Monday, April 11, 2011

Mental Fractals: Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Thinking about thinking about thinking
Ripples on the pond
Where the frog jumped in

I think too much.  At least I think I think too much.  Or maybe I just think I think I think too much…..  OK - I think too much!!

In my job, I have to think a lot – analyzing clients’ problems, poring over documents and statutes looking for loopholes, combing the internet for similar cases, writing briefs, editing and more editing, all the time scheming, scheming, scheming.  Going to court is like a breath of fresh air.

There is no question that thinking is a vital part of my life.  I couldn’t do my job without using my brain, and the microcircuits inside the contraption I’m staring at are the product of some serious brainwork.

But an old saying comes to mind: just as the eye can't see itself, the intellect can't comprehend itself.  Thinking about thinking just goes around and around like a fractal pattern.

In Zen, intellect is a two edged sword. Thinking about logical problems is fine, however discovering what our essential nature does, and how it operates, is not an intellectual exercise.  Thinking about it is like boarding a locomotive headed in the wrong direction.  Attempting to say more would be offering free rides to the train station.

When I walk to work, I intend to be mindful, but invariably catch myself scheming.  When I walk home, I catch myself replaying the day's scenarios.

So lately, the emphasis in my Zen practice is just to be present when I’m not taking action, and when I am, to just act.  At least that’s the theory.  My brain takes the position that zazen is a splendid opportunity for more scheming and scenario replaying.

One of the things that seems to help at work is to take a deep breath and be present for a moment before picking up the phone.

Another is to perform frequent micro tea ceremonies throughout the day.  I keep a carafe of green tea far enough away from my desk that I have to get up and walk over to it, and I use a small cup that needs refilling often.

If there’s time, the icing on the cake is a stroll in the nearby forest, where scheming and replaying seem to fade into the rushing sounds of the creek.

Like the hallucinations in the final scene of A Beautiful Mind, I don’t imagine random thoughts will ever go away, but with practice, I’ll pay less attention to them.

So c’mon, Monkey Mind, give me a hug and then run off and play!


  1. I like your points about scheming. Scheming has a narrow connotation - a kind of gathering in of the thinking, like pulling the draw string of a cloth bag. Thinking in a reflective, meditative way is the opposite - open and expansive. I will use this when I am 'thinking' about a problem, and rather than scheme I will think.
    To be truly meditative I believe the body should be still. Then the mind can listen to the breath and be still also. The mind finds it difficult to be still when the body is fidgeting. Walking in the forest can be most meditative.
    I am thinking I like the look of your lunch!
    Thanks for your blogs David.

  2. Hmmm... new perspective and thinking on age old problems. I like it.
    About offering you tips on mindfulness, I have started doing everything slowly and with a sense of awareness, and you are doing similar to that.

  3. Great post! I've been meditating for 20+years and it was only several years in that I finally got a glimpse of the true makings of my mind - whirling into infinity.

    I like how you create moments for mindfulness during your workday. I think (!) I'll take a cue from you and add in a few to mine. Indeed, it seems like the microseconds are the ones that're most accessible.

    I, too, take walks, and nature has its magical way of bringing me right to it - so much so that I've left (mostly) city living in order to allow the natural world to have its way with me.

    Curious, do routines help you be more present, or less?


  4. Hindizen - Thank you. I find that being mindful is a lot easier than remembering to be mindful...

    Thanks Kellie! I can't really say that routines help all that much (other than formal routines in the zendo)- for a while, but then they become too easily (for me) a part of the background. I stuck little coloured dots on my phone and monitor and keyboard at work to remind me to be mindful but they soon stopped attracting my attention. I find the only thing I can do off the cushion is the same as when I'm on it - just become aware when my mind has wandered and return to whatever I was doing.

  5. “Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen”

    Dōgen nails it yet again : )


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