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I Think Too Much

June 2, 2015

I think too much. Sometimes it’s a problem. Like when I’m watching Taylor Swift music videos on a lazy Friday night. I’m hardly listening to the words of the song, or the melody, if there is one. I’m not sure because I don’t really remember. What I remember thinking is “This is an interesting example of how cultural capital plays out in the social theories of tribes. I wonder if I could use this to illustrate these concepts to students?” This happens all the time.

In Buddhism, we learn that thoughts are objects of the mind’s perception. They are produced by the brain automatically in response to sense perceptions, such as the sight and sound of the music video. They are perceived by the mind. But they are transitory, just moving through, and no more “mine” than the Taylor Swift video. The Buddha cautions us against attachment to thoughts just like he cautions us against attachment to anything else, but thoughts have, I believe, an added danger.

Because I am the only person to perceive these particular thoughts, indeed, because my brain is the brain producing them, I have a tendency to believe that they are, in some sense, “me.” Cogito ergo sum. Descartes’ classic foible, “I think, therefore I am” is often also understood intuitively as “I am what I think.”

In academia, we place tremendous importance on thoughts. We teach critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and logic. We talk about metacognition, being aware of our thoughts as we think them and continuously learning how to think better. Our careers are built on “good” thoughts, innovative ideas we can publish and describe to our dissertation committees and tenure boards. Our entire training is in how to think better, more deeply, more creatively, how to connect, integrate, and synthesize ideas and information. Which leads me to my current predicament with Ms. Swift.

I am the most educated* person I know with respect to one criteria: number of courses completed. Although I have not yet attained my PhD, I have completed well over 400 credit hours of coursework in my twisted academic career. And I have chosen academia as my career, so my education will only continue.

I have reached the point where I can no longer simply sit and watch a music video. My mind is a finely crafted engine that operates under its own power. My input is not required. Sometimes it is not even welcome and I feel all adrift, unable to enjoy the present moment without seeing the overtones of patriarchy, class oppression,  mammalian fear response, or Newton’s laws of motion at work.

What is the antidote to this, I wonder? What would the Buddha prescribe? More sitting, undoubtedly, and heaps and heaps of non-attachment. Perhaps the very same thing that Ms. Swift would recommend.

The mind is unruly, fickle difficult to subdue, but by effort, mindfulness and self-discipline, one can master the mind, escape the flood of passions, and find “an island which no flood can overwhelm.” – Bhikku Bodhi on the Dhammapada, v. 25

*Not the smartest, most learned, or most knowledgeable person by far. And I’m sure their are people out their with even longer transcripts, but I haven’t met them yet.

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