Buddhism and the Messiness of Everyday Thinking

I am sitting in the Forest Refuge dining hall eating my breakfast oatmeal. I’m 4 weeks into a 3-month silent meditation retreat. My mind, however, is anything but silent: I’m in a fierce argument with the estate of songwriter Jimmy Webb.

Papancha. It’s a Pali word often translated as “endless mental proliferation.” It’s the continual bustle of mental activity.  Papancha is the one of the great challenges and coyote-tricksters of meditation, the mosquito of mindfulness. It’s one of the most accurately descriptive Buddhist concepts I know. It’s the reason the thinking mind (at least mine) is like a classroom of hyperactive children.

Even the word has a devilish ring to it. It rolls around the mouth like a nonsense phrase from a childhood game. Or it could be a Mexican food, or a lyric sung by Rosemary Clooney. (I saw Rosemary Clooney once. At the Rainbow Room in New York City. She wore a turban. She’s George Clooney’s aunt. That movie he was in about Hawaii was over-rated. Why was it so popular? Hawaii – I miss it. I always thought I’d return…)

And on and on.

Papancha bedevils meditators, but it may be the natural default state of our restless, ever-wandering “monkey” mind. Scan, scan, scan: neuroscience suggests this is what our frontal cortex is programmed to do. The endless proliferation, the bifurcating and splintering in multiple directions, down multiple pathways — this is normal waking mental energy. We start at point A and end at point Q, often with no sense of how we got there or where we started. It’s no doubt of evolutionary benefit. It is also a primary cause of suffering.

In Buddhism the root of suffering is attachment, but the delivery system of that suffering is the everyday thinking mind. How much distress stems from the unimpeded, unobserved flow (or avalanche) of our thoughts? Worrying about the future, rehashing the past, reliving conversations, rewriting events, scripting imagined outcomes, savoring this, plotting that, wanting things to be different than they are or were — our basic mental activity can lead over and over into self-inflicted, unnecessary torment.

From this perspective, mindfulness practice is, fundamentally, the harnessing ofpapancha. It is honing the capacity to observe our unending cavalcade of thought and emotion without getting swept up in it.

A common misconception about meditation is that the goal is to control or stop our thoughts. But it may be more accurate to consider meditation as cultivating a new relationship to thinking: benevolent eavesdropping.

Thinking is more like vision or hearing than like a machine that can be switched on or off. When the eyes are open, sight just happens; when our ears function well, sounds just arise. We can of course focus on a sight or sound, but we do not need to make ourselves see or hear; these processes are automatic. We live in fields of sound and image.

Assume the same is true with thought: We live in a field of thought, just like fields of sound and image. What arises spontaneously cannot be controlled — yet how much suffering comes when we believe there are thoughts we are not supposed to think, or shouldn’t think, or don’t want to! Or, even more insidiously, when we regard a thought as “true” simply because we have thought it.

Don’t believe everything you think, a wise Buddhist axiom has it.

And so papancha ensnares me this morning at breakfast, yet again. I flash onto an incident several years back, dancing with a friend to Donna Summer’s disco classic “MacArthur Park.”  Someone left a cake out in the rain… At the time, I flagged it as a story I might write and publish.

Hmm, for the story to work I’ll need to include the lyrics. So I’ll need copyright permission. Who wrote the song? Oh right, Jimmy Webb. I wonder if he’s alive or dead. I don’t know — maybe he’s dead. I’ll have to contact his estate for permission. But what if they say no? The story wouldn’t work. What, they said No?! They’re denying me the rights to quote the song? I can’t believe that, how stupid…And so I start fighting with them.

When I finally catch myself – wake up, really — I am far gone. My heart is racing, my breath animated. I am glaring into space. My body is in the Forest Refuge dining room, my mind is embattled in a legal dispute with the estate of Jimmy Webb, who may or may not be dead, over their refusal to grant permission to use one lyric for a story I never wrote and likely never will.

How long have I been in this papancha trance? Seconds? Minutes? How long have I been caught in other, more subtle trances – years?

My breath returns to baseline. It’s been so real, this inner journey. I’m surprised no one else has seen it. With a renewed attempt at more than customary mindfulness, I finish my room-temperature oatmeal.

If I were to write the musical of my life, I later quip to myself, I’d call it “Man of Papancha.”

Great joke, I think. But in the silence, there is no one to share it with.

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).

2 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Messiness of Everyday Thinking

  1. the answer — as usual, simple, and also as usual, far easier said than done — is once again mindfulness. Mindfulness of papancha is freedom from papancha. The stream continues, but one doesn’t get caught up in it. It simply becomes another object of focus. It’s also the case that once the mind begins to quiet, papancha becomes easier to regulate: it arises less frequently, and when it does arise, it can often be caught earlier. In my experience this is like a shift from a constant climate of precipitation to the occasional downpour or storm.

    The ongoing trick of it is not to be seduced by the content, even when it is pleasurable.

    Thanks for the question.


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