As a boy growing up in eastern Iowa, I savored the word dwell, which I heard on many a Sunday morning. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, I intoned with the rest of the congregation, not quite understanding the context but reassured by the general idea. The word was pleasant to pronounce. It made a pleasing sound.
Only later did I learn that dwell bears a negative connotation. “Don’t dwell on it,” I was advised, in the aftermath of some abrasive encounter. “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Used in that fashion, dwell meant to brood, to worry, to concentrate unhealthily on some slight or insult or perceived injustice. Nowadays, for good or ill, many people use the verb obsess to describe the same habit of mind. “Don’t obsess about it,” we might advise a person who can’t stop talking about a personal dilemma, or can’t let go of a painful experience, as though that person had a choice, or our well-intentioned counsel might be helpful.
According to Zen teachings, we do have a choice, but if we wish to exercise that choice, we have first to distinguish between obsessive dwelling and sustained contemplation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages meditative practitioners to stop and “look deeply” into the present moment. By dwelling, in this constructive way, on immediate realities, we can lessen the suffering that our hurried, egocentric, and often erroneous perceptions inflict on ourselves and others. Intuiting that the rude young woman who has just offended you may herself be a victim of abuse or neglect, or that the man whose arrogance you find so annoying might be chronically insecure–such insights, the fruits of “looking deeply,” can awaken our innate wisdom and compassion. By the same token, dwelling on a sacred text or a meditative slogan can illuminate one’s present condition.
Obsessive rumination is quite another thing. The practice of contemplation is associated with such wholesome states of mind as openness, empathy, mindfulness, and concentration. By contrast, rumination is most often driven by unwholesome states, among them fear, anger, envy, and greed. In the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, practitioners learn to recognize the mental states of craving, aversion, and ignorance–the “three poisons” of classic Buddhist teachings–by observing the effects of those states on their minds and bodies. Craving creates a sense of grasping and contraction, aversion a sensation of pushing away. Ignorance engenders a feeling of running in circles, endlessly and uselessly. If you are susceptible, as I am, to obsessive thinking, you may have experienced all of these sensations, as you grasped for a solution to a difficult problem, pushed away suggested remedies, and felt your mind revolving in familiar grooves of thought.
So far as I know, there is no simple cure for compulsive thinking. It is less an ailment than a temperamental condition. Help may be found, however, in a practice from the Vipassana (“Insight”) meditative tradition. Known as “noting” or “labeling,” this practice consists of naming whatever process is occurring in our minds at any given moment. Becoming aware that we are thinking in abstractions, rather than being present for our immediate surroundings, we note: thinking, thinking. Realizing that we are thinking, relentlessly and needlessly, about the future, we might label our activity what-if, what-if. Observing ourselves in the act of remembering–or reliving–an experience, we back away far enough to label that process: remembering, remembering. As we become more practiced in this method, we can learn to sense the feeling beneath or around the obsessive thought: the emotional subtext that is causing us to worry or plan or lose ourselves in the past. Beneath incessant planning, for example, we might detect unrecognized fear or ungratified desire or a deep-seated need for control.
The practice of noting can generate liberating insights. It can reacquaint us with our own minds. Its most immediate benefit, however, is a furlough from the prison of obsessive thought. This can happen within a matter of minutes. And over time, Zen teachings promise, the practice can transform the most anxious cast of mind into what the Diamond Sutra calls “a mind that alights nowhere”: that no longer clings to its objects of attention. Released from habitual patterns of thought and feeling, we can elect to dwell (in the wholesome sense) on an object of interest, giving that object our wholehearted regard. Conversely, we can merely note what is occurring, within and around us, whether it be a pang of grief or a memory from childhood or the bark of a neighbor’s dog. Moving at will between these modes of knowing, we can enlist the one that best serves our highest intentions, our immediate circumstances, and our present state of mind. And that way freedom lies.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
“All Bodhisattvas should develop a pure, lucid mind that doesn’t depend on sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell or any thought that arises in it. A Bodhisattva should develop a mind that alights nowhere. The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that arise within it. If the mind depends upon anything, it has no sure haven.” (The Diamond Sutra, 14).
Photo: “Mittelmeer. Südfrankreich,” by Spacebirdy