Papanca – That delightful daydreaming..

Following on from yesterday’s blog ‘Default Dreaming’ ….

Humans and animals like to drift off. We like to swap awareness and attention, for inattention. Like any cat’s favourite passtime is snoozing, we all like to drift off into the unconscious. Look around any long distance bus, and you see the moment the journey is underway, every face on the bus is either blankly cross-eyed in silent daydream, or else nodding off into sleep.

Psychologist C. George Boeree, who has a good feel and general understanding of Buddhism, says in his ‘Perspectives Theory’:

Ironically, pain and distress are what we feel when our neediness is most evident and our awareness brightest. Pleasure and delight are what we feel as we move towards unconsciousness! When there are no problems or problems-being-solved, there is no emotion. Only in unconsciousness is the differentiation of self and world obliterated and we are, for a while, truly at peace. But then, we aren’t able to enjoy it! Where there is no emotion there is no consciousness.

Many would disagree – saying that when we are desiring, engaging, so we are brightest … but Boeree has a point. Even desire is something we seek to eliminate. By getting what you want, you are seeking to eliminate that very wanting. Wagner, in his final opera Parsifal, noted this quality and represented it with his character Kundry. A symbol of desire she continually sought her own demise.

To a worldly person this might not be clear. To get what you want is to enjoy it right?

Practising mindfulness however shows that we do indeed seek the unconscious. When lost in thought, you are unaware of your ‘self’. For a short period your ‘self’ disappears, and there is only what you are doing. Pain and distress make you keenly aware of yourself again. If something hurts, it is hard to drift off thinking about sport, or the new deck you want to build outside your house.

When the thinking mind comes to reflect on itself, according to the Sabbaasava Sutta, it  just reinforces the feeling of a ‘self’ and gets confused:

Thus he attends unwisely: Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past … Shall I be in the future .. Shall I not be in the future … Having been what, what shall I become…? Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present ‘Am I, Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from, where will it go?

Then one of six views arises:

    • Self exists for me
    • no self exists for me
    • I perceive self with self
    • I perceive non-self with self
    • I perceive non-self with self
    • It is this self of mine the speaks and feels and experiences here and there in the result of good and bad actions;  and this self is permanent, eternal.

All of which is a ‘fetter of views’, and one is not freed from suffering thereby.

According to the sutta, such thinking is ‘not fit for attention’. The proper angle of attention is

This is dukkha, this is its arising. This is the fading of dukkha, this is the way of practise…

David Hawkins, author of The Eye of the I [well worth a read by the way] and other books, notes that the only way out of papanca (distraction/diffuse thinking) is to be willing to go beyond it. Hawkins, if his accounts in his books are genuine, is a being attained to a similar enlightenment that we read in some of the recent greats such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta or even Eckhart Tolle.

Most people are neither willing nor interested in escaping from their daydreams. They are cozy and pleasant, and give you a respite from the world. A meditator is willing, but usually unable to go beyond the drifting thoughts, be they intentional guided thinking or diffuse daydreams. Dawkins describes:

One thing is obvious [to a meditator] the mind is totally unreliable. It is not able to be consistent and its performance is sporadic as well as erratic. It will forget to take keys to the office, forget telephone numbers and addresses, and be the source of frustration or annoyance. The mind is contaminated by emotions, paranoia, phobias, fears, regrets, guilts, worries, anxiety, and the fearsome specters of poverty, old age, sickness, death, failure, rejection, loss and disaster. In addition … the mind has been erroneously programmed by endless propaganda, slogans, religious and social dogmas, and continual distortions fo facts, not to mention falsifications, errors, misjudgments and misinformation.

A pretty grim picture. For those who love thoughts, for those who love the proliferation of the mind it will be an inaccurate description – for such people are enchanted by the endless novels, fantasies, science and achievements of the ego. The meditator is willing to step beyond.

One has to stand back and move further into the next level of consciousness and ask what is it that is watching, observing, being aware of, and registering the flow of thoughts.

Dawkins continues a few further pages along:

to quiet the mind certain motives have to be surrendered ….

  • The desire to think
  • the desire for the pleasure of thinking
  • the comfort of the guarantee of the continuation of one’s existence.

This is very much the method the Buddha recommended. It is called ‘nibbidaa’ , which means ‘disenchantment’ or ‘dis-illusionment’. Thinking, and the other senses too, is observed from the perspective of the present. So even if fragments and whispers of the past  are bouncing through your mind, you view it as an experience in the present. Then the impermanence of them becomes apparent. Whatever arises, ceases, and you feel the freedom from that thought. Anything that ceases is not your ‘self’ (because you are still here witnessing – you did not cease too). And what is arising and ceasing is not happiness, but dukkha. This observation – impermanence, dukkha, non-self is the cornerstone of Viapassana meditation.

Leading to disenchantment and to dispassion, the practise replaces the diffuse, scattered experience of papanca, with a bright awareness, stability and refuge. In Dawkins words ‘an intense willingness to surrender’ (surrender appears in the pali canon as the word ‘vosagga’).

The story goes on of course, but for the moment hopefully this discussion has been enough to introduce something about the Pali term ‘papanca’ or diffuse thinking/proliferation.

Leaving the topic with a question ….. was Boeree right when he said

pain and distress are what we feel when our neediness is most evident and our awareness brightest. Pleasure and delight are what we feel as we move towards unconsciousness


One reply on “Papanca – That delightful daydreaming..”

  1. Unconsciousness, as in not “self-conscious”? It would seem that feelings i.e., sensations, are not emotions until combined with thought, so neediness(craving) is the distress felt by ‘personalized’ desire. Without that looping of feelings to thoughts to more feelings, sensations are purely instinctual.
    If it can be interpreted to mean that pleasure and delight can be felt as we move towards selfless awareness then yes, that would be akin to ‘mindfulness’.

Comments are closed.