For the current three-month retreat this year, we have a lot of people who are quite new (less than five years’ experience) to meditation, and so I thought it would be good to go back to some basics. And of course in doing that, looked more fully into an area that I’d never adequately explored myself. The area is thought, or what I’m calling ‘contemplative thought’. For most people (I suppose) who enter Buddha-Dhamma through ‘meditation’ – i.e. sit up straight, close your eyes, focus on the breath – thinking is configured as a constant distraction, a mad monkey that one has to repeatedly drag down to the ground and tether. It’s either that or the restless parrot of obsessive thought; a presence that sits on your shoulder and chirps on and on while you’re trying to be quiet. Best kill these creature altogether, and rely on the soundless angel of non-conceptual awareness to carry you to nibbāna, right? Well, that’s not the approach of the Buddha.
The process that the Buddha encourages is one whereby the mind seamlessly segues from carefully thinking on skilful lines to the inner quietening of jhāna (thought doesn’t actually become redundant until the ‘noble silence’ of second jhāna). So thought isn’t an enemy, in fact in a trained and honed-down form, it’s an asset that is essential for samādhi. The main difference between this kind of thought and the mad monkey is that trained thought stays on the topic and grows calm. Granted, the parrot of obsessive thought is also good at staying on topics kindled by grudges, sense-desire and restlessness – but it selects those that don’t support calming down. Its main job is to keep you tethered to the world of the personal self, and it gets pretty jumpy whenever the meditative process causes that world to dissolve. So some careful training is needed. But, the good news is that rather than leap onwards, or grind around the track of obsession, thought can be trained to contemplate: to select and circle around a skilful theme, constantly grounding the mind in its meaning and directing the heart to reflect on and abide in that.
The difference then between the skilful and the unskilful pathways of thought is that the skilful lets you investigate and delight in its nourishing roots. This is contemplation: you create a template, a temple with boundaries, and your mind stays attentively within that. Hence contemplative thinking on kindness directs the heart to the experience of goodwill, and to abide in gratitude, appreciation and the loveability of oneself and others. And if you read through the suttas, you’ll notice many occasions in which contemplating the Buddha or one’s own good deeds is a recommended means of gladdening and comforting the heart. Rightly fed in this way, the heart becomes satisfied, settles, and stays within the temple. By and by, thought becomes increasingly unnecessary, and contemplation can proceed in silent absorption.
Well, that’s the classic paradigm. But for myself, for a long time it never seemed to work. Thinking ‘May I be well, may so-and-so be well’, mostly featured as one more saying that the parrot chirped for a while before it got bored and shifted its prattle to zestier themes. Kindness is a good idea, and I would say that it is definitely an enjoyable part of my nature. The trouble is that ordinary thinking didn’t get me there; I needed impressions of others, mostly those that occur in daily life. And while chanting devotions to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha for decades, the results and the needs were much the same. I’d lived close to the Triple Gem, studied it, served it, and taught it for years, and yet recollecting it brought little of the rapture that is evident in classical (and even contemporary) accounts. Mostly it was the living examples of teachers that, by establishing impressions in my heart, have fleshed out my Refuge. I’ve assumed that this is because in the Western mind most thinking doesn’t go to the heart. Perhaps it’s because our environment is so wordy: words babble at us from radios, TVs, newspapers, street signs and advertisements about events that are often neither immediate nor relevant; many are about fantasies and distractions. Confronted by all this, maybe the thinking mind can’t take in more than the bare information; what it then transmits to the heart is just the momentum of need and agitation.
However, even in such a scenario, the connection between thought and heart-impression does remain, but the messages that land are those associated with reactions of fear, worry or desire. Thinking: ‘Doctors estimate that one out of five people will develop liver cancer by the time they're sixty’ is likely to send a shudder into one’s heart (Incidentally, I’ve made that up, for the sake of an example). Think: ‘Bargain offer, this week only!’ and ‘Mass immigration threatens employment in the UK!’ or ‘United beat Arsenal 4-0’ (if you’re a United or Arsenal supporter) – the heart will jump and jiggle. So, in a way that is uncomfortably close to the world of Orwell’s 1984, our thinking has become conditioned by headlines and soundbites that produce knee-jerk reactions, those that hit our fear, hostility and greed buttons. And ‘May I be well’, aimed at settling in a benevolent and contented way into the present moment, doesn’t get near those buttons. In fact, although it takes more effort to be skilful, deactivating the buttons is itself a main reason to cultivate such thought.
What becomes apparent, to me at least, is that the topic of skilful thinking points to a need for a necessary psychological rewiring. If the mind is so conditioned to note the world and oneself in terms of anxiety, competition, and potential threat – isn’t that going to draw suffering to it like a magnet? And also lessen the significance and enjoyment of what is good, true and beautiful? No wonder so many of us imagine that the end of thought has to be accomplished at all costs, by any means. But even if such quietude is achieved for periods of time, the matter of right thought, and consequently right speech and action, hasn’t been accomplished – so there is no integration of Dhamma into one’s everyday perspectives, actions and relationships.
For that integration, we have to build on the connection between the heart and thought; to use thought to establish heart-impressions that are nourishing. Thought acts as a secretary to the boss in the heart: the secretary always carries out the boss’s orders, but mostly the boss is saying: ‘Help, help! Get me to a safe, happy place!’ and ‘monkey thought’ can only scramble through the familiar shops looking for a ticket. Thought heads for the familiar, and that tends to be the compulsive/samsāric. The monkey has to be meaningfully calmed (rather than throttled) through sending it to the right shop, with staff who aren’t parrots, and who really seek the heart’s welfare. This is the first step: thought that’s selecting along the lines of non-sensuality, kindness and harmlessness – ‘right thought’ (sammā-sankappa).
Notice that thought has two actions: to select and to connect to the heart. From the Buddhist perspective these are the two actions of the ‘thought-formation’ (or, ‘verbal program’ – vaci-sankhāra) that forms words. Verbalization may not even occur: when you forget someone’s name, you can feel that verbalization energy running around looking for a word and finding a blank space. But the successful result of that program entails a two-fold process: a) bringing to mind, or selecting (vitakka), and b) evaluating, sampling or exploring what has been brought to mind (vicāra). As with a hand: vitakka is the finger that points to a specific object – ‘that breath’– and vicāra is the palm that handles, feels and takes the quality of what the finger has selected to the heart – as in, ‘it feels warm/pulsing/pleasant, etc.’ Now with compulsive thinking, the ‘hand’ of thought is twitchy and constantly drops objects of attention in favour of the ones that it’s conditioned to hold onto. So ‘thought’ is best understood to refer not to the words alone, but to the entire energetic and psychological basis of thinking; to where the words are coming from where they’re headed. Accordingly we might expand our understanding of ‘right thought’ to include ‘right attitude’ or ‘right motivation’, and so coach the hand of thought to undertake its process more carefully and meaningfully. It’s not just a matter of parroting a few words.
For example, ‘May I be well’ doesn’t require intellectual genius, but it does entail evoking the aspiration for one’s here-and-now well-being, and also bringing to mind a meaningful reference to assess that with. As for meaningful reference: what I find is that there is abundant evidence that other people wish me well. Even people who don’t know me are often courteous and considerate; people who do are grateful, forgiving, helpful and look to developing in that way. This is because it both feels good to do, and furthers the potential for a meaningful relationship; for myself that’s the way it seems too. So one way in which I reflect kindness into the heart is to bring to mind the specific instances of how others’ goodwill has manifested towards me, today. Then sustaining vicāra, I dwell in the perception, the heart-impression, of that. And that means there is a real quality, not just an ideal, to what my mind can bring forth in terms of warmth and sympathy to others.
So right thought brings quality to the mind. And it also encourages the mind to investigate and feel where it’s coming from. Of course, this is the opposite direction to samsāric thought, in which the main point is to not investigate the thought process, but to seize upon and get fired up by fear, restlessness, anger or greed. Right thought is then not just ethically skilful; through enhancing investigation and mindfulness, it is the basis for contemplation, the direct awareness of body and mind.
It seems to me that there are only three topics for contemplative thought. Kindness, well-being in the here and now, may be the first. How else do we meaningfully motivate, if that isn’t the underlying reference? Isn’t a lot of our motivation in terms of pleasure and accomplishment an often partial or shortsighted attempt to realize well-being? Contemplative thought gets directly to the point; it takes us into the heart. Secondly comes the topic of direction: where am I going, what holds meaning and value? In Buddhist terms this is reflected on, investigated and finally celebrated in terms of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. I value my liberation from confusion, (buddho); I value my clarity and integrity (vijjācarana–sampanno); it is directly available (sandiṭṭhiko) as Dhamma; and there are those those (Sangha) who have cultivated and are cultivating this process. So the daily recollection of the Triple Gem isn’t about idolization; if its terms are lingered over, investigated and contemplated, they gather the heart into values, impressions that are both transcendent and necessary. Life needs meaning; otherwise it’s just about getting by. Suddenly devotion gets real.
Finally, a common theme best approached through contemplative thought is action, kamma. What is good to initiate and sustain, and what is best to put aside and steer away from? And furthermore: what is the process that keeps me in touch with the basis of my actions? Well, contemplative thought and its integration into one’s life must be part of that process, one that results in the strengthening and clarification that is needed to really know what to do and what to give up. I find two portable reminders useful: firstly freedom and secondly death. Reflecting on freedom helps to educate the monkey: as it presents all kinds of things I could be doing rather than meditate, I respond carefully with ‘ Yes, reading, eating, going for a stroll are all fine, but I value my freedom above that.’ Try that with TV, sport, videos, etc. It’s not about judgement, but about assessing where things take you, and where you could abide with a little more sustained attention. Just imagine a moment when one isn’t driven, burdened or restless: that here-and-now freedom – can you get a feel for that? Then reflection on my own forthcoming death helps to clear the ‘to-do’ list and gets to the point of what really needs to be done. To do good and to abide in the clarity and happiness of good kamma: that’s about all you can take with you and is the net result of what you bequeath to others.
As I look into the processes that have contributed to my spiritual education, they all are based on assessing kamma. Investigate, contemplate: ‘What is good to put aside? What is good to pick up?’ Think it over. Because it’s only when the prattling of the confused heart are translated, summed up and meaningfully resolved that samsāric thinking will subside. You can then bring the clear and wise mind to attend your breathing. And with that, the skill of silent contemplation opens like a sensitive and intelligent hand; one that inclines to the ineffable.