Notes for talk three in the 2014 dhamma talk series
Not Thinking Inside the Box
Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.

To talk about ‘not thinking’ is quite interesting. There is often a reaction against it. To ‘not think’! Isn’t that going against everything that the ‘enlightened’ world values? Should we not be thinking more, rather than less?

I was in a car one time, chatting to the driver. He told me

“Driving is my meditation.”

I was as interested as I was miffed. Driving a car isn’t meditation. Though one can meditate while driving. He went on to tell me how he ‘figures stuff out’ while driving.

“That’s not meditation,” I told him emphatically. And explained that during meditation you are supposed to sit there without thinking.

“But, that’s BRAIN DEAD!” he yelled.

These days I have relaxed my thinking on the topic. I now know there are many ways to do meditation, and it is all to be encouraged. If making people in society think more has not created a much better world, then maybe encouraging people to swap thinking for self-awareness will be better.

His view however, emphasises a point. In Western countries, ‘thinking’ is something of a sacred cow. If you are not thinking (or playing sport), you are wasting your time. You are taught from an early age to think more – you are praised for every new thing you learn. You are taught to remember facts and pass exams. You are valued for your clever ideas.

In Asian countries though, they have a visible tradition of meditators. Gladly Western countries have been waking up to it also.  Descartes said “I think therefore I am”. Did he think to take a look at the opposite question – if I don’t think, am I then not?


Thinking is definitely important. A Christian poem sums it up well;

Sow a thought, reap a habit
Sow a habit, reap a character,
So a character, reap a destiny

The Buddha said something similar.

To what a man thinks and ponders, there is a leaning in his mind

The Buddha also said that desire is led by thinking. If you do not think upon a topic, then the desire will cease. In fact there are many sayings of the Buddha regarding thoughts and thinking, to be found in the Dhammapada and other texts.

The message is clear, if a little new-agey. You should be careful with your thinking. As your body is what food you eat, your soul is what thoughts you think.


Modern research into thinking tends to shows it as unreliable. Some years ago when Europe was adopting a common currency, there was a survey in France. Asked if they were in favour of adopting the Euro as currency, the French people were for it. But when asked if they supported abandoning the French Franc, in favour of the Euro, 97% were against! It was the exact same question framed differently.

Some Psychologists arranged for a group of volunteers to read a short amusing story, and give it marks out of 10 for humour. One group was asked to read the story whilst holding a pen in their lips, while the second group had to hold the pen in their teeth.

The psychologists correctly guessed that the second group would find the story funnier – the cause being the facial gesture. The first group were making a frown, and the second were making a smile.

This is a typical example of modern research in psychology. It is not life changing, but piece by piece we are gaining a better understanding or how we work.

Above we see that our thoughts are not to be trusted. What you think is not an accurate reflection of the world around you. All kinds of unseen influences and biases are warping your perception. Genes, hormones, neuro-transmitters, and even relatively mild variables like tempreature or haptic feedback affect our judgement.


In the case of the pen in the mouth, we can take the research a step further. What if we could make people smile and prevent them from frowning? Would that be an effective treatment for depression? Turns out, it could be.

Another example is the Fundamental Attribution Error. Here you attribute your own success to your good qualities. And you attribute your failures to external conditions. ‘I passed my exam because I am clever’ ‘I failed my exam because my teacher is bad’.

The same holds true in reverse for other people. ‘She got ill because she is weak willed’ ‘I get ill because of a virus’.

Research is plentiful into all kinds of bias in our thinking. We are not quite as smart as we like to think! The truth is we can’t be aware of everything, so our attention shifts to just pick out what seems important. Our Ego narrative tries to fill in the blanks. That is, we are a large mass of warring drives (see the Marshmallow experiment) and missing information. Yet always trying to be an integrated whole.

An example of the mind ‘filling in the blanks’ is the ‘When Kennedy was shot’ question. People who are old enough to remember this event, supposedly all can recall where they were when they got the news. A more modern example is the crashing of planes into the twin towers. Do you remember where you were when you got the news. Probably you have a clear recollection. But what if you are wrong?

In the Invisible Gorilla we find that researchers have followed up people’s recollections of the Twin Towers event. It turns out that people have very shaky memories after all. For instance some people report being with a particular person at the time. But that other person reports a different memory. Throughout the book the authors show with many examples how our mind plays tricks on us.


We don’t need to turn to psychology to investigate the addictive nature of thinking. Just try sitting meditation.

It is interesting. Throughout daily existence YOU are busy thinking. But in meditation, suddenly you find that thinking carries on by itself regardless. You tell yourself ‘OK, this is the time for just watching the breath’. But you find that your mind has other ideas.

Where are the thoughts coming from? It is karma. Or in a more modern term – habit. The things that you think about are the very topics you have given importance to in the past. The thoughts come because you formed the habit. So if you intend to be a good meditator, you will have to form some different habits. And that of course, takes patience.

Understanding something with thinking gives you a small rush of ‘reward’ neuro-transmitters. It is the same feeling as when you get something new – a chemical rush. The habit cycle is quite straight forward: trigger-unconscious action-reward. This cycle has been used in advertising to great effect – it is how Claude Hopkins made the world start using toothpaste … but that’s another story.

Any action that provides a result, starts to become habitual. The results create a state of mild arousal or excitement. Quickly you need to keep acting just to maintain your levels of arousal. This is called the Hedonic Treadmill (that we talked about the previous week). And if you are not on the treadmill, you will feel tired or sleepy. Again, you can see this clearly in meditation – your state of mind reflects how you have spent your day.

See The Power of Habit for lots of research into different habits and how/why they work.

Long Stories

For you lay people, seeing your thinking is not such an important issue. You have lots of activities to break up your thinking. When you are ordained, or in a long retreat on a mountain somewhere, you have very little to break up your thinking. Very little to keep you sane.

Thinking runs away with you given half a chance. Unless you are interrupting your thinking it will get way off course. This is one reason why it is difficult to live with people when you don’t speak their language. When you have no one to talk to the mind starts playing tricks! Amongst the monks, we have all encountered this – the manic crazy mind that gets so involved in intricate fantasies (usually of what you would be doing if you were not a monk). It gets very believable. In fact, it becomes more real than reality!

Notice that meditation techniques and methods tend to focus on ways to break up your thinking. Ways to interrupt it, and return to self-awareness. Either that, or they will direct you on to some meditation object in concentration until the thinking has stopped.

Beware of the narratives in your mind. They rarely reflect reality. But they can make you very opinionated.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

 In theatre you watch the production and get invovled int he story and characters. Do you notice that the ‘fourth wall’ is missing? On the stage there are only three walls. The actors, too, pretend the audience is not there (except in pantomime).

Occasionally the actors on the stage will turn around and address the audience directly. The result is usually a murmer of shock running through the audience – their paradigm has been upset. It is called ‘breaking the fourth wall’.

fourth wall cartoon

Seeing your own thinking is like that. Suddenly you go from being absorbed in the story, to suddenly being aware of yourself. The thinking is something that goes on by itself. But now you find yourself to be the silent observer, rather than the thinker. It is quite a difference. In the Guy Ritchie movie Revolver, you find the central character does not like to be constrained in a lift (means being forced to be with his own thoughts). But later in the movie, while in the lift, he gains an insight. “I can hear you talking” he says to his own mind.

It is one of the first and most important insights in meditation. You realise that you are not-your-self.

Further, you expeirence thinking as something that is not pleasant. It is oppressive. In fact, you’d rather do anything than sit there and be afflicted by your thinking. If you dive into the story, once again you are back in familiar territory. But you have had the insight already. And it will occur to you more and more often to notice your own thoughts.

Be assured. You are not crazy. Keep watching. Keep being the witness to everything that occurs. It will undermine the sense of self.

Two Kinds of Mind

If you can watch your thinking, you might be able to distinguish two basic types. They are not heavily distinguished – and there may be all kinds of shades in between. (see the Abhidhammattha Sangaha for more on this)

  • Sassankarikang – this is ‘prompted’ thinking i.e. you know what the story is and there is a strong attahcment to engage with it.
  • Asassankarikang – non-prompted thinking. This is when you are not really paying attention, and the mind is bobbing from story to story without real attachment of engagement. It’s more akin to dreaming, or at least day-dreaming. One sutta describes it as the mind floating on the thinking.

Two Kinds of Thinking

There is a famous sutta where the Buddha talks about hsi experiences before he became enlightened called the Dvedavitakka Sutta.

Here the bodhisattva wonders if he split his thining into two kinds, what they would be.

Unskillful States Skillful states
sense desire renunciation
anger non-anger (metta)
cruelty non-cruelty (ahimsa)

He figured that if he thinks the unskilful kind, then it would afflict himself and others. It would not be conducive to wisdom or enlightenment. Therefore, he says, he immediately ceased from this kind of thinking.

On the other hand, thinking the skillful thoughts is blameless. They would not afflict himself or others. They are conducive to wisdom and to enlightenment. But if he were to think of them, it would tire him out.

Therefore he abandoned both kinds of thinking, and stopped the mind still.

The full sutta is here.