More Than (I) Thought

My common(?) misconception about brains & meditation


Yesterday I wrote about how brains work — to the order of a leaky analogy—but today I want to talk about what brains do, or rather what people do with brains.

If you asked me a few months ago what meditation was, what one does when one meditates, I think I’d likely have said what I gather is a fairly common understanding: “Well, you sit there and clear your mind; You try to think of nothing, or rather not think. You basically do nothing [with your brain]”. And by my current understanding, I would have almost been right. Almost.

The flaw in that response is one simple but profound assumption: that brains are for thought and thought alone. People think with their brains. The alternative to thinking is doing nothing.

Now, clearly this was incorrect and oversimplified — on some order brains are obviously involved in many other processes I can name: remembering, seeing, smelling, moving, simply remaining alive — but if you’d pointed this out to me then, I’d have at least briefly remained steadfast: when it comes to intentional action, and especially isolated intentional function, it was my conceit that brains, that prefrontal cortices at least, were for thinking. And then when one was not thinking, one’s brain, at least that one’s mind, could not meaningfully be called active or engaged.

And its a tough semantic issue, but if you ask me now, I don’t really agree with that. Here is what “I think”: the idea of “thinking” is an act of processing — of inspecting, of analyzing, of considering options, planning; it is an opinionated act; it is an act which inherently involves some consideration of past or future.

And doing those things takes away from meditating, or at least formally meditating, at least at first. Because the idea of meditation is involved fundamentally with an idea, with a word, to which I gave very little consideration prior to my commencement of mediation practice: Awareness.

It is my current understanding that the functions of the brain, of the mind are (at least) twofold: one may think or one may be aware. I liken these to processing and observation — to opinion and fact. To think is to mentally act on an impression, to be aware, to be “mindful” is to hold it, to observe it, to acknowledge it as it is without processing, without opining, without judging.

Idealized awareness is presence: it does not involve past or future because it does not involve comparison or planning. And what awareness loses in apparent utility by this nature is balanced by what it affords and common thought does not: depth.

In every moment, you receive billions of impressions: photons strike your eyes, vibrations move you at a macroscopic scale (not to mention the constant vibration of everything at the nanoscopic), you breath, your neurons fire and much much more. Some of this you cannot know or notice, but much of it you can and don’t. You ignore more than you don’t in any moment. And don’t get me wrong, you have to.

But awareness is trying not to ignore something: to attend to it — and in that it is a very active process. It is not thought, but it is definitely not doing nothing. And that’s how I was wrong.

I leave you with a quote by Ze Frank from this video that captures not exactly this idea but I think is a good analogy nevertheless and easy to conceive:

Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated by the shape of the stone.

(replace “my work” with “this moment” and I think you get pretty close)