To reiterate: the main teaching on conceptual proliferation or papañca, the process where the mind runs away and how that happens, is in Sutta 18 of the Majjhima Nikāya, the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta. The sequence begins with a sense-contact: there’s a physical sensation or a thought floats into the mind. That contact leads to feeling, vedanā, which in Buddhism is not an emotion, but more like the raw attraction of the pleasant, the repulsion of the painful or a neutral feeling. Feeling leads to saññā, perception, the designation or naming of the sense object, such as the cognizing of a colour as ‘red’. Then saññā leads to vitakka, thinking. There’s an initial thought, a brief conceptual framing of the experience: ‘That’s a really ugly red.’
And vitakka leads to conceptual proliferation: ‘Why did they use that ghastly red? I don’t like it. They should consult proper people before they… blah blah blah …’ This is papañca; the mind starts to run and get carried away with itself. In Gujarati papañca also means a contortion or cunning, the way in which things become distorted. That’s a very helpful way of describing it: distorted thinking, that kind of on-flowing, on-going chattering.
As papañca blossoms it strengthens into a sense of ‘me’ here, in a separate state from ‘the world out there’, which may be the world of a conceptual past, an abstracted present or an imagined future. But it entails a subject here and a separate object there, and a sense of stress or tension or pressure between them, such as longing for something you haven’t got or irritation with something that’s painful. When it’s at its full strength, it’s called in Pali papañca-saññā-sankhā, ‘the full range of conceptions and notions characterized by proliferation that beset and pressurize the heart’; in other words, ‘me’ in a state of tension with ‘the world’.
The more familiar you become with those different stages: contact, feeling, perception, thinking, conceptual proliferation and then the quality of pressurized alienation, with the mind obsessed and burdened by conceptions and notions, the more easily you can trace them back to their source. You can trace the mind’s outgoing energy back to its origin, or trace back the emotion in the body to see where it comes from, and how it blows up and can also fade away. The meditation exercises given here aim to create a sense of spaciousness around an emotion, an environment of non-entanglement, so that there’s a context for it. When an emotional state in or around you is surrounded by spaciousness, you see the state within that context. That’s the essence of responsiveness, the spaciousness that says: ‘That’s a strong feeling! What do I do with it?’ or ‘I don’t know what to do with this person who is having a breakdown in my company.’ This is the uncomfortable ‘I don’t know what to do with this’ feeling. It’s not a matter of shutting your heart down, of building a wall between ‘you’ and ‘the other’; it’s an openness to what’s here but a non-entanglement with it. It’s an unentangled participation in that experience, an engagement, but not with any entangled or distorted, contorted quality.
The question that comes up then is how to decide what is the right thing to do. In my humble opinion, ‘the right thing’ is a dangerous concept. The very phrase carries the presumption that there is a single perfect ‘right thing’ to do, a path in life that you’re supposed to be following; the ‘it’s meant to be’ delusion. I would like to suggest that there is no one ‘right thing to do’; it changes second by second, moment by moment, and is entirely dependent on mindful attunement to the present moment.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from ‘I’M RIGHT, YOU’RE WRONG!’, pp.56-59.