One of the useful consequences of mindfulness training is that the deeply ingrained habit of discursive thinking is disrupted and gradually replaced by increasing moments of pure awareness.
Discursive thinking is what fills the conditioned and unexamined mind. It is made up of concepts (ideas, beliefs, expectations) and tends to ramble on endlessly, even aimlessly. Discursive thinking has its uses – as long as we need language to describe experience, we are tied to concepts. However, we can get better at taking time to be aware in a way that is ever freer from discursive thinking.
Why is it helpful to disrupt the habit of discursive thinking and move, more and more, into pure awareness? It allows us to see through our biases and get a clearer view of reality. We can respond more skillfully if we have the facts.
From the time we are conceived, we are being conditioned – maybe even before that, if you believe in epigenetics. Conditioning involves the many ways in which we learn to be humans on the Earth in a particular time and place, within a particular culture and context. Worldly success is contingent upon our ability to conform to society’s ideas about what is desirable, undesirable, good and bad, and so forth. So, we powerfully and unconsciously become experts at seeing everything through this lens, which ultimately drives our actions.
Concepts are powerful things. We rely on them to navigate the world. Though they are not always based on truth, they become our reality. Unfortunately, we are not always adept at discerning our constructions from what truly is, which can cause great suffering for ourselves and others. Here are some challenging examples of concepts:
What we think of as rights seem to us to be universal, absolute and unequivocal. But, traveling to other countries or closely observing the natural world, we soon realize that rights are really entitlements, claims, privileges, or permissions granted by those in power and dependent upon the ability to enforce them.
Rights are also changeable and impermanent in that they can differ depending upon who they are granted to (individuals or groups, various categories of people, animals), the action or state they are attributed to (free speech, life, ownership of property), where one lives in the world, one’s historical context, and how much power is possessed. Though there are often many beneficial intentions behind the construction of the concept of rights, they have also been used to create advantages for those in power and discriminate against those who are less powerful. There is nothing in and of itself that can be considered a right, and what we consider rights are neither intrinsically good nor bad. This is entirely dependent upon us.
What we used to think of as discrete biological or genetic categories, such as race and gender, are also really only social constructs. In an increasingly global world, even categories like nationality and religion may not be what they seem. Our social identity tends to be determined by how the majority views us rather than how we view ourselves. Think about the unfortunate historical “one drop rule” or former president Nixon’s recorded statement that people should prioritize their nationality over their religion saying, “…it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”
Almost every institution in our society has identity categories woven into its fabric. However, we increasingly understand that these categories are not discrete. There can be vast differences in behavior, chromosomal makeup, sex organs and hormone levels that blur the binary categorization of male and female. Advances in DNA testing reveal that we are all a part of a continuum with common origins. A person can be both Lithuanian and Vietnamese, Catholic and Buddhist. Yet it is difficult for us to let go of these rigid concepts and we have to work very hard to disentangle ourselves from limiting beliefs.
We could endlessly explore the ways in which concepts shape our reality, but it may be useful instead to talk about why and how we might choose to begin to move beyond them. It can be very difficult to let go of our expectations because they feel familiar and safe, while reality seems stark, ambiguous and unpredictable. I like to think of the movie The Matrix in which reality was quite bleak, but offered the possibility of liberation for oneself and all of humanity. Choosing the blue pill was to remain blissfully trapped – doomed.
The practice of mindfulness helps us to quiet ourselves and slow down long enough to become aware of the mind chatter and its qualities. We can learn to strengthen the powers of attention and concentration by choosing an object of focus and returning to it again and again. We can also practice shifting awareness intentionally from one object of awareness to another. Mindfulness of the senses helps us hone the skills of noting (rather than storytelling) and tracking the present moment as it unfolds. Eventually discursive thinking becomes like background noise fading further into the distance and we are empowered to make choices about what we attend to. This is easiest for most to cultivate in the quiet laboratory of meditation, but we can also practice this in our daily lives.
One of the most difficult things to remember is to remember to remember. We forget that we live in a body with senses and feelings and thoughts and emotions and ideas. We get caught up in rumination and fantasy, isolating us from the world of colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations constantly bombarding our input sensors. To stop and pay attention to the moment is one way of snapping out of these mindscapes, and is a definition of meditation. This awareness is a process of deepening self-acceptance. Whatever it observes, it embraces. There is nothing unworthy of acceptance. ― Stephen Batchelor
If you’d like to explore local opportunities to learn about and practice mindfulness, please visit the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, an organization offering classes, trainings, workshops and retreats in the Kansas City Metro.