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Language #1: Cutting your thinking mind some slack

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

I’ve been grappling with the issue of language/thinking for many decades, but lately have had a few clarifying insights that I’d like to share here. I’m grateful to the brilliant community of meditators on the Mindsprings Practice Space with whom I explore these issues. And to the work of Phil Mollon, Evan Thompson and Francisco Varela who sparked some new ways of seeing this.

You are very welcome to come and join the Mindsprings Practice Space and plug into the post-meditation discussions. They’re very good.

Thinking gets a bad press in meditating circles. And then – by association – the words and language which constitute thinking get poor publicity too. But in these three blogs, I’m going to make a case for 1) being kinder to our thinking minds and 2) celebrating rather than demonising the unique power of language in our lives.

PART ONE: Cut your thinking mind some slack.

When we sit down to meditate – (and this blog is really aimed at people who have made that meditative “turn inwards”) – then we often get caught in a split.

This is the split between good meditative presence and bad thought-infested absence. We strive to be present and aware but – if we’re honest – often get caught on trains of thought which take us miles and miles from that initial goal of clean-clear awareness.

But the truth is we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about losing awareness of the present when we think. Because – in a fascinating way – the very act of thinking is grounded in absence.

There is no need to label ‘fire’ when you’re sitting in front of it.

To understand what I mean, let’s apply an evolutionary lens. As higher primates, human beings are probably unique in their ability to talk about things that are not there. You might say that human language was born out of that revolutionary ability to evoke the absent. We might come to this with a hazy notion that language has its roots in naming things that are present. (A ghostly echo of God naming things in the book of Genesis.) But stop to think about this. When our hairy forebears started using language, it was not just to label things. There is no need to label ‘fire’ when you’re sitting in front of it. But a name comes in very handy when you need to tell someone to make a fire when there isn’t one!

Language takes off when we use it symbolically to refer to what is not present

When the sabre-toothed tiger is there – you don’t need to say it’s there. When the wildebeest are pouring past, it’s superfluous to give them a name. Language only becomes vital when you use it to tell someone that you saw a sabre-toothed tiger in this valley yesterday. Or that every spring, a herd of wildebeest will come down this valley, around this time.

We only really need languages to draw attention to what is not there. So, in our human pre-history, I imagine language takes off when we use it symbolically to refer to what is not present.

Of course, previous to this momentous birth of language, all animal life had been thoughtlessly embedded in the present moment. Indeed, to this day, you can see simple present-moment awareness masterfully demonstrated by the dog or cat in your home. Free from thinking. Present to their inner and outer worlds.

But the moment our brilliant ancestors devised the ability to name what is not there then another door opened for the arrival of thoughts and thinking.

Individuals began to internalise those symbols as thoughts.

There are many arguments (all theoretical of course) about the birth of human cognition. And many (untestable) theories about the date and nature of its arising. But it strikes me as salient that when we started to be able to symbolise what was not there, then we sowed the seeds of thinking. My hunch would be that first human tribes created webs of socially endorsed symbols and then much later, individuals began to internalise those symbols as thoughts.

The other crucial aspect of this is that the act of thinking requires mental withdrawal. Our attention has to shift from scanning the outside world to manipulating things inside our heads. For as long as we are thinking we are not aware of what’s going on around us.

Again, let’s revisit our stone-age forebears. A woman is moving along a path in an unfamiliar landscape. Her senses are all plugged in. She is present and aware. Then she begins to think about advice her mother gave her back in the homestead. She temporarily unplugs from the outside scanning and monitoring in order to manipulate inner symbols and make a decision: I must get down the hill before dark because I have been told this sort of landscape might contain bears.

This is is the cost of thinking: we unplug from the moment-to-moment scanning of the here-and-now environment in order to think.

She has an evolutionary advantage in learning about bears before she actually meets one. But that advantage comes at a cost. She must unplug from the monitoring of the real world (which at the moment does not contain bears) in order to protect herself from the possibility of attack. And that unplugging brings anxiety.

Imagine: you are in a dangerous place with a predator lurking. Your senses are heightened but every five minutes you choose to put a sack over your head and make yourself vulnerable. This is the cost of thinking: we unplug from the moment-to-moment scanning of the here-and-now environment in order to think. The net benefit may outweigh that temporary vulnerability – (we might out-think the predator) – but the cost is a momentary increase in anxiety.

The very act of thinking and using language inside our heads is imbued with absence and anxiety.

This is the second thing to bear in mind: thinking is inherently anxious. No matter how far removed we are from the Neolithic, our brains still get twitchy when they are not plugged into the environment around us. Even if every thought costs us a nano-second of dread – over a whole lifetime of thinking that’s a lot of ambient angst.

So, when we sit down to meditate and feel bad about thinking, don’t. The very act of thinking and using language inside our heads is imbued with absence and anxiety.

You can check this for yourself. Close your eyes, take a breath, and click your fingers.

From the moment your fingers click, notice what kind of thinking you are doing.

Is it a labelling of what’s present in the moment?

Or is it more of an anxious stream of checking – is this right? did I do that? should I be doing something else?

That is to say: is it drawing attention towards what is present? or is it drawing you firmly off into what might be, should be, ought to be? Does it fill you with joy or does it leave you feeling edgy? If – as most people find – your thinking is making you edgy and absent, this is not a problem with your personal brain. This is common with almost all human brains. The cost of thinking is absence and anxiety. But as I’ll explore in the second part of this blog, that does not make it a bad thing. On the contrary.

I’d love to know your thoughts about your thoughts! Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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