Stop thinking (?) • 15 May 2008

This is a running joke in Vipassana retreats: a few days in you start to have the most brilliant thoughts. The desire to hold on to them, bottle them up for later, creates a hardness in your mind and your body. And keeps you from going deeper.

The reason it’s a joke is that your mind thinks these thought-objects are so brilliant because its cognitive standards have been reduced by days without speech or stimulation. A thought that seems genius in a cognitive vacuum is probably not going to be quite so great on the other side of retreat. You return to your journal a week later, so excited to rediscover the insights of your deeper mind at its most transcendent, and there is only this pathetic decontextualized scrawl, a notebook full of dried-up worms crunching in to dust. So much for your brilliance. (And the documentation of your transcendence, for that matter. Ouch.) 

There are exceptions. I think of conceptual artists who meditate because they want to push back the veil, who while in meditation might leave themselves breadcrumbs for later. Some images and associations out of the mind show up better when you dial down the cognition; and if you’re an artist you need this material. Meditation teachers who work with artists sometimes incorporate journaling in to practice… when the purpose of meditation is to create.

For me… am I practicing to generate thoughts? Should I telegraph the thought-lets that come up in practice to a future self who can write them down? Should I accept the little clamps in my body and mind that spring shut the second I begin keeping track?

Why get in to that habit? My god, the more I can dial down the “insights,” the more energy I will have for practice. “Insights” are, in my experience, a slow leak.

Just do your practice without becoming attached to the sensations that come and go in the body. Isn’t that such a kind way to come in to it? That simplicity, the low expectations… I’m not sure I’d feel so free or so in love with the raw experience of practice if I were tracking it with a journal.

I am just saying what my experience has been.

And I guess, in addition to my reactivity to form-obsessed Los Angeles, this is another reason I have difficulty writing about physical practice. I feel that the place I go in practice might be threatened by bookkeeping. Because it's easy, I revive my undergraduate critiques of reification.

So I guess this is an experiment. Can I reflect on physical practice—in a general way, that draws on cumulative, remembered experience—in the evening without having the thought “I should write about that” during practice?

I’m pretty sure. Insofar as I teach asana, I think I should be able to do this—to take a descriptive perspective on my inside experience without that making the immediate, already-gone experience less real. Or more real.

We'll see.