Does Being Mindful Mean Not Thinking?

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Recently, NPR featured a blog by Barbara J. King entitled "Do Dogs Think?" It chronicles a debate regarding the extent to which animals are worthy of our love, which then ventures into the nature of the mind, thought, and present-moment awareness. It's all filtered through a canine lens, but the concepts are applicable to people, too.

The article also contains a dizzying array of straw man arguments (including, by the author's own admission, its title). Here is a quote from The Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson:

"I would take issue with Barbara's point that [dogs] are thinking animals. This is where I sort of agree with Cesar Millan [the Dog Whisperer]. He actually talks about how they are an instinctual animal and what we love about them is their instinctual way of being. In other words they react to things that are right in front of them. And I think we all love that about animals. But I find it worrisome when we start saying that they are "thinking." I just think that they are "being" and that is partly what we love about them. That they don't think as much as we do."

Good lord. Putting aside dogs specifically for the moment, here we find the presumptions that an animal either thinks or acts on instinct, but not both, and that instinctual behavior is just "being" and reacting to whatever presents itself in the moment. Let's take a closer look.

Premise: Thinking and acting on instinct are mutually exclusive.

Have you ever reacted on instinct? For instance, jerked your hand away from a hot stove, or run from a threat? And do you believe that you are capable of thought? If you're reading this, I believe you are. So, there you go.


Premise: Acting on Instinct, reacting to what presents itself, and just "being" are all the same thing.

It depends. Clearly, if you jerk your hand away from a stove burner or sprint away after surprising a tiger in a cave, it seems pretty clear that you are reacting instinctively to the situation that is right in front of you, without much thought. Your instinct is to do what keeps you alive and well.

But are all actions oriented to your present-moment experience instinctual reactions? In another article, I discuss how focus and present-moment awareness are situational. They can range from being the involuntary, instinctual consequence of facing of a threat, for instance, to qualities that can be deliberately cultivated by humans, which provide the space to respond more deliberately to what we're experiencing.

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Perhaps I'm biased, but when I hear of just "being" and perhaps especially, when I think of a dog's life, what comes to mind is a state of presence with the "unfolding of experience moment by moment"* or, in other words, mindfulness.

Recently, I was walking around my neighborhood on a beautiful, sunny day, and came across a woman walking her little fluffy dog. As I approached, they came to a stop. Then, a wonderful thing happened.

The dog spontaneously flopped down to the grass, rolled onto its back, and began writhing ecstatically and wiggling its paws in the air. It appeared to be a display of pure, unadulterated delight, and it was infectious: the woman and I couldn’t help but laugh along with the pup. Yep, that's the way to live, I thought.

When I'm teaching mindfulness meditation, I often use dogs as examples of creatures that are fully open to the experience of moments and opportunities that float along. Now, there is probably no way of knowing scientifically whether the dog I saw was experiencing what we would call delight, or is even able to, but if you've spent time around some well-adjusted dogs, let's face it: you know they can.

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There's also probably no way of knowing what the dog may or may not have been thinking, but I'd be willing to bet everything I own that he wasn't worrying about whether he'd have food in his bowl that night, or hoping that tomorrow's walk would be just as pleasant (the way a person might).

When he is hungry, he will go to the bowl and see what's going on, and take it from there. In the meantime, if your sole purpose in life is to be cared for and do what you'd like to do, and you find some warm grass in the sun, you roll in it. Makes sense to me.

So, this type of behavior is just "being," isn't it? Just a dog interacting with what's in front of it, in the moment it’s there. He is exemplifying mindful awareness. But does that make it instinctual behavior? Granted, I'm not an animal behaviorist, but I can’t think of an evolutionary advantage to frolicking in grass, seemingly without a care in the world, other than, perhaps, to provide the animal a sense of well-being.

This would strike me as a pretty dodgy instinct though, since I think that a small dog's wiggling in the grass would actually make him an incredibly delicious-looking morsel to a predator. He was starting to look pretty tasty to me, even.

While instinctual behaviors are usually, if not always, oriented to present-moment experience, the awareness of, and response to, one’s moment-to-moment experience doesn’t have to be instinctual at all.

So, let's say "false."

Wait—you can’t think and be mindful at the same time?

If, as Hampson proposes, instinctual behavior and, shall we say, mindfulness, are the same thing, and instinctual behavior and thinking are mutually exclusive, then the logical conclusion would be that thinking and mindfulness are at cross purposes.

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This is actually a common misconception of mindfulness, even among students who have received instruction in it. In popular culture, the general goal of meditation is often thought to be clearing one’s mind of thoughts; to stop thinking. This is not at all what mindfulness meditation is about.

Your mindfulness practice can include whatever thoughts, emotions, or other experiences are emerging. Even in mindfulness practices where your attention is directed to the breath (or other part of your experience), the instruction is to acknowledge when other parts of your experience, including thoughts, pull your attention away, and then return your attention to your breath—not to chastise yourself for the distraction.

It’s true that with practice your mind may become more settled and at ease, and less prone to produce the volume of thoughts you may have become accustomed to. But that isn’t the goal; it’s just a fringe benefit that comes from being more grounded in the experience of life. Mindfulness meditation is never meant to actively deny any aspect of experience, or prevent mental activity from occurring.

This misunderstanding can cause big problems for beginning meditators. Faced with a mind that just won’t stop thinking, they can easily become discouraged with the practice, or feel like a failure. Worse yet, they can turn away from meditation before even trying it. I once witnessed a group of new meditators receive poor instruction, along the lines of this misconception.

One of them exclaimed “but I don’t want to stop thinking!” and refused to participate, and the rest of the group quickly followed suit. What a shame.

So, does a dog think?

If, as Webster says, thinking means to "form or have in the mind," then the answer seems to be an easy yes. They can problem-solve and, if the dogs I've had are any indication, they know perfectly well if they've been bad while you were out. In her blog, King concludes the same, and provides as Exhibit A this pretty jaw-dropping video of an escaping beagle.

But does a dog think like we do? As this beagle escaped its enclosure, was he fully absorbed in the sensations of his paws on the fence, his delicate balance, where to place the next paw, and the opening above him?

Or was he moving absent-mindedly while daydreaming about the party he would have on the other side (like you might as you prepare to leave work for the weekend)? Can he ponder his own existence or whether there will be food in his dish tomorrow? Personally, I think not, but who knows?

Having it both ways as people

For this discussion, what matters is that we people can, and that's a gift we tend to take for granted just as much as we do the involuntarily effort our bodies are making in every moment to keep us alive.

The capacity for abstract thought does come with a price, though. We can become so accustomed to our mind's planning, remembering, pondering, and worrying that we become lost in a gauzy quasi-existence between the (often unpleasant) world of our mind's creation and the one we actually inhabit.

We forget about the equally wonderful capacity that we share with all the other animals: to just be present with whatever is in front of us, good or bad. As far as I can tell, dogs do this every moment of the day, and this is where they may have us beat.

At least the quote at the top of this article gets this much right: “I just think that they are 'being' and that is partly what we love about them. That they don't think as much as we do." [emphasis added]

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We humans have the best of all worlds. We can sit down on purpose to think, make a budget, work through a problem with another person, or remember the past and project the future, when the need arises. We can react instinctively to a threat. And we can feel the bare physical sensations of hunger, and unabashedly, with our whole being, savor a beautiful moment that arises.

As great as the gift of abstract thought is, even greater is our capacity to choose when to employ it and, when we don’t really need to think, to fully appreciate the one moment of life that we ever have: the one that is happening right now.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that you need to give up one gift to have the others.
* Jon Kabat-Zinn


Jim Hjort

Jim is a personal development coach for individuals and organizations who want to fire on all cylinders. He is also a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and certified mindfulness meditation instructor.