Non-directed awareness


On Facebook James Ford posted a link to an article Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking. I have a few comments on it and somewhat related issues.

This is a good explanation of the not versus non-thinking aspect of meditation. Non-directed thinking does not mean you go brain dead. As the author writes:

Last year, for the first time, I heard a different interpretation. It goes like this: “Non-thinking” is not superior to either thinking or not thinking. Instead, they are all necessary, all simultaneously-functioning aspects of mind in zazen. So zazen includes (misdirected) direction of thought. It includes the decision to try not to pursue that directed thought. And it includes a state of mind that isn’t concerned about whether or not to think in the first place. All are present; none are completely inside of our control, or beyond it. Right or wrong, this version is very kind, very sympathetic to the actual experience of zazen.

That is about the phenomena of thinking while doing zazen. I like this interpretation. It avoids a lot of complications that arise from people thinking “I must not be doing this right” which leads to frustration, self- or other-blame and ultimately quitting practice.

Sometimes I have encountered people who use “non-thinking” or Dogen’s “dropping body and mind” as a bludgeon for anti-intellectualism and laziness generally, not just during zazen. “You think too much.” is the refrain there. These “purists” assume that to have any thought at all at any time is a mistake. Such folks are, ironically, very good at hurling tons of decontextualized quotes they’ve memorized when they are reading blog posts on the internet and somehow, without thinking, deciding to make commentary based on (non-?) comprehension of whatever point is being made. It is quite miraculous how that happens. But really this is simply suppression of consciousness or denial of thinking not undirected thinking.

There is a time for directed thought, like when you’re driving a car or teaching a class or writing an essay or arguing on the internet or cooking a meal–you have to think and analyze and judge “What’s next?” “What do I need to avoid here?” “What is my time frame?” etc. One has to notice specific things when one is doing a specific task especially if it has a specific goal.

When an activity is “goal-less” such as shikantaza there is freedom to “undirect” thoughts, that is to unbind attention from those directed thoughts (“What time is my dentist appointment?” “Will I have to go to the grocery store before dinner?” “Do these jeans make me look fat?” “Is my child being bullied at school?” “Should I quit my job?” “Will my thesis be accepted?” “What should I do with my life?” etc.) and just be fully aware.

Some equate this state of open awareness to being stoned. It’s not the same AT ALL. I have experienced both phenomenon—extensively–so it’s not just guesswork. Being stoned closes off or distorts external awareness and subsequent perceptions and directs it towards interior mental phenomenon or mental and particularly emotional reactions to external stimuli. Awareness, stimuli and perceptions are filtered through the soup of chemical cascades induced in the brain, the rest of the neurological system as a whole, as well as with chemicals from other systems such as the endocrine system which is:

…chiefly responsible for releasing hormones in response to stress through the synthesis of corticosteroids such as cortisol and catecholamines such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine

One’s body becomes very busy dealing with all that when one takes drugs. The body becomes weird and often uncanny (in the Freudian way-“The Uncanny” PDF full text) and one’s experience of it (startle reactions, somnolence, paranoia, body hallucination, hyper-vigilance and other psycho-physical reactions) becomes overwhelming to sense perceptions. The psychological and intellectual mechanisms we ordinarily use to make sense of sense perception then tend to go into an over productive mode. This perceptual distortion may be pleasant or even quite thrilling, but it is merely experience, and not often a very clear perception of experience. After the experience one might have memory of it and attribute all sorts of things to it, as history has shown with ergotamine in the middle ages, the ingestion of which caused witchcraft panics, or Huxley’s doors of perception, etc. We interpret these experiences based on our personalities, learning, culture, fantasies, psychological make up, environment and inclinations. Same as any other experience. All perceptual experience is conditioned.

If one believes that such means has spiritual or even shamanic efficacy then that is the interpretation that will follow. Something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why I don’t believe that entheogens are the best way to go if clarity of awareness is your goal. It adds an extra layer that has to be interpreted.

There are some teachers who advise against drug taking, but have not had such experiences so their advice sounds a lot like moralizing or at least a little bit self-righteous in the moral-purity department. There are some who also start invoking precepts etc. Also moralizing. I disagree with moralizing on just about anything. Moralizing is oppressive and more about control of others than anything else. (Ethics is a different story. Moralizing is about purity. Ethics is about justice. That distinction is a whole post in itself though so I won’t elucidate further.) If you want to see what happens when you take drugs, do some and find out. But know what you are getting into. It can be very deceptive. There may be unanticipated consequences. You may not want to go that far because of legal or other issues like the impurity of sources. In that case just watch yourself get drunk some time. Note the point when your reaction time slows, your speech is difficult, when you start crying about your old high school crush,  when you spill your drink all over your shirt or when you vomit on the bathroom floor because you missed the toilet. Try to be clearly aware at that point. Try to understand the spiritual lesson from that. Different bodily reactions than some drugs sure (all drugs react differently), but it’s the same idea—your body and consciousness try to compensate and often overcompensate for the perceptual distortions.

Unbinding from directed thinking has value, but so does thinking, day dreaming, imagining, sleeping, creating, enjoying and every other state of mind. Some are of more value than others at different times depending on what you are doing. It is a question of the appropriate state of mind for the activity in question.

An interesting benefit to this I notice is that when you become aware of the process of “undirecting” and practice it on a regular basis (not necessarily in formal meditation, but that is the best way to access this ability initially IMO) your ability to direct thought and avoid mis-direction in other circumstances gets a lot sharper.

At least that has been my experience.