Thinking, feeling, experiencing – the place of thought

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

Lecture 4, Part 6 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

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 (presence?), 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 deemphasized 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 deemphasize 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? (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. (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 written in his books. Because he’d done so much work on 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 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.

One comment

  1. When I was in the NDE place, I felt pretty connected to the light and all that good stuff that you just experience and don’t need to “think” about. Quite honestly, in the NDE place I didn’t have a dialogue going on in my brain with all the noise that people often carry with them. I felt very peaceful and quiet. Not quiet as in an absence of noise, but quiet as in making room for and being open to whatever I might experience.

    The thing is, when I came back here I didn’t come back with an aversion to thinking. I craved knowledge like a drug. You don’t acquire knowledge without thinking about stuff. Not in this existence anyway. What I did bring back was a habit of being openly quiet. It took me a while to figure that out. I think I have odd experiences simply because I’m open to them, even if I’m not consciously aware of being that way.

    It’s taken me a lot of thinking to start being OK with my odd experiences. Maybe for other people it takes more time to work on being quietly open. But I’m pretty sure thinking is important too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *