Negating negativity: thinking critically about critical thinking

In the name of “critical thinking,” I have noticed a tendency in the West for intellectuals to become not only reflective and deconstructive, but to frequently live in mentally aggressive/hostile, cynical, pessimistic, etc. states of mind. Although I would agree that being overly positive can bias one in various ways (e.g., to see only what you want to see and miss/ignore challenges, obstacles, etc.), being overly negative can bias one in opposite ways (e.g., to see only obstacles or challenges and miss/ignore what might be possible). So I think it is important to turn critical thinking against itself, and to be critical of becoming too negative of a person. To me, the main value of critical thinking is to acknowledge and let go of biases and assumptions, to become mentally detached and aware, to try to see and think clearly. Mental detachment is perhaps the primary activity/aspect of mindfulness meditation, as is awareness of vipassana meditation.

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Anti-thought

Cramming your head full of knowledge or thinking as quickly as possible (i.e., becoming as robotically intelligent as possible), is not the same as mental development (e.g., practicing self-control, concentration, mindfulness/awareness, virtuous thoughts, etc.). Meditation (in Buddhism) means working to stop or to control thoughts and feelings, to become a better person.

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is probably the main Buddhist meditation technique embraced by the Western mainstream, including Western psychology. In general, it teaches people how to keep a mental distance from their experiences — both to reduce life’s stressfulness and to help people think, feel, and behave in a more calm, clearheaded way — without taking drugs. Like any skill, mindfulness takes practice, but pretty much everyone (excluding perhaps people with serious brain injuries) can do it.

Here are the mindfulness meditation steps that have worked best for me:

  1. With your eyes open, not focused on anything in particular, sit in a room and (mentally, internally) note what you see. Don’t get up and do anything in the room. Don’t critique the room; just let it be as it is. Don’t make any plans about what you will do in/to the room in the future (cleaning, re-arranging, socializing, etc.). If it helps, put a one-word label on the things you see (e.g., wall, outlet, carpet, door, etc.). When you’re comfortable with the process of labeling, stop using labels and just observe the room without thinking about it. Notice that the room was built at some point in the past, that it’s existing/abiding for awhile, and that it will someday decay or be destroyed. Actually, you’re not necessarily watching a room — you’re watching images, sounds, etc. that your mind is creating, based on sensory input. These mental constructions may be different than the room’s objective/absolute reality.
  2. Close your eyes, and mentally watch the sensations of your body: pains, pleasures, itches, urges, fatigue, etc. Again, don’t do anything to them. Just let them be as they are. Don’t scratch, don’t shift around, don’t go eat or drink anything, don’t go to the toilet, etc. Just watch. If labeling things helps, do it as before (in step 1, above), but stop once you’re comfortable enough with the process, and just watch the body without thinking. Notice that sensations all follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may abide/stay awhile, then they decay on their own if you don’t do anything. Even itches, aches, etc. will eventually go away on their own. If any sensation is especially troublesome, hold that part of your body at a mental or physical distance, and say to yourself things like “the pain is over there… the pain is separate from me”.
  3. Turn your attention away from your bodily sensations, towards your mental thoughts and feelings. Watch the thoughts and feelings like clouds passing in the sky, or like a movie or TV show on a distant screen. Don’t get caught up in the movie. Don’t give the thoughts or feelings any energy (because this movie is like a “choose your own adventure” story). Don’t pursue, expand upon, cling to, dwell on, etc. anything you see. Just let things come into your mind, stay awhile, and then go. Like so-called “external” things and bodily sensations, notice that thoughts and feelings eventually fade away on their own; you don’t have to fight with them. Also notice how the part of your mind that is doing the watching feels. It isn’t tied up in anything, so it can be very calm, stable, and clear. No matter what happens in life, you can always return to this peaceful state of mind, and can use it to think more clearly.

This practice can be deepened further with Buddhist vipassana and jhana meditations, finding ever-more subtle and peaceful levels of the mind, and gaining ever-more insights into the nature of mental and so-called “physical” phenomena.

Equanimity

Pursuing either positivity (enjoyment, pleasure, luxury, etc.) or negativity (anger, punishment, vengeance, etc.) causes struggle and stress. Both are very unstable. Neutrality (contentment, balance, selflessness, etc.) seems to be the least stressful, most stable path.

The pain is over there… the pain is not me

For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”

This seems to work for a few reasons:

  1. Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
  2. Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
  3. The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.

Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.

The Skill of Meditation

“As we meditate, we’re working on a skill, and the skill is to bring the mind to a state of stillness, with as much alertness and awareness as possible, because this skill lies at the basis of all other skills. If you want to be skillful in how you act, how you speak, how you think… you need to be aware of what you’re doing, and you have to be in the present moment, to watch your intentions, because your intentions shape everything” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Skill of Meditation“, 11/29/2016).

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.