Thinking, Feeling, Experiencing, Rationality and Rationalization

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 7 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

[Sorry this was delayed in posting, I was on retreat last week]

CTT: Now I say that with a little trepidation, because I’m thinking of some of the spiritual literature that seems to say that thinking is bad. Period. That thinking is always an illusory state separating you from the oneness of everything. I have a hard time with that point of view, especially when I hear it from prominent foreign teachers who put down all sorts of thinking, but who all got here on jet planes, which were created by disciplined thinking to the nth degree. It seems a little unrealistic.

There is an implication in some of the spiritual literature that if you really could live completely in the present, be enlightened, that some form of extra sensory perception (ESP) would take over and you’d always know the right thing no matter what. I’m open to the possibility — but I wouldn’t advise anybody to depend on it. I think it would be a good idea to make sure you have enough gas in the tank of your car before you start driving out across the desert, even though that’s thinking and it’s not quite in the here and now. So there’s a balance here, okay?

For we who have been so caught up in thinking so much of the time, with so little control over the compulsivity of the thinking, we have to work to become mindful of the present. We have to learn that kind of skill, but it doesn’t mean that is the only way to live life. Unless some of those spiritual teachers are right and I just don’t get it — which is a possibility, but who knows?

Student: I would support some of those other teachers by maintaining that thinking is an activity that takes one away from the presence and, to use your example, thinking –

CTT: The “presence” or the “present?”

Student: The present. Sorry.

CTT: Okay. Makes a difference. 😉

Student: Yes. There are presents in the present, I think, but that’s another discussion. Your discussion about thinking, that one might get involved in the fabrics; that to me is the mind taking over a present state, where judgments have taken precedence to the validity of the conversation taking place.

CTT: Remember arms and legs.

Student: So that, to me, is a subtle way that the mind gets in and actually processes thoughts about an experience which is happening more through a bodily interaction with the world, or a sensory or sensuous interaction with the world, rather than a cognitive or thoughtful interaction with the world. And so, to me, that’s where the thinking is. The thinking is about the past. It’s something that’s happened or been experienced, even if it’s very recent. And that’s why I think that thinking is de-emphasized and that the actual present experience is more one of sensing.

CTT: Well, yeah. When you’re learning how to be in the present, you have to de-emphasize the thinking. I’m just talking about when it seems to be elevated to an absolute category of “Come to the present and never think again and you’ll be enlightened,” that’s what I have my doubts about. Of course I’ve never been there, so who knows…

Student: I think maybe it would work, assuming that everybody else is doing it too.

CTT: I don’t want the people who design the next airplane I’m on to not think!


CTT: Now how many of you have read any of the Carlos Castaneda books? (A few hands go up) Hardly anybody?

Student: Talked about them a lot.

Student: Yeah.

Student: Haven’t read them.

CTT: What an amazing world I’ve grown up in. To think that today’s spiritual seekers haven’t read Castaneda’s books! (Laughter) Well back when don Juan, Castaneda’s teacher, was the hottest thing on the spiritual circuit, he shocked some people, given what Castaneda had already written in his books. Don Juan had done so much work with Castaneda, trying to get him to not think in specific situations but to experience something. Then at one point don Juan came out and talked about how wonderful the ability to think rationally is, and how rare it is! That actually makes a great deal of psychological sense, because we do think.

I have to tell you a wonderful joke I heard today. “I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body and then I realized who was thinking that.”


We think we spend a lot of our time logically thinking about things, but actually much of that apparent rationality is rationalization. We’ve had emotional reactions to things if we like or dislike them and our mind conveniently makes up apparent reasons to justify the particular emotion.

To actually be able to indulge in purely logical thinking about something is probably one of the highest gifts human beings have — and rarely use. And to know when that rationality has actually turned into rationalization is another gift that’s really important, because then you can treat it differently.


  1. “There is an implication in some of the spiritual literature that if you really could live completely in the present, be enlightened, that some form of extra sensory perception (ESP) would take over and you’d always know the right thing no matter what”

    I mostly abstain from comments or even reading through all of Dr. Ts’ work here since my orientation regarding Buddhlism is not the theoretical (OK OK I confess, my internal dialogue is actually involves the words “colossal head trip””) and whether or not this theory or that theory is “correct” ‘valid”, what have you.

    I’ve had very strong instincts about Buddhism since my 20s back in the 70s. However the experiential side (shamatha practice which prepares your mind to be able to meditate) has become far more enriching than I ever could have imagined from being around the western Vipassana scene. During that sentence I even mutter a few little things to myself when referring to western Vipassana since I think most western “instructors” got a superficial bit of experience somewhere in Asia then immediately hung out a shingle here as teachers inferring expertise. And I gather, like me, most here go for some so called Vipassana instruction and get little or nothing out of it, even walk away viewing it as some kind of sham. An understandable view in my estimation.

    When I began to experience what they refer to as Samadhi I definately began to “know” solutions to problems, it was a little like daytime dreaming with the following enhancements:

    -It seemed as though I suddenly had twice the number of brain cells and every one was flawlessly focussed on whatever I focussed my attention on, crystal clear, with a sense of stability I can only describe as vast.

    – the usual mental noise, internally generated distraction from objects of attention and all negative emotions went dormant.

    – the space of my mind seemed to become one with whatever my focus of attention was…. even at times seeming so vast as to include the entire valley I was looking out over of the universe itself.

    Definately I agree intuitive knowing is part of effective shamatha practice that includes degrees of Samadhi.

    I have not practiced Shamatha for about two years but still to this day experience negative emotions with maybe 10 to 15 percent of the force I did prior to this. I will not do it half assed and at the moment lack the discipline to exclude some of my historic debaucheries that impair it. I will return to it.

    1. A little addendum: In my experience I got the preview, the two minute trailer to the feature film, nothing like living “completely” in the present though while practicing two hours a day it was pretty complete seeming at the time. I feel assured that with greater accomplishment ie whole hearted daily practice the returns would be tremendous indeed once you get it going.

      I suspect we westerner have “special needs ” for advance work that make getting relaxed enough quite difficult. My life was such a mess for so many years I was forced into attending to those matters.

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