It’s neither easy to think well about conceiving nor to live well with respect to it. That’s because living well requires a balanced approach to thinking, a middle way, between being enslaved by it and doing it poorly (or not at all); that balance is difficult to attain.
It seems not to occur to most people that it is possible to be enslaved or bound by it. On the other hand, sages, to make a point, sometimes overstate their case by claiming that it should be totally abandoned.
Thinking is conceptualizing. To conceptualize (judge) is to apply a concept, a principle of classification, to an object, which is anything we are able to single out for attention. The result is a judgment (statement, proposition) that is the meaning of a declarative sentence such as “This is a desk” or “That book cover is red.”
Not all awareness or consciousness is thinking. Some episodes are, and some aren’t.
It’s possible to single something out without conceptualizing it. Presumably, infants do that frequently; until they build up a conceptual system by noticing similarities and differences, they perceive without conceptual contamination. Where ‘x’ stands for an object and ‘F’ stands for a concept, there’s a logical difference between “x” and “x is F.” Only the latter is a judgment, a thought.
Humans are better at thinking than any other known kind of animals.
Without our wonderful ability at thinking, survival would be impossible. Suppose, for example, that you are alone, hungry, and lost in the wilderness. You spy what might be an edible plant. Should you eat it or not? It could either kill or nourish you. What’s the best way of classifying it?
It’s not just that our survival would be impossible without thinking: civilization would be impossible. We are surrounded, to use Yeats’s lovely phrase, by “[m]onuments of unageing intellect.”
Thinking well is thought so important to living well that thinkers, scientists, philosophers, and many others often devote their careers to conceiving well. As a philosophy professor, I did for 32 years!
Unsystematic thinking isn’t good thinking. Concepts are arranged in hierarchies from the most abstract or fundamental to the most concrete. Among modern western philosophers, Spinoza’s system provides the best paradigm of a philosophical system. Many philosophers don’t even take seriously any thinkers who are unsystematic. Philosophers such as Nietzsche who are not systematic thinkers are inherently difficult to understand.
Is a life of thinking well a well-lived life?
I myself used to assume that it was. I made it my business as a young man to learn enough about all the major philosophical (fundamental) systems from both the western and eastern traditions to come to a defensible evaluation of them. It was a very interesting, stimulating, and difficult process that turned out not to be as valuable as I had assumed it would be.
What I learned was, in brief, this: although some good thinking is necessary for living well, it is not necessary to master thinking well to master life. In fact, attachment to useless thinking obstructs living well!
I came to the conclusion that most master thinkers did not actually live well at all. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t master thinkers. What it means is that they were out of balance. It’s false that thinking well is living well.
Again, living well requires a balance between thinking and non-thinking. Again, “non-thinking” is not the same as “non-conscious.”
Many sages have pointed this out. In fact, it’s not even necessary to be literate to be a sage! (Again, though, it is necessary to have picked up some good thinking to be a sage.)
This makes sense only if one distinguishes between thinking and attachment to thinking. There’s nothing at all inherently wrong with thinking—and it’s certainly better to do it well than poorly. The problem comes with attachment to thinking, which spawns useless thoughts.
The Buddha, Siddharta Gotama, was the most successful philosopher and greatest sage of all time. He tells his followers: “[Y]ou should train yourselves thus: ‘We will dwell with a mind devoid of conceiving.’” [From Salayatanasamyutta in The Connected Discourses of The Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 2000), Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr., p. 1259.]
What? Does he recommend against thinking? Is he an anti-intellectual?
Hardly. The Buddha was one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived. What he was recommended against was attachment to thinking.
We should, according to him, train ourselves to let go of useless thinking. Lest we misunderstand, he provides us with some specific examples:
“’I am’ is a conceiving; ‘I am this’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall be’ is a conceiving; ‘I shall not be’ is a conceiving . . . [p. 1258] Other examples he provides are: ‘I shall consist of form,’ ‘I shall be formless,’ ‘I shall be percipient,’ ‘I shall be nonpercipient,’ and ‘I shall be neither percipient nor nonpercipient.’
Here’s his thesis: “Conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumour, conceiving is a dart.” Lest we miss the point, he also calls it “a perturbation,” “a palpitation,” and “a proliferation.” So, we should train ourselves to avoid this sickness.
Endless theorizing is not living well. In fact, probably 80 or 90% of our thoughts are useless and repetitive! What he’s telling us is that we’d be better off without them.
It’s not that thinking is always a sickness. 10 or 20% of our thoughts are fresh and often productive.
The only way to be certain that this is the case is by direct experience. Obviously, it’s impossible to use the mind or discursive intellect to figure out what the experience of living would be like without most thoughts interfering!
So the Buddha urges us to practice and find out for ourselves. The only way to do this is by meditating. One way of meditating is zazen, which is my practice.
In his classic The Three Pillars of Zen, Roshi Kapleau writes: “to strive self-consciously for satori or any other gain from zazen is as unnecessary as it is undesirable.” Though it does demand “an intense inner struggle,” this struggle is not one of conceiving better.
He quotes his teacher Yasutani-Roshi as saying that “thinking is useful when wisely employed—which is to say, when its nature and limitations are properly understood—but as long as human beings remain slaves to their intellect, fettered and controlled by it, they can well be called sick.”
For example, “you ought not to think of zazen in terms of time.” So, suppose you are practicing and wondering: How long have I been sitting? When will this round end? How much longer do I have to practice to experience a breakthrough? Will I ever experience a breakthrough?
That’s just more thinking! Instead of practicing, you are merely engaging in even more conceiving. If you keep doing that, you’ll never breakthrough from thought to no-thought. “Buddha-nature [True Self] cannot be grasped by the intellect.”
Without mastering a practice like zazen, you’ll just be stuck incessantly conceiving. By mastering a practice like zazen, you’ll be able to live well by achieving a balance between thought and no-thought.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit by reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended readings: The Buddha’s The Connected Discourses of The Buddha, Roshi Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, and the books and training CD’s or DVD’s of Eckhart Tolle.