Non-stop thinking

“Maybe you’re thinking too much,” my wife once suggested. She was not the first to do so. Nor, to paraphrase John Lennon, am I the only one. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh has called it. And in our present hyper-connected, information-driven era, that common human tendency has become ever more prevalent.

For centuries Zen masters have warned against over-reliance on conceptual thought. According to Zen teachings, our dualistic concepts—subject/object; self/other; up/down—interpose an “ego-filter” between our minds and our sensory experience. They mediate between what is and what we believe it to be. Likewise the abstract words we use to frame our experience. They impose a yardstick, as the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi puts it, on a universe that is in reality boundless, indivisible, and ungraspable.

Take, for example, the term Village of Alfred. That term designates a geographic entity. Its boundaries have been delineated, its contours mapped. But were you to fly over the Village of Alfred in a small plane, as I did once with a local pilot, you would perceive no fixed boundaries. Rather, you would see a deciduous wilderness, in the midst of which a configuration of impermanent man-made structures, many of them bearing terracotta roofs, has been created. Village of Alfred is an abstraction, a thought-form superimposed upon an amorphous space. At once useful and artificial, that form is easily mistaken for reality itself.

And the same is true of other mental constructs, however real they may appear. Zen practice is in part about gaining awareness of thought-forms, especially fixed, habitual thought-forms, and their sometimes harmful impact on our lives. Beyond this fundamental point, however, the practice also aims to liberate us from unnecessary thinking, obsessive thinking, and attachment to what the American philosopher Thomas Kasulis has called the “retrospective reconstruction of reality.”

With respect to unnecessary thinking, one venerable piece of advice, attributed variously to a Stoic philosopher, the Dalai Lama, and a sagacious baseball player, can provide a practical corrective. “If you can’t control it,” so the saying goes, “then why worry about it? And if you can control it, then why worry about it?” To that general guideline Buddhist teachings would add a specific corollary. Pain is one thing, suffering another. Pain is what we experience; suffering is what we add to that experience, often by way of fear-based speculation. Mindful of the difference, we can abstain from speculation and focus on the experience itself: the pain and ways to relieve it.

Obsessive thinking is another matter. Psychologists speak of “thought-loops,” by which they mean endlessly repetitive patterns of thought. Leading nowhere and yielding nothing, our thought-loops return, time and again, to where they began. Teachers of vipassana (“insight”) meditation advise us to probe the emotional subtexts beneath our habitual patterns of thought: the fear beneath the compulsive planning, the regret beneath obsessive reminiscence. By and large, Zen practitioners refrain from such analysis. The practice is rather to note our thoughts as they arise and disappear. The more acutely we recognize their insubstantial nature, the more we free ourselves from their grip. And over time, if we persist in the practice, even our obsessive thoughts diminish of their own accord.

Beneath these practical measures, Zen teachings offer a deeper critique of thought itself. Taizan Maezumi Roshi, a twentieth-century Zen master, expresses that critique succinctly:

Thinking is an abstraction. It is not being, it is thinking about being. And since we are born and die seven thousand times in one second, the conditions that we think about are already gone. We are thinking about shadows rather than being this very life itself.

All thinking, in other words, is after the fact.

Concurring with Maezumi’s perspective, Thomas Kasulis, in his book Zen Action, Zen Person, draws an analogy between the process of thinking and the actions of a batter at the plate. “Being” is what happens when the bat hits the ball. “Thinking” is what happens a moment later, as onlookers reconstruct what has just occurred: A line drive to third base. A high fly ball to right field.

Thinking is a natural activity. No one is proposing to demote it. The objective is rather to strike an even balance between “thinking” and “being.” By so doing, we not only become present for the speeding ball. We also empower ourselves to reflect, clearly and concretely, on those experiences that constitute our lives.


Non-stop thinking: Thich Nhat Hanh, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (Harper, 2016).

Thomas Kasulis: T. P. Kasulis, Zen Action , Zen Person (University of Hawaii, 1985), 57.

Taizan Maezumi Roshi: Appreciate Your Life: The Essence of Zen Practice (Shambhala, 2002), 11.

Photo: Rodin, The Thinker, Aaron Zhu

Twenty years ago I attended a meditative retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The retreat was conducted by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who welcomed people of all ages and from all walks of life. Families were encouraged to bring their children.

During the opening session, we were invited to participate in a weeklong exercise. At random intervals throughout the week we would hear the sound of a bell. Upon hearing it, we were to stop whatever we were doing and take three conscious breaths, saying to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Continue Reading »

Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly. Continue Reading »

214. Only connect

Bonnie Booman

On Saturday, August 31, in a memorial service for the late Bonnie Booman (1954-2019), the Reverend Laurie DeMott invoked the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net to characterize Bonnie’s life and work. The metaphor was as timely as it was apt. Not only did it commemorate the life of a gentle teacher, whose patience, care, and imaginative insight inspired her students and exerted a beneficent influence on her community. In its wider implications, this ancient metaphor offered a potent antidote to the divisive spirit of our times, being at once an emblem of interconnectedness, interdependence, and the selfless nature of all conditioned things. Continue Reading »

213. Peaceful walking

“I’m on fire!” exclaimed the tall young man shooting hoops in the gym.

It was a winter afternoon. He and I and a student monitor were the only occupants of the Joyce and Walton Family Center for Health and Wellness, a spacious facility at Alfred University. He was single-mindedly honing his skills, and I was walking at a relaxed, moderate pace around the courts. Hearing his words, I looked over in his direction, nodded, and went on my way. Moments later, I heard the pleasing swish of the ball dropping through the hoop. And then another, and another.

Not long afterward, as I was completing another round, I watched the ball make a high, graceful arc and drop cleanly through the basket, not touching the rim. This time I raised a thumb. Seeing me, he called out, “We’re a team!”

Coming around a third time, I watched my newly acquired teammate making shot after shot, not missing a beat. Once again I nodded, and his face broke into a smile. “You stay right there!” he called out good-naturedly, pointing to where I was walking, as if my presence were the secret of his continuing success. Continue Reading »

212. Out of respect

“Everything we have is disposable,” lamented Brian Milo, a former autoworker at the G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in an interview with Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times (July 5, 2019). “Everything is made cheap and disposable. And I think that trickles down into our daily lives. I mean, you see marriage success rates are down. Things are disposable, even on a human level. I mean, I’m an employee, I’m disposable.” Milo lost his livelihood when sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the principal product of the Lordstown plant, fell precipitously, and G.M. eliminated 5,000 jobs. Adding insult to financial injury, the company notified its workers of their termination through impersonal, unsigned letters. Milo had been a loyal employee for ten years. What caused him to feel disposable was not only G.M.’s decision but the manner in which it was handled. Conspicuously absent was a quality essential to harmonious human relations. Continue Reading »

Charlotte Joko Beck

In the popular imagination, Zen practice consists of sitting cross-legged, preferably on a mountain or within the confines of a monastery, in a state of perfect calm. His hands positioned in the “cosmic mudra” and a beatific smile on his face, the Zen Buddhist practitioner sits at a comfortable remove from the petty conflicts and mundane concerns of ordinary life. In a word, he is detached. He has transcended the human fray.

This stereotypical image of Buddhist practice has widespread currency, even among the intellectual elite. A recent manifestation may be found in the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019), where the author defines the general aim of Buddhism as “a detachment from everything that is finite.” Reviewing this book in The New Yorker (May 13, 2019), staff writer James Wood endorses Hägglund’s view, alluding vaguely to “those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment.” “Everything that is finite,” one might note, is a very large category. Not only does it include buildings and boulevards, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees. It also includes one’s family, friends, and loved ones generally. Why on earth would anyone wish to be so detached? If that is what Zen is about, one might conclude, so much the worse for Zen. Continue Reading »