A short definition of thinking, by Roberto Assagioli
Its simplest definition is to think; an accurate but limited definition, since clear ideas on the function of thinking are not common property. It has been stated that “the mind thinks in us,” rather than it being we who formulate thoughts.
Indeed, the working of our minds normally proceeds spontaneously under the action of stimuli and interests of various kinds, and in a somewhat disorganized way. The mind operates independently of the will, and often in opposition to it. This lack of mastery over the mind has been well described by Swami Vivekananda:
“How hard it is to control the mind. Well has it been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough, someone made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion he jumps about for the whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery, a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey; incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy of the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!”
The first lesson, then, is to sit for some time and let the mind run on. The mind is bubbling up all the time. It is like that monkey jumping about. Let the monkey jump as much as he can; you simply wait and watch. Knowledge is power, says the proverb, and that is true. Until you know what the mind is doing you cannot control it. Give it the rein; many hideous thoughts may come into it; you may be astonished that it was possible for you to think such thoughts. But you will find that each day the mind’s vagaries are becoming less and less violent, that each day it is becoming calmer. In the first few months you will find that the mind will have a great many thoughts, later you will find that they have somewhat decreased, and in a few more months they will be fewer and fewer, until at last the mind will be under perfect control, but we must patiently practice every day.
Much of our ordinary mental activity, then, does not merit the term “thought”. It is only when a dominating interest backed by a firm and decided will is able to hold the mind concentrated on an idea or task that it really “thinks” and we can say that it reflects. it meditates. Thus there are those who meditate without calling their mental activity that; for example, the scientist seeking the solution to a problem; the businessman working out a program for the conduct of his affairs. This is a regulated and organized use of the thinking function. In this connection we should recognize a somewhat humiliating truth: these people frequently think and meditate much more efficiently than those who try to do so for psychological or spiritual purposes.
If we want to learn to meditate, we must realize that the mind is in reality an “instrument”, an inner tool from which we must disidentify ourselves if we are to make use of it at will. While we are wholly identified with the mind, we cannot control it. A certain “psychological distance”, a certain detachment from it, is needed.
The practice of concentration is the first step; the next is to direct the activity of the mind along a line we have determined, so that it accomplishes the task we have assigned to it. In this sense to “think” means to reflect on and deeply explore a subject, examining all its implications, ramifications, and meanings. An attempt on our part to do this will quickly reveal how superficial and inadequate is our normal way of “thinking”. We are accustomed to reach hurried conclusions and arbitrary generalizations, to consider only one aspect of the subject, and to see or accentuate only what corresponds to our preconceptions or preferences.
The first requisite for developing the art of thinking is to watch carefully the process of thinking itself and be instantly aware when a deviation starts. The second involves persistence, tenacity in probing deeply into the subject. Here a curious phenomenon occurs; a few minutes of reflection seem to have exhausted the possibilities of the subject; nothing further remains to be said about it. But persistence in reflection at this point will lead to the discovery of other, unsuspected aspects, revealing a wealth of development to which we can ascribe no limits.
An example will serve to make this clear. Let us take as a theme for meditation the sentence, “I seek to love, not hate.” At first sight this appears simple and evident. indeed banal, and makes one think, “Naturally, being a good person, with good intentions, I try to love and not hate; it’s so obvious that I can’t find anything else to add.” But if we ask ourselves —and attempt to answer —the following questions, we shall realize that the matter is not so simple. “What does love really mean? —What is love? — How many and what kinds of love are there? — In what ways am I capable of loving? —How do I try to love? —Whom do I love and whom do I succeed in loving? —Have I always succeeded in loving as I would have wished? — If not, why? — What have been and are the obstacles and how can I eliminate them? —What portion of my love depends on the people to whom it is directed and what on my own nature?”
Then we can examine the word “hate”. and come up with such questions as: “Behind what camouflage can it hide? —Am I free from every type of hate? Do I feel hate toward those who injure me? —Toward those hostile to me? Are such feelings fair? —If not, how can they be corrected? — What attitude should be adopted toward evil in general? —What is the meaning of the saying, ‘An enemy is as useful as a Buddha?'”4
4 A word of warning is in order concerning meditation on negative subjects. A fundamental aspect of meditation consists in intensely focusing our attention on the subject chosen for meditation. This energizes and magnifies it, because of the “feeding power of attention” (see Roberto Assagioli, The Act of Will. Viking Press. New York, 1973, Chapter 8, “Practical Applications of the Skillful Will: Psychological Breathing and Feeding”, page 69). So direct meditation on a negative subject must definitely be avoided. However, meditation on a negative aspect can be safe and useful provided it is done in a positive way, that is for the purpose of, and with our interest resolutely focused on, improving the condition, or reducing or neutralizing that which is negative. The approach to “hate”, described above, is an example of this positive approach.
But such meditation is a relatively advanced undertaking. It is best to attempt it after having developed considerable proficiency and control, and only when a definite and specific need arises.
It is obvious that we cannot examine all these queries in one meditation. They offer possibilities for reflection for an extended series of meditations. Thus we discover what a wealth of possible elaboration, how much meaning, is concealed in such a seemingly simple statement.
What are the aims of meditation? We must be clear about them, for they determine the theme to be chosen and the procedure to be adopted. One of the objects of reflective meditation is conceptual, that is, to have a clear idea about the given subject or problem. Clarity of concept is much rarer than is supposed, and the first step here also is to become aware that our ideas are not clear. Another object, more important still, is to acquire knowledge about ourselves (we will speak of this later).
Some subjects for meditation are:
- The various psychological and spiritual qualities we desire to awaken or strengthen in ourselves: courage, faith, serenity, joy, will, etc.
- Symbols. (See the extensive discussion of symbols and their uses in the book Psychosynthesis.)
- A sentence expressing a thought —this has been termed a “seed-thought” of which there are two principal categories:
- Those that seem simple and obvious, like the one we have commented on (“I seek to love. . .”).
- Those that, on the contrary, are formulated in such a paradoxical way as to be perplexing at first. Their form is built on apparent contradictions, which can be reconciled only by finding a synthesis at a higher and more comprehensive level. The koans of Zen Buddhism are extreme types of these paradoxical seed-thoughts. Here are some instances of some paradoxes, which could be called psychospiritual quizzes: “To act with interest and disinterest” —”To suffer with joy” (which does not mean to enjoy suffering!) —”To make haste slowly” —”To live in the eternal and the moment” —”To see action in inaction and inaction in action” (the theme of one of the books of the Bhagavad Gita).
- The most important, indeed, the indispensable, subject for meditation in achieving personal psychosynthesis is reflective meditation on one’s self. By means of it one is able to distinguish between pure self-consciousness or awareness of the Self and the psychological elements or parts of one’s personality at various levels. This distinction has already been spoken of, but your attention is recalled to it because it is a fundamental requisite for acquiring consciousness of the Self.
This awareness, this possibility of observing one’s own personality “from above” and “from a distance interiorly”, should not be confused with egocentricity and preoccupation with self. These in reality reflect just the opposite, being identification with the personality elements and concern with personal defects and the opinions and judgments of others about ourselves, which we often arouse an acute sense of distress.
Finally, reflective meditation on ourselves is not to be considered simply a passive process of observation, like making an inventory of facts. It aims at understanding, interpretation, and evaluation of what we discover in ourselves. (From: Meditation)