Language #1: Cutting your thinking mind some slack

Mindsprings Blog Post Language Part 1

I’ve been grappling with the issue of language/thinking for many decades, but lately have had a few clarifying insights that I’d like to share here. I’m grateful to the brilliant community of meditators on the Mindsprings Practice Space with whom I explore these issues. And to the work of Phil Mollon, Evan Thompson and Francisco Varela who sparked some new ways of seeing this. 

You are very welcome to come and join the Mindsprings Practice Space and plug into the post-meditation discussions. They’re very good. 

Thinking gets a bad press in meditating circles. And then – by association – the words and language which constitute thinking get poor publicity too. 

But in these three blogs, I’m going to make a case for 1) being kinder to our thinking minds and 2) celebrating rather than demonising the unique power of language in our lives.

PART ONE: Cut your thinking mind some slack.  

When we sit down to meditate – (and this blog is really aimed at people who have made that meditative “turn inwards”) – then we often get caught in a split. 

This is the split between good meditative presence and bad thought-infested absence. We strive to be present and aware but – if we’re honest – often get caught on trains of thought which take us miles and miles from that initial goal of clean-clear awareness. 

But the truth is we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about losing awareness of the present when we think. Because – in a fascinating way – the very act of thinking is grounded in absence.  

There is no need to label ‘fire’ when you’re sitting in front of it.

To understand what I mean, let’s apply an evolutionary lens.
As higher primates, human beings are probably unique in their ability to talk about things that are not there. In fact, you might say that human language was born out of that revolutionary ability to evoke the absent

We might come to this with a hazy notion that language has its roots in naming things that are present. (A ghostly echo of God naming things in the book of Genesis.) But stop to think about this. When our hairy forebears started using language, it was not just to label things. There is no need to label ‘fire’ when you’re sitting in front of it. But a name comes in very handy when you need to tell someone to make a fire when there isn’t one! 

Language takes off when we use it symbolically to refer to what is not present

When the sabre-toothed tiger is there – you don’t need to say it’s there. When the wildebeest are pouring past, it’s superfluous to give them a name. 
Language only becomes vital when you use it to tell someone that you saw a sabre-toothed tiger in this valley yesterday. Or that every spring, a herd of wildebeest will come down this valley, around this time. 

We only really need languages to draw attention to what is not there. So, in our human pre-history, I imagine language takes off when we use it symbolically to refer to what is not present

Of course, previous to this momentous birth of language, all animal life had been thoughtlessly embedded in the present moment. Indeed, to this day, you can see simple present-moment awareness masterfully demonstrated by the dog or cat in your home. Free from thinking. Present to their inner and outer worlds. 

But the moment our brilliant ancestors devised the ability to name what is not there then another door opened for the arrival of thoughts and thinking.

Individuals began to internalise those symbols as thoughts. 

There is much argument (all theoretical of course) about the birth of human cognition. And many (untestable) theories about the date and nature of its arising. But it strikes me as salient that when we started to be able to symbolise what was not there, then we sowed the seeds of thinking. My hunch would be that first human tribes created webs of socially-endorsed symbols and then much later, individuals began to internalise those symbols as thoughts. 

The other crucial aspect of this is that the act of thinking requires mental withdrawal. Our attention has to shift from scanning the outside world to manipulating things inside our heads. For as long as we are thinking we are not aware of what’s going on around us. 

Again, let’s revisit our stone-age forebears. A woman is moving along a path in an unfamiliar landscape. Her senses are all plugged in. She is present and aware. Then she begins to think about advice her mother gave her back in the homestead. She temporarily unplugs from the outside scanning and monitoring in order to manipulate inner symbols and make a decision: I must get down the hill before dark because I have been told this sort of landscape might contain bears. 

This is is the cost of thinking: we unplug from the moment-to-moment scanning of the here-and-now environment in order to think.

She has an evolutionary advantage in learning about bears before she actually meets one. But that advantage comes at a cost. She must unplug from the monitoring of the real world (which at the moment does not contain bears) in order to protect herself from the possibility of attack. And that unplugging brings anxiety. 

Imagine: you are in a dangerous place with a predator lurking. Your senses are heightened but every five minutes you chose to put a sack over your head and make yourself vulnerable. This is is the cost of thinking: we unplug from the moment-to-moment scanning of the here-and-now environment in order to think. The net-benefit may outweigh that temporary vulnerability – (we might out-think the predator) – but the cost is a momentary increase in anxiety. 

The very act of thinking and using language inside our heads is imbued with absence and anxiety. 

This is the second thing to bear in mind: thinking is inherently anxious. No matter how far removed we are from the Neolithic, our brains still get twitchy when they are not plugged into the environment around us. Even if every thought costs us a nano-second of dread – over a whole lifetime of thinking that’s a lot of ambient angst. 

So, when we sit down to meditate and feel bad about thinking, don’t. The very act of thinking and using language inside our heads is imbued with absence and anxiety. 

You can check this for your self. Close your eyes, take a breath, click your fingers. 
From the moment your fingers click, notice what kind of thinking you are doing. 
Is it a labelling of what’s present in the moment?
Or is it more of an anxious stream of checking – is this right? did I do that? should I be doing something else? 
That is to say: is it drawing attention towards what is present? or is it drawing you firmly off into what might be, should be, ought to be? Does it fill you with joy or does it leave you feeling edgy?

If – as most people find – your thinking is making you edgy and absent, this is not a problem with your personal brain. This is common with almost all human brains. The cost of thinking is absence and anxiety.
But as I’ll explore in the second part of this blog, that does not make it a bad thing. On the contrary.

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  • Hexagon Sun says:

    In addition to the benefits mentioned above, language is art and all art is welcome.

    Ps. Does this mean that there will be no more bad-mouthing of thinking (and the ego) ever and that one day you will give a talk in French or German? 🙂

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Alina, I love your comments here.
      Though – as often is the case – I might take issue with some of them. I’m not sure that all language is art. A great deal of language is more functional and social than that. I suppose it depends on how you define art.
      What I would say that there are certain ‘language games’ that lift language into a different realm. That draw attention to their own linguistic shapes and colours: poetry for example.
      Likewise, I can’t promise that I won’t ever bad mouth the ego. Language is spared but the ego is (certainly from a dharmic point of view) fair game 😉

  • Annie Macdonald says:

    Wow! Interested in the eg of Stone Age woman thinking about predators…. Question, do animals not think? Make decisions, weigh up courses of actions, just not in words? Sometimes you can see them doing it! Or is it all just pure instinct? So, with humans are we talking here about abstract / distracted thinking in words and language, which is necessarily slightly disconnected from how we’re feeling and where we are, that makes us edgy and absent?
    Have loved the idea you’ve mooted, or the practice rather, of ‘unplugging’ from thinking and realising a lot more is going on elsewhere, in our hearts and emotional centres, our gut brains even!! Thanks, great stuff!!

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thanks Annie. That’s a fascinating thought (!) about animals. In Part 2 of this blog I talk about the Imaginarium which is a sort of subconscious elaboration/commentary on bodily and perceptual experiences. Perhaps animals have that too? The ability to weigh up options before making a decision? What I can see them having is the enriched Imaginarium that comes from sharing symbolic thoughts about reality with others in the same network. I guess it depends a bit on what we define a ‘thought’ as…
      I’m glad the meditations have been helpful to discover the riches of non-thought!

  • Mrs. Mundanity says:

    The very act of thinking and using language inside our heads is imbued with absence and anxiety.”
    Not always so in my experience. For example, just recently I have been pleasantly lost in thought as I explored and thought through the possibility of creating a holder for two plant pots out of the now defunct bar of lights that lit up my stairs. Likewise in relation to a knitting pattern that I know I can improve on. No anxiety, just an enjoyable opportunity to be creative!
    Perhaps I should have waited for the next instalment before commenting.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Not at all – I am very happy to hear everyone’s spontaneous in-the-moment thoughts and reactions. And I totally get what you are saying. Of course we often think pleasant things that don’t lead to negative emotions. I think what I was exploring was something much more ancestral and perhaps subconscious: that no matter what the content of our thoughts might be, the very act of thinking at all takes us momentarily away from environmental watchfulness and generates a (perhaps imperceptible) amount of heightened anxiety in the body.

  • Jane Davis says:

    For me, it was overthinking and buying into my own elaborate interpretations–storylines–as ‘facts’ that was/is (much less so since Corona Comfort started in March) the problem. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Thoughts are not facts” but I find they can drag one around as if they are absolute truths. (Once, as a sort of experiment, during the Trayvon Martin catastrophe, I asked a group what did we know as facts and what were are our opinions–if we could differentiate between those 2–and every media-driven storyline that was the basis of opinions resulted in those thoughts being presented as absolute facts (like the thought vs. fact of whether or not an election was stolen). Anyway, that’s been my experience. (And concerning ego, I thought Alistair gave a great, very convincing explanation during the summer of the different (benign, if that’s the right word) elements of the ego and the problem arising with ‘ego identity.’)

  • Nirit Yadin says:

    I love what you said that language refers to what is “absent.” It’s all about “the space between”– the space between a sound and what the sound symbolizes and the space between the humans who use that said space to exchange meaning.

  • Ingrid says:

    That’s a really interesting insight, Al — ‘thinking’ is, by definition, of that which is not there, and must be represented otherwise, through some kind of sign system. Thinking, by definition, is a reconstruction, a second version of reality. We think ABOUT reality. And in undertaking an act of thinking, about reality, we must, again, by definition, absent ourselves from reality.

    I am doing so right now. Through my act of writing down my thinking about the nature of thought — and you are being forced to do so through your act of reading.

    The only difference is that the act of reading necessitates an act of *imagining*, as well as, and/or instead of thought — it’s a different kind of construction or reconstruction of reality.

    There are so many KINDS of thinking: repetitive, ruminative, systematic (problem-solving). As soon as you start to name them, it’s easy to see the connection between thought and anxiety, their entanglement. Does anxiety provoke the thought, or thought the anxiety? And it’s easy then to see the connection between thinking and the sympathetic nervous system, how, as you say, even momentary diversions into thought trip us into fight or flight hypervigilance, even if we’re just on the bus. Conversely, that not-thinking, simply being, must be connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, rest, untangling.

    Thinking helps us survive, but it doesn’t help us live.

    • alistairappleton says:

      HI Inky, thanks for that … I realise as I re-read this that there are so many ways that thinking can engender anxiety. Perhaps it is the only way that “anxiety” (as opposed to the more hard-wired fear and panic) is engendered. As you say, all those ‘not-so-helpful’ ways of thinking like rumination and loopy thoughts seem to accidentally increase the anxiety that they are trying to solve. My original thinking (!) was that the very act of thought might have primordial roots in an anxious feeling of not paying attention to reality: taking your eye of the surroundings in order to cogitate (if only for a moment).

      Plugging back into reality doesn’t necessarily trigger parasympathetic response (after all a sabre-tooth tiger might have snuck into your living room while you were ruminating) but statistically reality is probably less problem filled than our imagination of reality. And so, yes, we probably can reassure ourselves by looking around the room and plugging into its reassuring cat-free qualities.

      By bringing in reading you are taking us a few more dizzying steps up the symbolic ladder. I haven’t got so far as to think my way through that. But my initial feeling is that reading involves ‘nested’ thinking – that is, thinking about other people’s thinking in an enfolding and enfolded way. It has a deep pleasure and richness – but necessitate even more time away from the rock-face of here-and-now reality. Of course, in our highly textualised world (iPads, iPhones, newspapers, TVs) then this nested thinking can completely isolate us from sensorial reality. Much to our detriment I feel.

      BTW the Cambridge friend I mention in the 3rd blog is Simon Christmas. I’m going to send him the link and see if it sparks things in his wondrous brain.

      Hope you are well!

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