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.

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.

Buddhism & the West need deeper engagement

As a Western academian, it frustrates me that bhikkhu(ni)s (Buddhist monks and nuns) and upāsakas/upāsikās (almost-monastic Buddhist householders) who either come from Asia or train in Asia seem to spend most of their time in the West interacting with New Age, hippy, seeker, etc. types of people, instead of working with more mainstream academians/scientists to reconcile Buddhist psychology with Western psychology. Both Buddhists and psychologists seem to acknowledge each other’s theories and methods superficially, but neither side seems very interested in engaging the other very deeply. Mindfulness is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg. Go deeper!

Shallow exploration

My main problem with how people in the US explore Asian philosophical/religious traditions is how shallowly they usually go about it.

Buddhism, for example, is from India (not China or Japan, as many Americans seem to think), is over 2,560 years old, has a canon the size of a bookcase (because the Buddha taught for 50 years, compared with Jesus’ 3 years), has many sects/traditions, and has thousands of years of commentaries and history as well as hundreds of millions of followers in many countries. But all one really sees of it in the US mainstream are misunderstandings (e.g., that nirvana=heaven, which it doesn’t, or that those fatuous Budai statues one sees everywhere are the Buddha, which they aren’t) and things from more than 1,000 years after the Buddha lived, like: Japanese Zen architecture and koans that people take as pithy aphorisms, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan prayer flags, householders (not monastics) teaching “Vipassana” or “Mindfulness” mixed with either New Age things or psychotherapy, and often-decapitated Buddha statues being used randomly as exotic artwork.

Similarly, Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world, with about 4,000 years of history and many different varieties. But all one really sees of it in the US mainstream is many-armed statues and Yoga, which people here do mostly for either exercise or sexual exhibitionism in spandex pants, ignoring its spiritual and lifestyle aspects.