I thought to myself that my mind is awfully discursive today. Then I wondered what that actually means.
We hear this word a lot – “discursiveness.” I think it means monkey mind, thoughts just rattling around one after the other, uncontrolled, purposeless, and uncontrollable. Discursiveness always feels mildly like a trap we can’t get out of. It is used with a negative connotation. After all, it does begin with “dis” and continue with “curse.” But what does it actually mean? Have we ever bothered to look?
On the one hand it means “Running hither and thither; Passing rapidly or irregularly from one subject to another.” But on the other hand, it is also defined as “Passing from premisses to conclusions; proceeding by reasoning or argument. Often opposite to intuitive.” Or, rarely, “A subject of ‘discourse’ or reasoning (as distinguished from a subject of perception).” (Oxford English Dictionary Online)
So, discursive thinking can be just random rambling or it can be a rational thought process, examining a subject on point at a time in order to reach a conclusion. Do not these definitions seem mutually exclusive?
Pema Chodron says “When we drop the discursive thinking and open, or communicate, what that basically means is that we contact the moment fully.” (“How to Work with Addictions,” Shambhala Sun) This implies discursiveness leads us to be closed off, incommunicative, and out of touch. She continues, “Often you feel that you cannot let go. But if you have the courage to just experiment with abruptly opening at this time, there is enormous ability to have the mind open completely because there is so much energy. Of course the energy is pregnant with wanting to close right back down into the discursiveness or the mood that you are in.”
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche also appears to dwell on the negative aspects of discursiveness. “The Sakyong describes discursive thoughts as the ‘chatter that constantly clutters our minds, the routine mental buzz… It’s like a low–level hum that obscures our natural clarity,’” writes ‘the girl’ on the blog Auspicious Coincidence.
Another attributes the saying “When we relax our discursiveness, we find that underneath it all, we are already happy,” to the Sakyong.
When a commenter on a dharmawheel.com forum asked ““What does this really mean?” another answered “That actually we were originally happy with our Factory Outlet shirt or dress until someone comes along with a Prada or DKNY....” Is that really discursiveness? Or is that just avarice? Perhaps the thought process that leads us to believe the Prada shirt is better than the Factory Outlet shirt was discursive, but the sudden desire to wear Prada is something else entirely.
In a commentary on the Abhidharma found on the website of the Turtle Hill Sangha (followers of Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche) they discuss the Abhidharma text translated as “What is selectiveness? It is a mental addressing that takes in everything in the wake of intention or appreciative discrimination. It is a coarse mental operation. What is discursiveness? It is a mental addressing which is attentive to one thing at a time in the wake of intention or appreciative discrimination. It is an exact mental operation. It has the function of becoming the basis of happiness or unhappiness.”
In the discussion, the author (unknown) points out “The statement, 'it is the basis of happiness and unhappiness', means that since both selectiveness and discursiveness have a positive and negative aspect, the positive aspect of both ought to be known as the basis of happiness because by the positive aspect, pleasant results occur; the negative aspect of both ought to be known as the basis of unhappiness because by the negative aspect unpleasant results occur.”
Perhaps the modern teachings dwell on the negative aspects of discursiveness because of the semantic connotations of the word rendered in English. Or perhaps it is a reflection of modern culture. It is entirely possible that people are quicker to embody the first definition of discursiveness than the second. However, other modern Western philosophers have mused over both natures, as the Abhidharma apparently does.
“Definitions of the term ‘discursive’ tend to divide into two apparently contradictory senses. On the one hand, the word describes speech or writing which is wandering and disorganized; on the other, it can also mean ‘explanatory’ – pointed, organized around a setting forth of material.
“These opposites are reconciled by the radical sense of motion over terrain; the word signifies going through or going over one’s subject. Whether digressively or directly, at a walk or at a run, the motion is on the ground and by foot, putting its weight part by part onto the terrain to be covered. Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” writes Robert Pinsky in his article “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness.”
This is the second time we have seen discursiveness listed as the opposite of intuition. It was also in the OED definition. Louis Arnaud Reid cites (“Intuition, Discursiveness, and Aesthetic Alchemy”) two definitions for intuition. “One – A.R. Laceys Dictionary of Philosophy – ‘Intuition. Generally a direct relation between the mind and some object, analogous to what common sense thinks is the relation between us and something we see unambiguously in a clear light.’ He adds: ‘The emphasis is on the directness of the relation…’ And the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘Immediate apprehension by the mind without reasoning; immediate apprehension by sense; immediate insight.’
So if intuition is the opposite of discursiveness and discursiveness is traditionally seen in a negative light, then intuition must be good, right? Here I believe, as Reid seems to, we begin to fall into a false dichotomy. He continues: “But there is no knowledge at all – it could not be knowledge – without the presence at some stage of Gnosis, intuition, direct seeing and grasping. This intuition is judgmental, involving a concept or concepts. …if it is true that all knowing and knowledge has an intuitional element, then of course discursive thinking must have it.”
For Reid, to intuit or immediately apprehend something is to immediately judge, categorize, label, and conceptualize. Since we do this to all things as a function of our linguistic nature, by that same nature even the most rational trains of thought involve intuition. Therefore, he warns “But it would be the greatest mistake to be led, by habits of usage, to suppose that what seems so, is so, or certainly that it is necessarily so.”
In essence, discursiveness is contradictory and, as such, both boon and hindrance. In opening my rational analysis of discursiveness with “I thought to myself that my mind is awfully discursive today. Then I wondered what that actually means,” I neatly defined the subject of my musing. It was discursiveness which lead me to wonder what discursiveness was (when I ought to have been doing something else entirely), and also discursive thought which led me to examine the very meaning of the word in a logical (I hope) manner (up 'til now).
I think discursiveness gets a bum rap in modern culture. It’s like The Force. “Is the dark side stronger?” Luke asked Yoda.
“No. No. Quicker, easier, more seductive,” Yoda responded.
“But how am I to know the good side from the bad?” Luke asks.
“You will know... when you are calm, at peace, passive.” In other words, perhaps we will know the difference between discursiveness and discursiveness when we are not discursive. That is, of course, if you believe the wisdom of a small green puppet who speaks in backward English.
But perhaps this is just as Reid notes: “The items in a train of argument must be intuitively seen as related, and when the argument is mastered it can be seen as a whole in a kind of synoptic intuition,” in which case, all is intuition and discursiveness just a fiction which allows us to believe there is a relation between green puppets and Buddhist scriptures. It is the conceptual thinking that can never directly experience reality. Or perhaps I am just supposing that is so. This could go on forever…