I'm a big fan of mindfulness and meditation. I resonate with a non-religious, secular, scientific approach to Buddhism.
But I'm also an avid reader of neuroscience books. My current fave is Antonio Damasio's "Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain."
Much of the book is filled with more details about brain anatomy and functioning than I really care about. The overall theme, though, is fascinating -- how our sense of self is built up from more primitive primordial feelings, along with a less primitive core self and a possibly uniquely human autobiographical self.
Today I came across a section in the book that reinforced my skepticism about the oft-heard meditation admonition to shut off discursive thinking and be here now.
Which basically means, immersed in direct perceptions and associated feelings of what is right around us.
In Damasio's terms, this would leave us, pretty much, with just those primordial feelings of bodily existence and a core self existing in the present moment. In other words, not fully human.
Sure, some people overdo thinking.
There is a time and place for embracing sensory impressions and bodily actions with little additional cogitation. But our brains also need space for contemplating the past and future, envisioning possibilities, imagining what could be rather than what is.
In this passage Damasio explains why it isn't possible to be both fully present in the here and now, and fully engaged in higher order activities of the cerebral cortex. We only have so much brain processing power.
Conscious deliberation is about reflection over knowledge. We apply reflection and knowledge when we decide on important matters in our lives. We use conscious deliberation to govern our loves and friendships, our education, our professional activities, our relations to others. Decisions pertaining to moral behavior, narrowly or broadly defined, involve conscious deliberation and take place over extended time periods.
Not only that, such decisions are processed in an offline mental space that overwhelms external perception. The subject at the center of conscious deliberation, the self in charge of the prospection of the future, is often distracted from external perception, inattentive to its vagaries.
And there is a very good reason for this distraction in terms of brain physiology: the image-processing brain space, as we have seen, is the sum total of early sensory cortices; this same space needs to be shared by conscious reflection processes and direct perception; it is hardly up to the task of handling both without favoring one or the other.
We speak of being "lost in thought." This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it is essential when conscious deliberation is taking place. If we were fully aware of the here and now, the brain wouldn't have the ability to do its thinking thing.
So there's a time to Be Here Now, and there's a time to Be There Then. It makes no sense to elevate one over the other, since both are a central part of being human.