This phrase—directed thought and evaluation—has been popping into my mind, as of late, largely in relation to renewed interest in questions of agency, choice, volition, intention, and so-called free will.
I’ve contemplated these issues previously, and recorded my provisional conclusions in Do I Choose My Thoughts?—which I invite you to check out, if you haven’t already. It’s an analysis that I still feel quite satisfied with, even though it relies upon a two-truths framework which—in light of a more recent interest in the view espoused by Unbounded Wholeness—I’ve now begun to question.
But it seems worth pointing out that the question of whether or not we choose our thoughts is just a subset of the larger agency/choice/volition/free-will conversation—since there are physical and verbal actions that are not immediately preceded by an identifiable thinking process. For instance:
1. Automatic bodily functions. Our human body is chock-full of activity that happens independently of any thinking process. Breathing happens—inhalation, exhalation, inhalation—independent of any thoughts we may or may not have about it.
The heart beats, circulating blood through veins and arteries. Digestive enzymes are released, allowing for food that we eat to be properly digested. Neurotransmitter molecules diffuse across synaptic clefts, allowing electrical information to flow from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of another neuron.
These activities are not—in any identifiable way—preceded by or dependent upon thought. (Which isn’t to say that thought cannot influence them, via biofeedback techniques, etc.—only that they don’t generally depend upon thought, for their baseline functioning.) It’s the body functioning on autopilot.
2. Highly reactive verbal outbursts. If we bump into someone, say in a crowded subway station, a verbal flurry may ensue—a rapid-fire exchange of expletives and other unpleasantries—that are not preceded by any rational thinking process.
This sort of pure verbal reactivity—that explodes unbidden in knee-jerk fashion—seems utterly independent of immediately prior thinking. Even if spoken words, in some sense, always appear first as a linguistic conception—i.e. an unspoken thought—the experience of verbal reactivity renders this fact moot.
3. Highly skilled “in the zone” activity. When elite athletes or highly-trained musicians are in the zone, their physical actions emerge with spontaneous perfection. Such actions are not—and in many cases simply could not be—immediately preceded by a thought. (Though significant thought almost certainly went into the structuring of their training regimen over the previous years/decades).
A tennis player returning a 140mph serve—or a baseball player hitting a 100mph pitch—quite literally does not have time to generate a thinking process prior to the required action. And it’s the same with the improvisation of a jazz musician: the immediacy required all but eliminates the possibility of conceptual planning, i.e. thought preceding the in-the-moment action.
Two Categories Of Thought
But let’s return now to this phrase: directed thought and evaluation. The phrase came to mind as I was considering the difference between two categories of thought:
First, there are the thoughts that seem to arise very much “on their own.” These are words, phrases, sentences, or mini-scenarios (often with visual images along with the audio) that appear within the “space” of mind/awareness in a way similar to how weather appears: i.e. as events that are apparently random—even though we know that if we really wanted to we could probably construct at least an approximate causal explanation (like a meteorologist can, in relation to a specific weather pattern).
And then, secondly, are thoughts that seem to be much more consciously chosen, for instance creative or celebratory thinking, practical thinking, and strategic thinking. A philosopher engages in a focused exploration of a specific topic. I decide which route to take to my dentist appointment, based upon what I know about typical traffic patterns at this time of the day. Magnus Carlsen contemplates his next move, based upon his longtime experience as a chess player.
This second category of thinking just seems so much more directed—so much more coherent and consciously intended—that I hesitate to concede that the distinction (between these two types of thinking) is irrelevant. Even if ultimately all thoughts—like all sensory perceptions—are mere phenomenal appearances, arising and dissolving within the space of awareness—still there’s something about this distinction that seems valuable.
So I wondered whether this notion of directed thought and evaluation might help me out—in my quest to assign agency, of some sort, to at least the second category of thinking.
The phrase, as I recalled, had its origin in Theravada Buddhism—so I tracked (as best I could) its original reference. As it turns out, the “directed thought” portion of the phrase is a bit of a misnomer. Nevertheless, the exploration still turned out to be fruitful.
The Five Jnana Factors
Within the Theravada tradition, the Pali term jhāna (whose Sanskrit equivalent is dhyāna) is typically translated into English as meditation, but refers specifically to training the mind to remain focused upon a single object, and then become fully absorbed in “one-pointedness.” It’s through this training that the mind becomes liberated from automatic, knee-jerk reactions to sensory phenomena—and instead is able to abide in equanimity and rest in its own essence.
The Five Jhāna Factors of absorption/concentration are five steps in this process of making the conceptual mind pliable—and ultimately dissolving it. The first of these steps is sometimes translated as “directed thought,” and the second of these steps is sometimes translated as “evaluation.” So this is where the phrase directed thought and evaluation comes from.
The Five Jhāna Factors—in the original Pali, along with two common English translations—are:
1. Vitakka – Initial application, or directed thought.
2. Vicāra – Sustained application, or evaluation.
3. Píti – Joy, or rapture.
4. Sukha – Happiness, or pleasure.
5. Ekaggata – One-pointedness, tranquility, or singleness/unification of mind.
So basically the training is to place, direct, or focus the mind/attention on a single object or field of inquiry (step #1)—and then, each time we notice that we’ve been distracted—to return attention to that chosen field of inquiry/observation (step #2). This gives rise, eventually, to the joy, happiness, tranquility associated with singleness of mind (steps #3-5).
Here’s another English translation of these five factors:
1. Bringing the mind to the object (arousing, applying)
2. Keeping the mind with the object (sustaining, stretching)
3. Finding, having interest in the object (joy)
4. Being happy and content with the object (happiness)
5. Unifying the mind with the object (fixing)
Important point: a mind, thus trained, is able to direct attention not only to gross or subtle phenomena; but also to the awareness within which such phenomena appear. In other words, it’s able to “turn the light around”—and observe the observer, so to speak.
Directed Thought: A Misnomer
But let’s return now to the phrase directed thought and evaluation. Directed thought is really not the best translation of vitakka—because it’s not a thought, per se, that’s “directing” or “being directed” toward a specific object. Rather it is attention, mind itself, or the light of awareness that is being focused, or encouraged to rest, on this or that phenomena (or upon itself).
And the same is true for the “evaluation” in step two. It’s not really a thought that notices that distraction has happened. It’s we, as awareness, that notice this: that “pay attention” in a way that allows us to “bring ourselves back” to our chosen field of inquiry, again and again, until the resting becomes fully effortless.
Here’s a description from Ajahn Chah of vitakka and vicāra:
When sitting in meditation the mind becomes refined, but whatever state it’s in we should try to be aware of it, to know it. Mental activity is there together with tranquillity. There is vitakka. Vitakka is the action of bringing the mind to the theme of contemplation. If there is not much mindfulness, there will be not much vitakka.
Then vicāra, the contemplation around that theme, follows. Various weak mental impressions may arise from time to time but our self-awareness is the important thing-whatever may be happening we know it continuously. As we go deeper we are constantly aware of the state of our meditation, knowing whether or not the mind is firmly established. Thus, both concentration and awareness are present.
To have a peaceful mind does not mean that there’s nothing happening, mental impressions do arise.
Turning The Light Around
As mentioned above, but worth repeating: The “object” upon which attention rests can be a subtle or gross phenomena—or it can be Awareness itself. In Taoism, “turning the light around” precisely means shifting attention from phenomena to awareness itself.
In either case, a mind that has been made pliable through a practice such as this is incredibly useful. Or, if you prefer: when the natural pliancy and stability of Awareness is fully unveiled—via the dissolution of contracted mental habits—then good things happen.
What we’ve learned so far: directed thought and evaluation—in its original Theravada context—really has nothing to do with directing thoughts. So in and of itself it’s not so useful, in relation to questions of agency, choice, free will, etc. But the Five Jhāna Factors taken collectively point to a situation that supports nuanced self-reflection.
And this tool of self-reflection can be applied, then, to discerning between different kinds of thoughts: in particular, between thoughts that create suffering and thoughts that contribute to or are the expression of happiness. In the Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking Buddha reminds his monks:
Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.
Buddha advises discerning between skillful and unskillful thinking—and finding ways to enhance the former, while dissolving the latter.
The implication here is clear: The mind can be trained to discern thinking born of dualistic ignorance, from thinking arising out of wisdom. And there are ways of leaning in the direction of the latter. Otherwise, what would be the point of spiritual inquiry and practice?
Along with creative thinking, practical thinking, and strategic thinking—we also have this capacity for contemplative thinking: the capacity to self-reflect, to observe the arising of thoughts and images, and—from a place of wisdom—evaluate them, according to their alignment (or lack thereof) with true happiness and wisdom.
This is the skill that is exercised via a formal mindfulness practice. We could also consider self-reflection to be a quality inherent to Awareness itself—in which case it doesn’t need to be cultivated so much as simply revealed.
In our daily lives, we make distinctions all the time—and many of these are genuinely useful. If we look closely enough—say through an electron microscope or the lens of Madhyamaka analysis—these distinctions disappear.
Just because the boundary between appearances—i.e. their distinctiveness—is fuzzy and/or ultimately unfindable, doesn’t necessarily mean the distinction lacks usefulness or practical value. For instance: space and time always appear together, yet the distinction remains useful.
Or, returning to the topological transformation pictured above: does the fact that we can’t designate a precise moment when the cup becomes a donut, mean that the distinction between cups and donuts is irrelevant? (Try pouring coffee into a donut, or eating a glazed cup for breakfast 🙂 )
And so it is—I remain inclined to believe—with the two categories of thoughts described at the outset of this essay: (1) thoughts that seem to “appear out of nowhere, unbidden”; and (2) thoughts that seem to be more freely chosen—and that carry the fragrance of true freedom, agency and creative will.
If we can avoid making the mistake of attributing the latter to a separate-self—to a “me” assumed to be a separate body-mind and/or a limited consciousness—then such thinking can be acknowledged and enjoyed as an aspect of the spontaneously-chosen celebration of our True Nature.
And what about thoughts of the former kind—those that appear “out of nowhere,” like the weather? If we’re pleased with them—if they arise like fortuitous gifts of intuition—then there’s nothing to do except to welcome and appreciate them.
If we’re not so pleased with the contours of our current body-mind-world—with its seemingly random outputs—then we (as Awareness) can adjust the settings. But the control panel lacks a space-time location.
Which seems like a good place to end ….