Setting aside discursive thought?

One of the questions that come up for many is how do I relate to thought? Or how do I relate to stressful thoughts?

I can try to push them aside, or even learn to set them aside through certain practices, but that only gives a temporary relief. They have a habit of coming back, and with them, my tendency to get caught in them.

I am aware of two especially helpful ways of relating to (stressful) thought.

One is to shift identification out of them, even as they continue to go about their business. I can do this through the Big Mind process, headless experiments, choiceless awareness and other practices. Here, I shift into that which is witnessing thought and other content of awareness, or into that which content of awareness happens within, to and as. There is an increasing familiarity with seeing thought as thought, and not getting caught up in them as if they were anything else.

Another is to inquire into them in different ways.

I can inquire into the content of them. Is it true? What happens when I believe it? What happens if I don’t have that thought? What are the truths in its turnarounds? In this way, I become more familiar with some of the dynamics around thoughts, what happens when they are believed in and not, and what is more true for me than the initial story.

Or I can explore it through the sense fields. I can see discursive thought as a creation of the mental field. I can explore what happens when it combines with the other sense fields, creating gestalts. I can explore what happens when I take those gestalts as substantial and real, and what happens when I see them as just gestalts – created by an overlay from the mental field on the other fields.

One of the things we may notice, doing either of these practices, is thoughts as innocent.

They are awareness itself, ephemeral, insubstantial and transient.

They appear in verbal form, one at a time, and usually noticed as thinking. And they appear in wordless form – for instance as images – and are then often not noticed.

(The wordless thoughts function as source and guide for the verbal thoughts. They are stories, just as the verbal ones. For instance, there is a sound and then a mental image of a car placed where the sound seems to come from. And they can be taken as true or not, just as verbal stories.)

They are questions about the world. Stories created in the mental field to help our human self function and navigate in the world.

They appear stressful (stress inducing) only when they are taken as true, when we try to make them into something they are not.

Beliefs are shoulds that clash with our stories about how the world is, was, or may be, and this creates stress.

And beliefs differ from what is more true for us, which is also stressful. (What is more true may be the truth in each of its reversals, and the limited truth in each of those stories.)

In becoming familiar with thoughts in this way, there is a natural compassion and kindness for myself and what happens when they are taken as true. There is an appreciation of thought, for what they are and their inherent innocence. There is an easier noticing of when stories are taken as true, and the tension and sense of having to protect something (a view, position, role) that goes with it. There is a familiarity in how to relate to and work with them. And there is a deepening into a trust in the whole process.

Trigger: An email where someone mentioned a practice of setting aside thought. And also Jill Bolte Taylor’s video which could be misunderstood and taken as anti left-brain/thought.


There are many takes on meditation and spiritual practice. One that I have encountered a couple of times recently is that it has to do with setting aside discursive thought.

Doing that can be helpful, of course. Mainly, it gives a vacation from discursive thought, and that can be helpful if we are in the habit of getting caught up in it. On the other hand, it it may not do very much more, and can even reinforce patterns of escapism. Also, it doesn’t get to the other layers of mental field activity, the wordless levels, which – when identified with – create the deeper patterns of our life, including the sense of an I with an Other.

Stories can take the form of discursive thought, but they certainly also happen – and do so to a far wider extent – at the wordless levels. Discursive thoughts happen only one at at time, but the wordless stories go on simultaneously, often not even consciously noticed until we start investigating them more deliberately, as they happen. And both levels can be identified with and taken as true, or seen as just stories, creations of the mental field, releasing identification out of them.

So far more interesting and effective then to investigate the mental field directly. What is really going on there? What happens when I identify with (believe) discursive thoughts? What happens when identification releases out of them? What is going on at the wordless level of the mental field? How do those activities (such as images) act as material and guides for discursive thought?

Specifically, it can be interesting to notice how the core belief of an I with an Other is created in the mental field – at the wordless levels (images mostly, for me) and reflected in the form discursive thought takes.

When this is seen directly and as it happens, identification naturally releases out of it and what we are notices itself more easily. That which experience happens within, to and as notices itself more clearly. The “field” of content of awareness notices itself as a field, inherently free from I-Other, center-periphery and inside-outside, and as awareness itself. It is the nothing appearing as something, inherently absent of an I with an Other.

Setting aside discursive thought doesn’t do much for us, simply because there is identification with them again as soon as they reappear, and also because the wordless levels of the mental field are still active,  identified with and taken as true, even if it happens outside of conscious awareness.
Initial draft…

There is another aspect of this message I received from one of Bernadette Roberts’ students that I wanted to clarify for myself.

I can enter that silence any time I want– anyone can, by putting aside discursive thought. What I want to convey to you is that for you believe or intuit that such silence and a feeling of oneness it invites conveys ultimate reality to you –that ultimate reality is non-dual, simply an extension of what you (or I) have experienced with the silent mind, IS A LEAP OF FAITH.

When I first read it, I couldn’t quite relate to “setting aside thought“, and then realized why. For me, there has not been a great deal of interest in exploring it. At best, it may give a nice vacation for a period of time, if I am in the habit of identifying with the mental field. But it can also be an  exercise in strengthening patterns of escapism. Both have value of course, but it seems that they don’t really go anywhere.

For me, it seems more more interesting and useful to – for instance – investigating the sense fields. Doing this, I see – as it happens – what they in Buddhism call the “mechanisms of samsara”. I see in a very detailed way, throughout the day, how gestalts are created, and how they are composed of activity in the sense fields combined with the mental field.

And I also see, in a very specific way, how the sense of an I-Other (and center-periphery, inside-outside) is created by the mental field, and gets a sense of substance when combined with the other sense fields. When identification is released out of it in this way, the field as a whole notices itself, already free from I-Other, center-periphery, and inside-outside.

With the leap of faith part, I see that if I only “set aside thought”, it would be a leap of faith to assume that there is no I-Other around. At best, it would be based on an intuition or feeling, or something I have heard.

It is quite different, at least in my experience, to really see – in a detailed way and in real time – the mechanisms of samsara, and how the sense of I-Other is created in the mental field and becomes an overlay on each of the other fields.

And then the obvious again: The story about it, incluing the interpretation of experience, can either be seen as a story or be taken as somehow true. And if it becomes a belief, it is great material for inquiry. Either through sense field explorations, The Work, or something else.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.