Table of Contents
- What is Discursive Thinking?
- Examples of Discursive Thinking
- How to Practice Discursive Thinking
- Benefits of Discursive Thinking
- Discursive vs Non-Discursive Thoughts
- Pure Awareness to Quieten the Discursive Mind
- Discursive Thinking in Buddhism and Meditation
- Final Thoughts
- Frequently Asked Questions
Our minds are powerful tools that shape our realities. The quality of our thinking determines the quality of our lives. One important aspect of mindful living is understanding the difference between two types of thinking: discursive and non-discursive.
What is Discursive Thinking?
Discursive thinking is defined as a logical, rational, analytical way of thinking that uses language and reasoning. It is the type of thinking our conscious mind does most of the time. Some key features of discursive thinking include:
- Step-by-step: Occurs in sequential order, like steps in a logical argument.
- Symbolic: Uses symbols like words, numbers, and images to represent concepts.
- Abstract: Is conceptual rather than experiential. It uses abstract ideas and theories.
- Deliberate: Is intentional and requires effort or concentration.
- Limiting: Works within limits and boundaries to reach conclusions.
Examples of Discursive Thinking
Here are some common examples of discursive thinking we engage in daily:
- Having an internal monologue or "Voice in your head"
- Debating different options in your mind
- Analyzing information or an experience
- Making pro/con lists
- Doing math equations
- Judging, criticizing, or labeling
- Worrying or ruminating about the past/future
- Coming up with ideas and making plans
Discursive thinking is hugely useful for logical reasoning, language, planning, and many other complex cognitive tasks. However, too much discursive thinking can also lead to overthinking, anxiety, and disconnect from the present moment.
How to Practice Discursive Thinking
Discursive thinking comes naturally to us, but it is something we can become even more adept at it with focused practice. Intentionally exercising this mode of thinking strengthens our critical analysis abilities. Here are some methods:
- Establish a consistent thinking routine: Set aside 30-60 minutes daily as dedicated discursive thinking time. Remove distractions and stimuli. Sit quietly with a journal. Use this time to logically unpack ideas, analyze information, make pro/con lists, and think through problems step-by-step.
- Use thought frameworks: Employ specific frameworks that provide structure for analytical thinking, like SWOT analysis, design thinking, and the 5 Whys method. Outline your thought process to systematically break down and examine issues.
- Debate and discuss: Have focused dialogues and friendly debates with others on specific topics. Articulating your view clearly strengthens your reasoning abilities as you justify positions. Listen carefully to critique and opposing views.
- Learn strategy games: Mastering games like chess, Go, backgammon, and bridge involves rigorous discursive thinking to evaluate moves and countermoves. Making strategic decisions trains cognitive analysis.
- Read challenging books: Read non-fiction books outside your usual genres that require focused analytical thinking. For example, books on history, science, philosophy, or global affairs. Mentally unpacking complex ideas is great practice.
- Limit distractions: Minimize multitasking which fractures thinking. Give your full concentration to logical reasoning tasks. The more distraction-free time spent in focused discursive thought, the more your critical thinking abilities will strengthen.
With consistent practice using these approaches, you can become an incisive thinker able to carefully analyze topics from multiple angles and articulate reasoned conclusions.
Benefits of Discursive Thinking
While too much can be counterproductive, developing strong discursive thinking abilities has many advantages:
- Problem-solving: Discursive thinking allows us to solve problems in a step-by-step analytical manner. We can systematically weigh options, analyze root causes, and think through solutions.
- Focus: Discursive thought is concentrative, allowing us to focus deeply on specific topics without distraction. This helps in learning, comprehension, and insight.
- Critical thinking: Discursive thought enables critical thinking as we question assumptions, evaluate arguments, and consider different perspectives. This protects against bias and misinformation.
- Communication: Discursive skills allow us to communicate complex ideas through language, articulating our thinking to others clearly.
- Organization: Discursive thinking brings structure and organization to information and tasks through systematic analysis and planning.
- Wisdom: Careful consideration of an issue using discursive thought leads to informed judgements and wisdom.
Discursive thinking powers human ingenuity and civilization. Like all mind tools, it serves us best when honed but also balanced with present-moment awareness. The key is exercising our discursive skills only when useful, not constantly overthinking on autopilot.
Discursive vs Non-Discursive Thoughts
Discursive thinking differs significantly from its complement: non-discursive thought. While discursive thought is analytical and symbolic, non-discursive thought is intuitive, experiential, and beyond language. Some key differences:
What is Non-Discursive Thinking
Non-discursive thought is about directly connecting with what you're thinking about. This happens during moments of deep focus, intuition, or when we have sudden insights. It also comes up during creative moments or when we feel really in tune with ourselves, such as during meditation.
This type of thinking is all about personal experiences and feelings. It's not about facts or details, but more about an inner understanding of things. Non-discursive thought doesn't need language. It's about direct experience and understanding, not about putting things into words.
The real understanding of things goes beyond words and definitions.
"Thoughts that put reality into words are lies." - Zen Teacher Kodo Sawaki
Both modes of thought offer vital but different ways of understanding ourselves, others, and the world. The integration of reason and intuition provides the deepest wisdom. You will find below a comprehensive comparative table of both:
|Characteristic||Discursive Thought||Non-Discursive Thought|
|Type of Thinking||Logical, analytical||Intuitive, Holistic|
|Process||Sequential, Step-by-Step||Sudden Insights|
|Relationship to Object||Separate||United|
|Characteristics||Abstract, Conceptual||Direct Experience|
|Examples||Analyzing, Planning, Reasoning||Creativity, Intuition, Flow States|
Pure Awareness to Quieten the Discursive Mind
While discursive thinking enables many cognitive feats, it can also lead to overthinking. The incessant chatter of our inner narrator often fuels anxiety and disconnects us from the present. Quieting this discursive noise opens space for peace, wisdom and non-discursive intuition. Methods to calm the discursive mind include:
- Meditation: Seated meditation develops awareness of the constant stream of discursive thought. As we cultivate non-judgemental detachment through practice, we learn to simply observe thoughts rather than engage them, quieting the inner monologue.
- Mindful activities: Mindful daily activities like drinking, walking, eating, and nature immersion redirect focus away from discursive thought and into the present sensorial experience.
- Observe don't judge: Rather than analysing and judging, simply notice thoughts non-reactively as they arise. Silently label them as "thinking, thinking" and let them go without following their narrative.
- Physical relaxation: Activities like deep breathing, yoga, massage, and floatation therapy relax the body. This releases mental tension that fuels discursive thinking.
- Nature & silence: Spending time in natural settings without human noise naturally settles the mind. The mental quiet evoked by a silent forest dials down our discursive cognition.
When we gently turn down the volume on our discursive thinking without suppressing it completely, our minds find balance – able to toggle between laser-focused analysis and tranquil awareness and peace.
Discursive Thinking in Buddhism and Meditation
Discursive thinking has an interesting relationship with spirituality and meditation. Many wisdom traditions recognize both the utility and limits of discursive thought on the spiritual journey.
Buddhism offers the clearest perspective. The Buddhist philosophy distinguishes between two forms of knowledge: conceptual and non-conceptual. Conceptual knowledge derives from mental models and beliefs - the realm of discursive thought. Non-conceptual knowledge comes from direct meditative insight into the nature of reality.
As philosopher Nāgārjuna stated, discursive thought can only yield conventional, relative truths bounded by language and conceptual frameworks. It cannot realize the absolute, unconditional truth. For this non-conceptual wisdom, Buddhist practice cultivates a “Quiet Mind” through meditation.
In meditation, Buddhists seek to detach from attachment to discursive thinking and experience reality as it is. When the mind's chatter quietens, clarity and insight arise.
"Silently and serenely, one forgets all words." - Zen Master Hongzhi Zhengjue
This is not an anti-intellectual stance. Buddhism recognizes discursive thought's vital role in understanding relative, conventional truth through critical analysis, but it is limited.
"All objects of knowledge are by definition exclusive of ultimate knowledge, just as all objects of experience are exclusive of ultimate experience.” - Non-duality teacher Rupert Spira
Thus, while honing discursive skills we must also cultivate mindless presence. Meditation quiets the noise of thinking to hear the whispered wisdom underneath - our luminous non-dual awareness. Thinking becomes a servant, not a master, of understanding.
We realise the sacred lies in the gaps between thoughts in silent contemplation.
“Beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept, beyond intelligence, is the simple affirmation of being itself.” - Thomas Merton
I hope this exploration of discursive thinking has provided you with a deeper understanding of your own mind and cognition. The ability to think critically and analytically is a profound gift. It allows us to reason, learn, communicate, solve problems and drive progress.
However, life is not just rationality. There is mystery and magic at its essence. While discursive thought is powerful, it has limits. There are depths of wisdom it cannot plumb. Over-relying on analysis and thinking can distance us from the luminous presence ever-available beneath our mental noise.
The key is balance. Being able to consciously switch between different cognitive modes serves us best. We can think deeply and critically when needed, while also remainin peaceful, thought-free awareness at other times. Harmonizing these capacities allows us to fluidly meet each moment with the appropriate response.
At Life Architekture, we guide clients to integrate their full spectrum of human potential. This includes teaching contemplative practices like mindfulness meditation to complement critical thinking. Drawing on ancient wisdom traditions, we help you be the architect of your life consciously - aligning your daily thoughts, words and actions with your deepest truth.