Post by Benjamin Howard, What Were You Thinking?
One afternoon last summer, I did what many people seem to do: I stepped out of a hotel elevator and took a wrong turn. Realizing that I was headed toward a potted plant rather than my room, I did a discreet about-face, maintaining my dignity as best I could. “What were you thinking?” I asked myself. Assuming that I was thinking at all, my thoughts had not been in accord with reality.
To point the thinking mind in the direction of reality is an abiding aim of Zen meditation. In Zen teachings, such thought is called “Right Thinking,” “right” meaning “in accordance with things as they are.” To help us cultivate Right Thinking, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has devised four practices, which can be employed whenever we have a decision to make or a problem to solve. Taken singly, these practices help to align our thinking with reality. Taken together, they provide a guide to wise and harmonious living.*
The first practice is to ask ourselves, “Are you sure?” As Thich Nhat Hanh has often observed, many of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. To take but one example, the recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge found that more than a quarter of Americans thought that the Golden Rule was one of the Ten Commandments. While that misperception is unlikely to cause much suffering, it well illustrates the disparity between belief and fact, a disparity that seems to be growing larger every day, as misinformation proliferates and is distributed at lightning speed. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that we write “Are you sure?” on a large piece of paper and hang it where we will see it often. Perhaps it would make a good screen saver as well.
The second practice is to ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” Although the answer might seem obvious—“I am feeding the birds”; “I am reading a column on Zen meditation”—this question counters the habit of rushing into the future. It returns us to the present moment. For example, if you are up on a ladder cleaning out your gutters but thinking about something else, asking this question can bring your wandering mind back to the task at hand. That is important for your safety as well as your presence of mind. Asking “What am I doing?” can also reveal the extent to which our thoughts are conditioned—if not created—by whatever we are doing. Having that awareness, we may be less inclined to believe our passing thoughts or lose ourselves in speculation.
The third practice is to say, “Hello, habit energy.” By “habit energies” Thich Nhat Hanh means our “ingrained thoughts,” our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. “Our way of acting depends on our way of thinking,” he observes, “and our way of thinking depends on our habit energies.” To become aware of those energies is often to diminish their power. And by addressing our habits directly, we accept and befriend them, rather than feel guilty about having them. Over time, this practice can keep us from applying tired, habitual ways of thinking to fresh situations. Insofar as we can recognize the habitual components in our thinking, we can respond with wisdom rather than react with reflexive judgment.
The fourth practice is bodhicitta, which translates as “the mind of love.” In Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, the mind of love is the “deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings.” By making bodhicitta the basis of our thinking, we guide ourselves toward compassionate speech and action. This practice may well be the most important of the four, but in my experience it is also the one most likely to be forgotten when conflict arises. How easy it is to think poorly of someone who has insulted us. How hard it is to cultivate the mind of love when subjected to calumny or manifest injustice. Yet not to do so is to cloud one’s thinking and to foster speech and actions that one may later regret. Like the other practices, bodhicitta affords us protection as well as guidance, steering us away from actions that will do harm to ourselves and others.
As Thich Nhat Hanh makes clear, the practice of Right Thinking is not a substitute for meditation. The practice is merely a “map,” and when we have arrived at our destination, “we need to put down the map and enter the reality fully.” That is sound advice, especially for the practice of Zen, which regards conceptual thinking, however wise or foolish, as a barrier to the direct experience of reality. But the map provided by Thich Nhat Hanh can prepare us for meditation, and it can assist us in implementing meditative insight. Like a patient friend, it can help us find our way.
*Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 55-58