Thinking, Thinking
Vibrating within
The ear are many voices
But their origin
Has a source which may be called
The sound of no sound

Most people have experienced at some time in their lives an interval of deep inner peace, a time when everything seems just as it should be. A sense of inner freedom and vivid clarity is associated with the experience. Consciousness flows freely. Takuan's poetic expression for this state is a beautiful one. The wish to hear "the sound of no sound" again may bring people to meditation, just as suffering can drive them there. A memory of that palpable silence - and the peace associated with it - may keep them practicing when difficulties in meditation inevitably arise.
Thinking is one of the main difficulties we encounter while learning to meditate. Repeatedly we wake up from a flight of thought which has taken us far from the here and now. Time meant for meditation seems to have been lost, and even the memory of some mushroom cloud of voices or images is fading quickly. It can be very tempting to try to keep thinking out of meditation practice altogether. Chanting, ritual, visualization, yogic exercises or generating loving kindness can be of great benefit, but they all have the effect of turning attention away from the observation of thought. This can lead to the impression that no thinking - other than chanting, prayers, etc. - is taking place. Awareness meditation differs from other practices in that most of the time it sorts through what is currently in consciousness rather than putting things there.
Many contemporary Vipassana or Insight meditation teachers use techniques which direct attention away from the content of thought. These include trying to note thought the instant it starts, mentally saying "thinking, thinking" to label it. Thoughts have a way of getting stage fright and freezing up when bombarded with incessant labeling. Another technique is to direct awareness to the body, or the breath as a way to attempt escape from thought. Most of us have lived so much of our lives in our heads that it comes as a beautiful gift to be fully aware of the vividness of internal sensations and stimuli from the external world as they impact the senses.
What do the early Buddhist texts have to say about thinking and meditation? Most of these texts make a clear distinction between two principal kinds of thought. They use different words for them. The first type of thought is called vitakka-vicâra. It may come as a surprise that vitakka (reflection, applied thought and reasoning), and vicâra (discrimination and investigation), [1] were considered essential insight meditation skills. Most important, reflection and discrimination were not viewed as separate from the practice of developing calm and blissful concentration (samâdhi).
And what, monks, is right concentration (samma-samâdhi)?
There is the case where a monk - quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities - enters and remains in the first jhâna: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought (vitakka) and evaluation (vicâra).
Magga-vibhanga Sutta (An Analysis of the Eightfold Path) Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation
This is a description of the first level of meditative concentration (jhâna) found with only slight variations in many of the early suttas having to do with meditation. Levels of absorption beyond the first jhâna do not include thinking, but the first stage of Right Concentration most definitely does. Right Concentration is one activity of the Eight-fold Path which the Buddha taught as the way to liberation from suffering. Two of the four recommended areas for mindfulness meditation have to do with thought. Here is the concise summary of this practice that the Buddha gives as part of a review of his teaching during the last months of his life.
And how does a monk live as an island unto himself, . . .with no other refuge? Here, Ânanda, a monk abides contemplating the body as body, earnestly, clearly aware, mindful and having put away all hankering and fretting for the world, and likewise with regard to feelings, mind and mind-objects. [2]
Body is only the beginning and it is unfortunate that many "Insight" meditators stop there. Lists of the other areas of experience to be investigated in meditation are presented in the often-studied Satipatthâna Sutta. Feelings include a whole range: sensual and non-sensual, pleasant, painful and neither one or the other. "Contemplation of the Mind" in the sutta means what we would call mental states: the presence or absence of distraction, contraction, liberation and much else. I doubt that these lists were meant to be all-inclusive, but rather to illustrate the main things to look for. And finally, the Sutta outlines a vast field called "Contemplation of Mind-Objects." Here the Buddha's prescription for the release from suffering is given: the Five Hindrances, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Path, and more. The meditator is directed to "know thoroughly" (pajânâti) all of these things. [3]
Another very different kind of thinking is frequently mentioned in the early texts: papañca. Here the underlying idea is proliferation. There is always some form of desire, however subtle, which drives papañca and makes it expand. Papañca is the monkey mind of Zen imagery. It is "hankering and fretting for the world." It is obsessive thought, strings of associations that run on and on, fantasy and concept formation that lead the mind away from things just as they are experienced. [4]
It is easy to fall into the habit of categorizing all thought as papañca instead of finding ways to work with thinking and learning how to judge when investigation of mind-objects might be fruitful. The belief that investigative thought is out of bounds leads to relying too much on passive observation, merely watching the passing parade of inner events. Decisions as to what to observe and beliefs about meditation are also thinking, of course.
As a first task in becoming more skillful and comfortable in the use of thought in meditation, try some reflection and investigation. This will necessarily involve looking back at what has recently happened, not sticking with the present moment continously.[5] If you have trouble remembering what is taking place, you might try using rudimentary labels, like a shorthand. Just a word or two can fix an event in memory. Noting, or labeling can interfere with the flow of meditation, so use only what you really need for recall. Don't get bogged down in the accuracy of words at this stage. Later, when thinking about the events in a meditation sequence (vitakka-vicâra), accuracy of language will be important. Use words that have direct meaning for you, not theoretical terms. Some people use images rather than words for understanding. For most of us, however, the extent to which we can consciously differentiate our experiences, our emotions, is directly tied to our ability to find the right words. [6]
If you have already been including some investigation in your practice, do so with greater conscious awareness. You will then be in a position to evaluate for yourself whether your sittings are enriched and more productive. Notice when vitakka-vicâra slips over into papañca, as it is bound to do. Don't blame yourself for the wanderings of papañca, just gently bring your attention back to the present when you can. Later there is much that can be learned by reflecting back and investigating proliferating thought itself. This will be the subject of another article.
The state that is the final goal of Buddhism is beyond language, but Buddhist texts say that the careful, clear use of language - Right Speech - is indispensable along the way. Takuan's "sound of no sound" will not be lost through a meditative investigation into the nature of thought. In fact, learning to understand the origin of those many voices which vibrate within the ear leads us back to it.
At the end of a long letter to a samurai on mental clarity and decisive action Takuan quotes what he calls a song:

It is the very mind itself
That leads the mind astray;
Of the mind,
Do not be mindless.

[1] My principal authority for translations of these terms is the Pali Text Society Dictionary. Here vitakka is defined as "reflection, thought, thinking" and the verb form, vitakketi "to reflect, reason, consider." Vicâra is rendered as "investigation, examination, consideration, deliberation." The compound word Vitakka-vicâra is often found in Buddhist texts on meditation and psychology; "reflection and investigation" in the Dictionary.
[2] Mahâparinibbâna Sutta: The Great Passing. The Buddha's Last Days. Dîga Nikâya 16, Maurice Walshe translation.
[3] Mahâsatipatthâna Sutta, Dîga Nikâya 22, Maurice Walshe translation. The translation of pajânâti is my own. This is the main verb used throughout the mindfulness Discourses. See Some Notes on Noting.
[4] I am aware that there is some difference of opinion among scholars as to the meaning of papañca and papañca-saññâ-sankhâ. During the Scholastic Period of Theravada Buddhism differences with the earlier meaning arose. I follow those proposed by Ñânananda Bhikkhu who has written the most thorough study of the subject that I know.
[5] I am indebted to Jason Siff for teaching me the importance of reflection, or looking back, in mindfulness meditation. See, for instance, The Lay of the Land Within. "Recollective awareness", a fundamental meditation skill, is discussed and illustrated in detail in his book Unlearning Meditation.
[6] Befuddlement (moha), according to Buddhist thinking, is one of the three things that keep the cycle of births and deaths revolving; the other two being passion (râga) and hatred (dosa).

For further reading:
Jason Siff, Unlearning Meditation, Movement in Mind Multimedia, Idyllwild, California, 2001.
Magga-vibhanga Sutta (An Analysis of the Eightfold Path) Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.
Ñânananda Bhikkhu, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, P. O. Box 61, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Addiss, Stephen, The Art of Zen, Harry N. Abrhams, Inc., 1989
Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind, William Scott Wilson, translator, Kodansha International, Tokyo and New York , 1986
The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary, T. W. Rhys Davids and William Stede, Oxford, 1992
Copyright © 1995, revised 2001 Gordon L. Smith