"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." -- Hamlet, Act II, scene 2
I never realized what an idiot I was until I started meditating. Let me rephrase that: I never realized how limited my mind was until I tried practicing mindfulness meditation.
As fate would have it, one of the first meditations Jack Kornfield led us through during my early days at Spirit Rock was the "Label your thoughts" meditation.
Easy -- right?
Avuncular Jack instructed us to "Just observe whatever thoughts rise to consciousness and label them: Oh, that's my mind remembering, remembering... Oh, that's my mind judging, judging... Oh, that's my mind fantasizing, fantasizing..."
But that was way too easy for me. I have a lot of Virgo in my chart (as they say in California, usually as an excuse for anything from neatness to manslaughter) and I like to sort things and keep them orderly, so I made general categories that I could fit my observations into.
First I noticed that my thoughts were either about something in the past, something going on in the present, or something that may or may not occur in the future.
And then I noticed that these thoughts were either neutral or I could ascribe positive or negative emotional charges to them:
- If I was thinking about something in the past and the thought was unbiased, neither positive or negative -- "Oh, I went to the zoo last week" -- then I was REMEMBERING.
- If I was thinking about the past and the thought had a positive charge -- "The chopped salad I ate for lunch on Friday was spectacular!" -- then I was REMINISCING.
- If I was thinking about the past and the thought had a negative charge -- "I can't believe she broke up with me via text message!!!" -- then I was REGRETTING.
- If I was thinking about something in the present and the thought was unbiased, neither positive or negative -- "I wonder how Mitt Romney can stand looking in the mirror at night after prevaricating all day?" -- then I was WONDERING.
- If I was thinking about the present and the thought had a positive charge -- "Boy, I would really like to have a vegan hot fudge sunday right now" -- then I was DESIRING.
- If I was thinking about the present and the thought had a negative charge -- "I cannot believe the 45-year-old guy on the zafu next to me dresses like a skateboarding Rastafarian on parole (and girls are falling for him)!" -- then I was JUDGING.
- If I was thinking about something in the future and the thought was unbiased, neither positive or negative -- "I'm going to email my ex-girlfriend when I get home" -- then I was PLANNING.
- If I was thinking about the future and the thought had a positive charge -- "I hope Bill Maher calls to invite me on the show!" -- then I was FANTASIZING.
- If I was thinking about the future and the thought had a negative charge -- "If that brown spot isn't melanoma now then it certainly will be someday!" -- then I was FEARING.
When I went back to meditating I started to think, "So that's it? That's all I got? Nine? Nine types of thoughts? Really? Just nine? Remembering, reminiscing, regretting -- wondering, desiring, judging - planning, fantasizing, fearing. What was all of that "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space" stuff I heard about at university?? Maybe I really am bounded in a nutshell? (Wondering, wondering...) But my thoughts seem so infinite when they're swirling around my head. Seriously? Nine. That's pathetic. (Judging, judging...) I have more toes than I have types of thoughts!!!"
Then during the dharma talk things got even better: it turns out that most of my wonderings are what the Buddha called "unprofitable questions."
Brilliant! Just what I needed! So now I'm down to eight. Eight or nine types of thoughts for the paragon of animals -- really? This whole human consciousness thing is wildly overrated after all!
Look up "idiot" in the dictionary and you'll find that its archaic meaning is "mentally handicapped." I thought, "If I could manufacture wheelchairs for the mind, I'd be rolling in dough right now." (Fantasizing, fantasizing...)
But I can't.
I'm just an idiot. (Judging, judging...)
For more by Ira Israel, click here.
For more on the mind, click here.
For more on meditation, click here.