We can think about thought and action in three ways:
- Placement (positioning ourselves and the objects around us)
- Process (creating complex patterns of placement)
- Concept (forming complex patterns into overarching theories)
Placement is the most basic level of action. We can live our whole life putting objects where they are ‘supposed’ to go. We can turn lights on and off, put washing up in the bowl or dishwasher, place laundry in the washing machine.
Basic placement is easy. A baby can place its limbs in certain positions. A child can place a pen on paper. We can do the action first, and think about it later.
In age, even in dementia, adults continue to be able to perform placement long after their ability to remember and conceptualise has diminished. Our old brains and bodies have a good automatic memory for such things.
Think of learning to play the piano. We may start with placement – hitting the keys – but soon we begin to pay attention to patterns of action. We may learn that by placing our fingers at certain intervals, we can make nice-sounding chords. This is process. Process, if you like, is enlightened, meaningful placement.
A toddler begins to chain together sets of limb movement into whole patterns of action such as grasping, crawling, and walking. Simple mouth, throat and lung actions are chained together to form the process of speaking and communication.
Processes are patterns of action we learn to create over and above the base actions that are contained within the process. Dancing, for instance, is a process built on skill sets which chain together basic actions. The whole thing is like a pyramid, where simple actions are the base, and skilled composite actions are built on them.
Processes can still be automatic. But they need a higher level of thought, an ability to coordinate multiple placements into a composite and harmonised set of actions.
Overlaying both placement and process is concept. When we conceptualise, we imagine a map of how our placement and pattern discoveries fit together. Scientists, for instance, experiment with the placement, begin to notice patterns, and then create theories that explain the placements and patterns.
Sometimes those theories are useful, and sometimes they are quite wrong, and lead to confusing and counterproductive action.
RELEVANCE TO MINDFULNESS
To live mindfully, it can help us to conceive of our lives as placement first, patterns second, and concepts third.
Firstly, we can use placement to reattune ourselves to the basic level on which we are simply aware, without assuming patterns or making conceptual assumptions. This is a good way to become relaxed and patient, as it is easy on the mind, and requires little or no complex action.
Secondly, we can tentatively revisit our patterns, ensuring they get regular maintenance and revision. For instance, I see therapy clients who have often developed false patterns of action which don’t help them any more. By reviewing and revising them, we can find patterns which fit much better our own happiness, and our contextual world.
Finally, we can hold our concepts lightly, and revisit them. Often, our concepts (religions, politics, value sets) don’t fully match the so-called outside world. We need to remember they are only theories. We can have a sense of humour, and constantly test our assumptions. This keeps us philosophically humble and engaged.
RELEVANCE TO ANXIETY
Anxiety can be caused by over-conceptualising and mis-conceptualising – requiring the universe to conform to an expectation that is held only in our heads. If we are mindful, we may realise that we chase deadlines that are arbitrary, relationships that are imaginary, and wins that are based on invented game rules. If we can drop our patterns and concepts, we are protected from hyper-vigilance, and can be more relaxed in our own and others’ company.
At a basic level, we live in a world of objects and placement. We can have a relaxed day just observing the objects around us, or tidying them up on a basic level. We don’t need much mind to live like this. This is simple mindfulness – returning to a simpler relationship with the world around us, being just here, now.
At a more complex level, we can observe how we develop patterns of thinking and acting over time. We can revisit these patterns, which may or may not be appropriate for us.
At an even more complex level, we can observe how we construct concepts from groups of patterns. These are only theories, and are highly unlikely to be correct or real, though they may be useful in some way. For instance, religions and political views may stereotype the universe, and make unproven assumptions. We can still use overarching concepts where useful, but be aware they are only theories, and hold them lightly and humorously.
COUNSELLING AND THERAPY
Counselling and therapy can help us to become happier by helping us to examine, and hold more gently, our patterns and assumptions. Clients often find that, after a while, they ‘flow better’, because they are less attached to old, outdated thought and action systems.
If you’re interested in counselling in this way, do get in touch via the contact page.