There is a familiar phenomenon that takes place in the mind when we have an experience that disturbs us. Let me illustrate the point. Say a mid-level manager in a company gets an e-mail requesting she attend an unplanned meeting with the head of the department. She has never been asked to attend such a meeting before and it comes at particularly stressful times because of deadlines and layoffs. The manager reads the e-mail and naturally begins to speculate and with that, the cycle of negative ruminations begins…and then escalate from there.
There are certain circumstances in the English language where a concept cannot be effectively described with a single word. What I’ve described above is one of those. In Tibetan language, however, there is a word that describes this phenomenon: Papancha. One Tibetan scholar translates Papancha as: “an eruption of mental commentary obscuring the raw data of cognition.” I like the word Papancha! It has a nice ring to it that seems almost fitting given what it means, don’t you think?
Without knowing what it is and why it is happening, many of us suffer deeply from the consequences of Papancha. But with a clearer understanding of the nature of the mind, it is possible to suffer less when stressful situations arise (unless, of course, more suffering is what you are seeking).
Back to e-mail received by the manager. The “raw data” was the contents of the e-mail: A simple request that she attend an unplanned meeting. However, the “eruption of mental commentary obscuring the raw data of cognition,” the Papancha, was everything the mind generated after reading the email.
As we become more aware of the propensity of mind to fill in missing information, usually with worst-case scenarios, we are able to consider other options than just the worst case. Maybe the meeting is about a promotion. Maybe it’s just a benign procedural meeting.
Through the practice of being aware of our thoughts – mindfulness – we learn to see more clearly what the mind is doing and we can start to question the spontaneous irrational fears that arise. After all, when a situation arose in the past in which your mind projected fear-inducing outcomes, how often did one of those worst-case scenarios occur? And even in the rare instance that an undesirable outcome occurred, what is your life like now? Perhaps whole new doors opened in the aftermath. Through the practice of mindfulness and clear thinking we begin to create fewer and fewer stressful situations for ourselves which not only makes us feel better, but gives us more focus, centeredness and clarity for the concrete challenges in front of us.
As Mark Twain aptly wrote, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.”