Thinking About Thinking

A common sticking point that meditators face when catching themselves lost in thought is thinking about thinking. For example:

  • I’ll mentally note that I’m ruminating on a past experience.
  • Instead of returning to the present, I’ll accidentally think about the note I just made.
    • Getting lost in thought isn’t necessarily bad. However, it’s important to know when doing so is causing a disservice.
  • Then, I’ll think about the aforementioned thinking.
  • The process usually recurses a few levels. That is, I’ll think about the thinking…about the thinking.

“Thinking about thinking” throws off longtime meditators because their acute awareness can sometimes be a crutch in causing them to lean into thought. I encountered this during a retreat in May1. However, during office hours with Jonathan, we attempted to bucket the states our mind can be in, as a way to flatten any potential meta-thinking.

Two states of mind: thinking and being present

In the above division, one is either present or thinking2. If we assume that these two states are mutually exclusive (I’ll touch on the potential intersection in a moment), then “thinking about (thinking about…) thinking” gets reduced to, well, just thinking!

Can you think and be present concurrently? My gut says the intersection of these states is what we typically refer to as flow. When you’re so in tune with a task at hand, that everything else takes the backseat.

It seems contradictory that I’m regarding these states as being mutually exclusive when I want to prevent “thinking about thinking,” but allowing them to intersect when it comes to flow. Nick Szabo calls this holding of contradictory possibilities “quantum thinking” (fourth bullet point).

[…] You should disagree with yourself. Totalitarian thought asks us to consider, much less accept, only one hypothesis at a time. By contrast quantum thought, […] demands that we [simultaneously] consider often mutually contradictory possibilities.

The thinking/present distinction is the first instance of quantum thought I’ve come across, since reading their post. I’m still processing this thought. But, it’s been in my stream of consciousness for a couple of weeks now, so I wanted to commit it to prose.


Special thanks to Joe for providing feedback on an early draft of this post.

Footnotes:

  1. I took notes during the silent, week-long retreat. If you’d like posts on the major themes, let me know! 

  2. This isn’t meant to put thinking in a negative light! Without it, we wouldn’t be able to cogitate at all.