Every newbie meditator learns that after a few moments of deliberate focus on your breath, thoughts rush in and fill your consciousness. You get so lost in thought that you don’t know that you are thinking instead of following your breath. Despite your best efforts, silent inner words drown out your sensual experience. The Buddhists call this proliferation of thought papanca.
What a major revelation for me. Previously I had no idea that my mind lacked the flexibility of my body. Though occasionally I attended to emotions and sensations, and moments of mindfulness arose, I now saw my normal mental state as rigid, stuck in thought. My cognition was lopsided, as if I my head chronically tilted to the side rather than straight up and balanced.
My mindfulness also revealed that in moderate doses, thinking buoyed me. Prior to the retreat I’d known I liked the outcomes of thinking, such as making a decision or calculation; now I discovered that the mere flow of thoughts felt good too. So it turned out that all of the mental modes have a positive valence. The secret to a happy mental life is to flow easily from one mode to another and not get stuck in thought.
Meditation also helped me notice how thinking produces physical tension. As I mindfully tracked the progress of a thought I noticed subtle but unmistakable sensations of tightening in my jaw or belly and then their release as I returned to emptiness. Thought is a body stressor! That is why I could stretch further into yoga postures (that I continued to practice in my tiny room at the temple) than with Iyengar. Minimizing thinking made my muscles supple. Meditation seemed better than yoga for loosening up the body. When I thought less, I relaxed more. Maybe over-thinking explained the prevalence of tension I saw in the whole culture.
As the hours and hours of meditation helped balance my mind, I experienced life differently away from the meditation cushion. For example, food started to taste better because I could devote greater attention to its sensual delights. When I arrived at the temple I ate in my typical hurried and distracted style. Thoughts had my attention rather than the flavors in my mouth. As I tamed my thinking mind to focus on the tastes, textures and aromas, my pleasure in the meal increased. And even without my heightened sensitivity, the cuisine might have been the most delicious I’ve ever consumed. Buddhist pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka traveled to the temple to prepare and serve the lavish spread to pay their respects to the venerable monks. The generously included visitors like me in the pungent vegetarian feast.
My sense of hearing also perked up. Surrounded by the leafy jungle and its many chattering creatures I had a front row seat in a natural symphony. When I first arrived, the wall of sound greeted me as a cacophonous din. The more I meditated the better I could follow the music, discerning the chirps, whistles, whoops and screams of distinct species. One insect sounded like a person brushing their teeth. This ability to tune into the animal orchestra required focus. I had to hold my attention on very specific sounds and tune out others. The quieter my thinking mind, the richer my experience of the soundscape. Some evenings the chorus absorbed me for hours.
Meditation also increased the traffic on my emotive circuits. With my thoughts receding, my check-ins occurred more spontaneously. I could now detect very subtle uppers and downers. Day after day of such perception revealed much about my deepest emotional world, my “core affect”.
I learned from these experiences that my feeling mind—my emotions and sensuality—could put the brakes on thought as effectively as meditation. As I deliberately focused on the taste of the food, the sounds of the jungle, or the feel of my body during my secret yoga sessions, my thinking mind left the driver’s seat. During one of the regular interviews offered by some of the senior monks I asked about this strategy for mental balance. They thought it a source of “craving” and in turn, “suffering”. They clearly seemed uncomfortable with the feeling mind.
I did not experience my feelings in that way. Sensations and emotions were a source of pleasure and meaning, not addiction. If anything, my thinking mind was the addict within me. Now I saw that my feeling mind lifted me twice, by giving me rich sensual and emotional experience and taming my thoughts.
Mid way through the retreat I had a major insight which profoundly influenced my life’s work. I saw the relationship of my thinking and feeling minds as inherently political in nature. My thinking mind dominated like a dictator in a banana republic. My emotive, sensual and mindfulness modes were outcasts. My thought-master not only wanted to deny equal time to the other members of my mind but also looked down on them. For they threatened its dominance. If you have never meditated or peered into your inner world in a disciplined way you can miss the fact that there is a pecking order inside your head.
I also realized that meditation helps democratize our mental politics. You slowly learn to cultivate mindfulness, to see the hegemony of thought, and to choose to focus on sensations or emptiness. The Buddhists claimed, and my own experience confirmed as I described in the previous chapter, that this democratization, this mental diversity, feels good. Reducing thought is an upper that can lead all the way to bliss. I seemed to naturally prefer egalitarian inner politics, but had been taken over by a mental despot.