Thinking about Thinking Too Much

Everybody knows what it means to think, and what it means to think too much. Many people come to meditation with the idea that they ‘think too much to ever be good at it’, but this is a misunderstanding of what meditation is about, Buddhist meditation at least. The ability to think too much could be considered something of an asset in Buddhist meditation, because it means that you have plenty of material to work with. But I say that largely tongue-in-cheek, because apart from that potentially useful aspect of it, thinking too much generally only leads to suffering, and sometimes lots of it. Thinking a lot is often described as ‘proliferation’, and Buddhism has a word for this – papañca. It’s a wonderful word, but also quite a thorny one because its meaning isn’t entirely clear.

I’ve been looking into the meaning of the term papañca, which took me on a bit of a journey down a translation rabbit hole, because it turns out that the meaning of the word papañca is something that academics have been debating for some time; this has a little hint of irony about given that the word itself describes the process of thinking too much. Part of the problem isn’t academics thinking too much though; in this case this particular word doesn’t appear many times in the suttas, and the explanation of it isn’t clear. But it is an important term to understand because it is attributed with playing an important role in how our sense perceptions go on to cause us suffering. In fact, in the famous Honeyball Sutta, MN 18, papañca is implicated as the fundamental reason that lying, quarrels and violent disagreements happen.

If do you want a full rundown of the range of translations check out which does an excellent job of expounding on just about every possible meaning, which as far as I know haven’t yet led to too many violent disagreements in the academic world so far. As a brief summary, the meanings used by the most commonly read translators are: conceptual proliferation, obsession, difficulty, diffuseness, objectification, diversification, and making manifold; so you can see why there is so much discussion about it.

What lead me to look into papañca was that I’ve been reading quite a bit about the five aggregates, also known as the five khandhas, recently and one thing that caught my eye was the connection of papañca to another term vitakka, which means thinking about, or as Horner translates it ‘reasons about’:

“…what one feels one perceives; what one perceives one reasons about; what one reasons about obsesses one”

I.B.Horner 1954 The Collection of The Middle Length Sayings p14, MN18

This particular passage is specifically about the steps of the five aggregates; what one feels is vedana (feeling), and what one perceives is sañña (perception or recognition), but what you do after sañña is usually described by the cover all term of sankhāra (volitional formations, or conditioned actions). In this passage though sankhāra is given a more detailed break down, picking out some of the key steps of the kinds of conditioned actions that your perception would lead to and develop into. So after perception (sañña), there comes thinking about, or reasoning about as Horner translates it (vitakka), and after thinking about it comes papañca, which Horner decides to translate as obsession. Boisvert delivers a translation of the same passage in even more succinct terms:

“What one thinks about, one is obsessed with.”

P81 Mathieu Boisvert The Five Aggregates, Understanding Theravāda Psychology and Soteriology

It’s an easy enough passage to comprehend, but what really made it stand out for me was that I had never made much of a distinction between thinking about something and proliferating, the way I normally understand the word papañca. But with proliferation swapped for obsession, it opened up a new way of thinking about it for me. What it indicated to me was that vitakka and papañca were actually two different states whereas I had previously largely treated them as the same. In English the words ‘thinking about’ and ‘proliferation’ can be used fairly interchangeably, so that could account for me not recognising the distinction, but I quickly realised that there was some mileage in exploring these two steps for their differences. Once I started looking for differences, I found them, and I realised that the experience of them was quite different too.

Thinking about is just thinking – a few words or lines here and there, a quick sum to add up how many of this we have and how many more we need, basically thoughts that pop into the mind and leave again without too much fuss. But papañca, obsession, is more like when that thought keeps going round and round in your head, and even when you try to put it down it jumps back up again immediately. Ñāṇananda is seen as something of the authority on papañca, and he offers this distinction between the two terms:

“Thus, while ‘vitakka’ denotes the onset or initial application of thought, ‘papañca’ might refer to the consequent prolificity in ideation… Papañca … is a more comprehensive term hinting at the tendency of the worldling’s imagination to break loose and run riot”

Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought by Bhikkhu Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda p4

The trouble with papañca isn’t that it is thinking, it is that it is a particular type of thinking that has gone out of control. What might have started on on safe territory can quickly build up a head of steam and have us whipped up into a tizz in no time as our thoughts go on the rampage. Ñāṇananda finds a fitting analogy for this in a Jakata tale[1] where a magician casts a spell on the skeleton of a tiger, which comes back to life but then immediately eats its hapless creator. This illustrates neatly how in the process of papañca we bring our thoughts come to life but ultimately we end up being consumed by our own creations. I think this is a useful analogy to understand what it is about papañca that is so problematic, because the process starts with us engaging in thoughts, but ends up with us being swallowed up by them, and it is our feelings of helplessness in the face of the overwhelming force of our obsession that makes it even harder to escape from.

But in the way that it gets described in the Pali suttas, it isn’t the papañca that overwhelms us, it is the products that come from papañca that do this. The term used for these is another one that has been hard to translate – ‘papañca-saññā-saṇkhā’. Evans gives a useful way to understand this in his breakdown of the passage from Horner quoted previously:

“‘What one reasons about obsesses one; what obsesses one is the origin of the number of perceptions and obsessions which assail a man’, evidently taking saṅkhā in the sense of ‘number’, saññā as ‘perceptions’, and papañca as ‘obsessions’.” Ñāṇananda’s Concept and Reality: An Assessment by Stephen Evans

The thoughts we have multiply and then go on to become obsession, and our obsession creates even more obsessive thoughts, and this cycle just keeps feeding itself – and we can feel like we are powerless against its irresistible gravity. This made me realise was that there was an element of risk in thinking about something a little bit longer than was necessary, because continued rumination on the same subject could lead to papañca, which could then lead to the whole thought process spinning out of control. Leigh Brassington has a humorous story that captures the snowball effect of a simple thought developing into papañca perfectly:

“A woman wants some potatoes for the meal she is cooking, so she sends her husband to the marketplace to buy potatoes. As he walks out the door, she calls after him “be sure and get a good price.” So all the way to the marketplace, the man is thinking about potatoes and what he’ll have to pay. If he buys the very best potatoes, he knows he’ll have to pay more than if he buys lesser quality potatoes. On the other hand the lesser quality potatoes are just that – not so good. In fact he knows he’ll have to be very careful in buying other than top price potatoes because the seller might try to stick him with a bad potato, even a rotten potato. When he thinks of some one cheating him by giving him a rotten potato, he gets really mad. “Why do people have to be so greedy as to stick me with a rotten potato?” Just at this point he reaches the stall of the potato seller and screams at him “You can keep your rotten potatoes!” and walks off.” by Leigh Brassington

While this is a comical situation, it is one that is all too familiar to many of us. One small thing leads to another, and then another, and then the next thing we know we have just bought a hot tub, or we have decided we’re never going to speak to someone ever again. This on its own isn’t enough to make papañca a problem though, the issue is that it is out of our control. When we are in the grip of papañca we aren’t making sensible, rational decisions about things; we are operating on incorrect assumptions, and often are at the mercy of our emotions. Not only that, but the experience of it is incredibly uncomfortable too; we are confused, unsettled, angry, sad, scared, impulsive, restless, and worried. Papañca creates an enormous amount of suffering, but the double whammy is that it continues to create more of the same. When we talk about wishing that we could stop thinking, it is papañca that we are talking about, the kind of thinking that takes us over and leaves us feeling thrown about like a leaf on the wind.

But when we recognise vitakka and papañca as two different things, there is a route to stop it from happening: if vitakka leads to papañca, then mindfulness of our thinking – and intervening when it is going on too long – should stop papañca from developing. Ñanananda’s suggestion is to go a step further, and eliminate thinking altogether:

“Given ‘papañca-saññā-saṇkhā’, there comes to be ‘vitakka’ and given ‘vitakka’ there arise more ‘papañca-saññā-saṇkhā’, resulting in subjection of the same. Owing to this reciprocity, the path leading to the cessation of ‘papañca-saññā-saṇkhā’ as propounded in the Sakkapañha Sutta, consists of a mode of training aimed at the progressive elimination of ‘vitakka’’

Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought by Bhikkhu Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda p24

I don’t know if that is the answer, but I do know that stopping thinking has so far proven to be elusive to everyone I know; and I know that the effort to stop thinking often leads to more thoughts being made, so it isn’t an easy solution to manifest. I also know that many teachers point out that thoughts are to the mind as breathing is to the lungs, it is just what that particular organ does and it is impossible to stop it. The thinking process isn’t really the problem though, the problem is when we grab hold of thoughts and let them run on and on and on. My suggestion of mindful attention to just how much we are thinking about one subject might be somewhere easier to start from.

Mindfulness of thoughts isn’t always easy of course, it is a little like the analogy Ajahn Chah used about trying to look at your horse while you are riding it, watching your thoughts while you are thinking them isn’t always achievable. But when I have been thinking about something, or am holding on to that thought too tightly, I can recognise that it produces a physical effect – I can feel tense, and agitated, I struggle to keep my attention on things, and I am restless. So if I don’t spot that I have been thinking too much, then I still have the more obvious physical symptoms to pick up on.

But what I have found especially useful is the reframing of papañca from ‘proliferating’ to ‘obsession’, which has helped me to see what action is needed to deal with it. When we get caught up in a loop of papañca, we often try to think and reason our way out of it, but that isn’t going to work. Once I can see that I am in the grip of obsession then I need to just stop, because the mind is out of control and it needs immediate remedial action. It has really helped me to appreciate that it is a serious state to get into, and that I shouldn’t try to do anything else, or anything important at the very least, until it is sorted. Before I would have just said ‘oh I’m thinking too much, why am I thinking too much? I wonder what caused me to think too much? How can I stop thinking so much?’ etc. I would proliferate about proliferating, and unsurprisingly it wouldn’t have any impact, but now I can recognise that it was thinking about it that caused the problem in the first place, so that is definitely not what is going to fix it!

I don’t have a standard solution to dealing with the mind when it gets taken over by obsession, different occasions seem to need different approaches, but I find that even just the act of recognising, ‘oh, I’ve gotten obsessed’ can break the chain a bit. When I see that I am obsessing about something, I try to stop whatever I’m doing and work on the physical feelings to begin with, the agitation or anger or whatever is there. Meditation, breathing exercises, mindful movement, anything that takes the mind away from itself and onto the body is useful. I try to calm the whole system down starting with the body, and usually once the body starts to calm, the energy in the mind starts to dissipate. Even taking a short nap to reset the system can be useful too, as it can break the mind out of the loop that it got itself stuck in. The key thing to remember when you wake up though is to not let the mind go straight back to the subject that started it all off.

Even though reading a lot of other people’s ideas can sometimes trigger off a lot more ideas, I enjoy reading the interesting takes and opinions that academic and monastic writers come up with in relation to the texts and the teachings, but stimulating as some of their ideas may be the question I always come back to is ‘how can I make use of this?’ Interesting ideas are still just ideas, and if all they do is make more ideas then that isn’t very useful for our practices. The learning in practice comes through the doing of the practice, but that doesn’t mean that we can just jump in without reading the instructions and hope to get a good result; there needs to be the right balance between technical understanding and practical application. I try to strike that balance by looking for the ways that intellectual theory can be translated into practical action, and also examining whether a particular theory in action creates more peace and calm, or whether it leads to more thinking and agitation.

In the case of the meaning of papañca I found that treating it as meaning ‘obsession’ has a beneficial outcome for me, because it highlights to me how important it is to not over indulge in thinking. That doesn’t mean that I would stick my neck out and say ‘papañca means obsession, and every other translation is wrong’, because I can recognise that there is potentially a difference between something that works for me and something that is ‘fact’. Just because it helps me it doesn’t mean it is correct, thinking about papañca as meaning proliferation might have a more useful effect for someone else instead. And sometimes I hear or read an amazing idea about the practice or the teachings, but I just can’t get anything useful out of it, or the more I think about it the more it seems to muddy the waters. When that happens, I just need to let it go; perhaps it isn’t the right time for me to think about the subject in that particular way, or perhaps thinking in that way triggers off some other unskilful tendency in me. I used to be quite aversive towards conceptual and intellectual ideas about Buddhism, but now I can see that like everything we encounter there is always the potential to learn something from them, as long as we know how we personally can tell if they are useful for us or not. A certain amount of thinking about papañca can be useful for us, but as long as out of it we realise that we should never think about anything too much.

[1] Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought by Bhikkhu Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda p6, referring to Ja 150

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

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