difficult this deconstruction process becomes.
Think of your most familiar conceptual frameworks as your home—or better yet, as a prison tower where you’ve been incarcerated halfway up. Trying to cultivate insight while you still spend most of your time engaged in involuntary thinking is like trying to break out of prison by blowing up the prison while you’re still trapped in your cell! If you spend most of your time engaged in involuntary thinking, you’re likely to perceive any effective insight practices as at threat. Reactive patterns are likely to come up to protect you from that threat by sabotaging your insight practices. If you do them at all, they will probably be ineffective.
What is Mindfulness?
If you want to start spending less time engaged in involuntary thinking, how might you do this? When you’re thinking involuntarily, your attention gets unconsciously and involuntarily diverted. To prevent this from happening, you must learn to recognize where your attention is at and direct it where you want it to be. This is the essence of cultivating mindfulness.
A precise definition of mindfulness will be helpful for our discussion. Let’s call the set of all your current experiences your field of experience. (This is actually more like a field or a space than a set, since experiences aren’t distinct units with clear boundaries.) Then we can concisely define mindfulness as awareness of your field of experience. Equivalently, it’s awareness of your current experiences. (I will expand this preliminary definition in the next section.)
But, aren’t we always aware of our current experiences? Not exactly. We tend to have a fairly simplistic, binary view of awareness—we tend to believe we’re either aware of something or we’re not. The same is true of attention—we tend to think of our attention as either being “on” an experience or not. For cultivating mindfulness, it will be helpful to have a more nuanced understanding of awareness and attention.
Think of your field of experience as a vast landscape of experiences, and your attention as light shining on that landscape. At any given time, depending on what the light is doing, some parts of that landscape will be well lit, others will be dimly lit, and others will be in shadows. Likewise, at any given time, depending on what your attention is doing, you’ll have a clear awareness of some of your experiences, you’ll have less awareness of others, and you’ll hardly be aware of other experiences at all.
How to Cultivate Mindfulness by Strengthening Your Attention
Since your attention is the faculty that supports awareness of your experiences, your level of mindfulness is directly related to the quality of your attention. There are several aspects of attention that support mindfulness: stability, clarity, expansiveness, and range. (Most spiritual practices for cultivating mindfulness work by strengthening one or more of these aspects of attention.) Below, I define these four aspects, illustrating them with the “light on a landscape” metaphor.
Intentions for spiritual practice:
- Increase the stability of your attention—your capacity to attend to a chosen object of attention without getting distracted. (If attention were light, stability would be your ability to direct that light.) Without attentional stability, our attention is easily diverted into involuntary thinking.
- Increase the clarity of your attention—your ability to attend to your chosen object in such a way that you experience it vividly and without interruption. (If attention were light, clarity would be the intensity and continuity of that light.)
- Increase the expansiveness of your attention—your ability to expand your attentional “field of view” to attend to many experiences simultaneously. (If attention were a beam of light, expansiveness would be your ability to widen that beam.)
- Increase the range of your attention—your ability to attend to a diversity of experiences. (If attention were light and your experiences were spread across a landscape, your attentional range would correspond to the portion of the landscape that you know how to light up. Is your valley of conceptual experience well lit while the ocean of emotion is in complete darkness?)
A More Precise Definition of Mindfulness
Having defined these four aspects of attention, we can define four corresponding aspects of awareness: stability, clarity, expansiveness, and range of awareness are what you get when you have stability, clarity, expansiveness, and range of attention (respectively). Then we can restate our definition of mindfulness more precisely: mindfulness is a stable, clear, expansive awareness of a wide range of one’s current experiences.
My definition of mindfulness is quite broad in that it requires only awareness of experience—not interpretation of experience. (My definition of mindfulness doesn’t even require recognition of one’s experience as experience or as subjective.) This is intentional. Interpretation is a conceptual activity that’s always relative to some frame of reference. I want to avoid explicitly or implicitly linking my definition of mindfulness with any particular conceptual framework (other than the minimal framework related to experience, awareness, and attention, as I’ve defined them).
That’s not to say that interpretation of experience isn’t important and useful; it can be. In cases where we want to speak more specifically about mindfulness in the context of a particular framework, we can indicate that by adding additional qualifiers to the term mindfulness; for instance, we might say mindfulness of emotion to refer to a recognition of experiences related to the concept emotion, with a clear, expansive awareness of a wide range of those experiences. Similarly, we might say mindfulness with moral discernment to refer to a clear, expansive awareness of a wide range of one’s current experiences, plus interpretation of those experiences in relation to a particular moral framework.
Mindfulness as a Basic Skill for Awakening
Mindfulness is much more than a solution to the problem of unconscious, involuntary thinking; it’s a foundational skill for awakening. Having a clear, expansive awareness of a wide range of my current experiences has been helpful for cultivating all the other faculties of awakening that I’ve identified (vitality, compassion, insight, and intuition).
When I was at the beginning of my spiritual journey—with most of my attention wrapped up in unconscious, involuntary thinking most of the time—I had a hard time understanding or imagining many of the experiences reported by those further along the path than me. I remember seeing a drawing back then in some book about awakening—a drawing of a man climbing through some kind of threshold and discovering a new world. I desperately wanted to be that man, and I wondered if I ever would. I eventually discovered that cultivating mindfulness is the way to climb through that threshold.
- The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind by B. Alan Wallace.
- Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana by Shaila Catherine (Section 1: Establishing Concentration through Mindfulness with Breathing).
- Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram (Chapters 20-23). (Also available online.)
In Other Frameworks
The concept of mindfulness in this framework is closely related to:
- the concept of mindfulness in psychology;
- the outcome of the practice of settling the mind in its natural state in Tibetan Buddhism; and
- the concept of sati (often translated as mindfulness or awareness) in Buddhism.
B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind has informed my concepts of stability and clarity of attention.
(Read the next article in this series: How to Cultivate Insight.)