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Papanca. I learned this word at a meditation retreat. I like that it’s onomatopoeic. Pah pan cha. Like the tiny explosion of popcorn kernels as they heat up and pop in rapid succession, much like thoughts proliferating in our mind. It is a Pali word that refers to mental or conceptual elaboration, the web of thoughts and concepts that form our sense of reality.

It can be eye opening to observe how many thoughts pop up in the span of a minute. Most of these thoughts aren’t intentional or invited, just thoughts thinking themselves. This noticing fundamentally shifted my relationship to thinking. I didn’t choose many of the thoughts that arose. And I didn’t necessarily have to believe those thoughts just because they appeared. Some thoughts are useful, but others less so. Thoughts can be sticky, but by observing them, there was more space to discern without automatically grabbing ahold of them or following the endless stream of thoughts.

Try it out. Take a minute, even 30 seconds to observe what happens when you simply notice the mind’s activity. The practice of deliberately observing isn’t familiar to many of us unless we’ve practiced mindfulness or meditation. But minds wander, as research shows, nearly 50% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). It’s human nature. We also have the ability to practice bringing our mind to the present moment, whether that moment is pleasant or unpleasant. Sometimes being present happens naturally. The same research also found that people report feeling most content when their mind was focused on the present rather than on the past or future. It’s a practice. And it can begin with noticing what’s here right now. Take a moment to connect with your senses – What do your eyes see? What do your ears hear? What do you feel or sense in your body?

If you notice thoughts arise as you engage in this exercise you can simply label them as “thinking” and return to noticing the senses. Touching into the senses throughout the day can be a supportive practice. With consistent practice, this gives us more space to “see” thoughts as they arise without getting lost in them. 

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