Cutting off Our Heads

Monday September 11, 2006


The other day I was in a Buddhist discussion group, when a question came up that is now – after years of taking part in such groups – very familiar. I cannot remember the topic under discussion, but at one point the objection was raised, “But this discussion is all in the head! Don’t we need to get back to our hearts?”

On this occasion the objection seemed puzzling. The discussion was not particularly abstruse. We were talking about matters of practical import. We were following through thoughts to their conclusions, seeing what the implications were. It seemed useful. It didn’t seem cold or alientated. But at the accusation – the horror of it! – that we were finding ourselves being “all in the head” everybody nodded sagely, and the discussion was immediately dropped. This, I thought, was puzzling, and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since.

It seems to me that this was just once instance of a popular view in Western Buddhist circles that somehow the intellect is something to be shunned, that practice is about feeling over and above thinking. To be “stuck in one’s head” or even to be “intellectual” is one of the cardinal sins of Western Buddhism. Practice, it is held, is a matter of the heart and not the head. Thinking through things without constant reference to how we happen to be feeling, is seen as disengaged from real practice.

This is a view that cannot be found in the Pali texts, as far as I can see. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does the Buddha say that we are too much in our heads and not enough in our hearts. What is interesting is that, in Western Buddhist circles, the opposite objection is rarely raised. I have rarely, if ever, been in a discussion group in which somebody has said, “Look, all of this talk about how we are feeling is going nowhere! We need to start thinking as well.” Because we all love to talk about how we are feeling. There’s nothing that we like more. I suspect that this favouring of feeling over thinking is the result of a very Western view of practice as being primarly subjective: it is about my experience and my feelings. I would also hazard a guess that much of the time, when objections are raised to being “stuck in one’s head” it is because of a desire to return to the safe territory of how I am feeling – safe because here, at least, we cannot be contradicted. What, after all, do you know about how I am feeling? Nothing!

Reading the Pali texts, however, it seems that the Buddha in no way privileges feeling over thinking, nor does he warn us against being stuck in our heads. What he does instead is turn his attention to how we go about thinking, so that we might be able to use this faculty in a more helpful way. The Buddha recognised that views were of central importance: both the kinds of views that we hold and also, significantly, the way in which we hold them. In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta the Buddha lists various kinds of metaphysical speculation, calling each of them a,

thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full awakening, unbinding.

So the views of the world that we hold (for example the view that I am somehow special and that nothing bad should happen to me) can lead us into suffering and distress. The relinquishment of these views leads to feedom from this suffering and distress. But this is not all. It is not only that these forms of metaphysical speculation lead to confusion, distress and “fever”, but it is also that the way we hold on to such speculative views is also harmful. This applies to the various teachings of Buddhism as well. Even if within the teaching of Buddhism there are instrumentally useful views (and we have to test this in our experience), the way we hold them makes all the difference. The Buddha again made this clear, with a striking image.

Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite him on the hand, on the arm, or on one of his limbs, and from that cause he would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some worthless men study the Dhamma… Having studied the Dhamma, they don’t ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Not having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they don’t come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don’t reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma. Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the Dhammas.

Thinking, that is to say, is a treacherous business. Even those ways of thinking that may be useful can lead to our downfall through their “wrong-graspedness”.

Despite this, however, we should not too readily assume that we need to get away from thinking in favour of feeling. Firstly, we can no more do this than we can get away from having a body. Thinking is simply one of the things that we do as human beings. But secondly, feeling, too, can be dangerous. Leonard Cohen puts it best, in a line that speaks of much hard experience of Zen practice:

I don’t trust my inner feelings,
Inner feelings come and go.

There is considerable wisdom in Cohen’s mistrust of his inner feelings. It is useful to be sceptical about how one feels. Feelings wax and wane. They are not a sure guide to reality. There is no correlation between the strength of a particular feeling and the truth towards which this feeling seems to be pointing. I can be feel passionately that every time Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, looks at me he is beaming messages direct to my brain from the Pure Land of Amitabha. But this passionate feeling doesn’t make it true.

Neither thinking nor feeling give us a sure guide to reality. We simply have to employ our scant resources as best we can. This means bringing our entire organism – body, heart and mind – to practice. It is true that scholasticism for its own sake is not particularly fruitful, but then nor is feeling for its own sake. If thinking without feeling becomes divorced from reality, feeling without thinking leaves us churning around in a subjective soup. And both thinking and feeling without bodily action – ethics – are ineffectual.

It is not that we need to think less and feel more, nor is it that we need to feel less and think more. We’re human beings, so the odds are we’ll just go on thinking and feeling anyway. The art is to be able to think feelingfully and to feel thoughtfully, and then to act upon that basis.

It is surely right to be sceptical of the usefulness of tearing our our hearts; but cutting off our heads is scarcely any better.

Picture: British Museum

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#1 · Dukkha Earl

12 September 2006

It is not that we need to think less and feel more, nor is it that we need to feel less and think more.

Thoughts, feelings… aren’t these simply aggregates stemming from the same source? Isn’t this the point of confusion in translating the word “shin” as “heart-mind,” that they are taken to be essentially the same?
As you say;
The art is to be able to think feelingfully and to feel thoughtfully, and then to act upon that basis.

#2 · Turtle Mountain

12 September 2006

Thoughts cannot be stopped. Emotions can not be stopped. The flow of blood and the operation of neurons can not be stopped. There is no “soul” or “self” to stop them. There is only awareness. Good and evil, thought and feeling, sacred and secular – these dichotomies can obstruct and deceive.

#3 · Mike

13 September 2006

Great essay, Will! I think this is a very important topic, and something that I definitely struggle with – studying for the sake of knowledge, rather than for the sake of practice. As you said, regardless if it’s thinking or feeling, it needs to be applied to practice or it’s effectively worthless. I especially like your line: “The art is to be able to think feelingfully and to feel thoughtfully, and then to act upon that basis.”

#4 · Anthony

13 September 2006

Good stuff Will – hits on something I’ve often felt (or should that be ‘thought’). To listen to some people, and even to read some books, you might think Buddhism was actually against any kind of thinking at all, and all you have to do is ‘just sit there’ and somehow things will magically clear up. I personally find ‘good thinking’ inspiring, and the times when I’ve felt most inspired to practise the Dharma have coincided with the times when my thinking has been at its deepest and most thorough. There’s nothing like a good study retreat or discussion group to clear away the confusion and remind me what it’s all about.

The previous posters here are a bit above my head, I’m afraid. They seem to imply that thinking is just a regrettable part of being human – but to me it’s an indispensible part of practice. Not that I do enough of it, of course…

#5 · Will

15 September 2006

Hello, Anthony! Great to hear from you. My own experience is very similar:

I’ve felt most inspired to practise the Dharma have coincided with the times when my thinking has been at its deepest and most thorough

Look me up if you pass by Birmingham. It would be good to catch up!

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