The MWS Podcast 128: Barbara Gail Montero on Thought in Action

Our guest today is Barbara Gail Montero who is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. Her work focuses on one or the other of two different notions of body: body as the physical or material basis of everything, and body as the moving, breathing, flesh and blood instrument that we use when we run, walk, or dance. Before entering academia, she was a professional ballet dancer and she’s here to talk to us today about her recently published book ‘Thought in Action: Expertise and the conscious Mind’ which challenges what she refers to as the ‘Just do it’ principle.

MWS Podcast 128: Barbara Gail Montero as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

11 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 128: Barbara Gail Montero on Thought in Action

  1. A fascinating podcast. I very much agree with Gail’s approach here, as it’s often seemed to me that much talk of ‘flow’ and idealisation of ‘mindless’ approaches misses something about how we best address conditions, and gives ‘thought’ an unnecessarily bad press. You didn’t discuss meditation here, but my own experience of meditation is very much that thought is necessary – it’s *obsessive* thought that’s the problem, not the appearance of some kind of representation, or even of sequential reasoning, in your mind. But that doesn’t stop an adhesive popular idea of meditation being that you ‘stop thinking’.

    Another formulation that I think helps to make sense of this material is the Buddhist concept of balanced effort. I’ve tried to develop this in a discussion of ‘the four exertions’ in Middle Way Philosophy 2, ch. 4a. We can investigate our judgements so as to stop them taking an absolute form, we can engage in temporary suppression, we can relax obsessive thoughts so as to be able to integrate them, and we can keep an eye on the conditions to prevent new distractions arising – and all of these involve awareness working with our thoughts, not simply a narrowly focused effort to fulfil a goal of the kind that might produce the ‘choke’ Gail talked about.

    Gail might be right in hinting that the more superficial ‘go with the flow’ type interpretations of Buddhism (particularly Zen) that are around in the West may be just a matter of Western interpretation. Or they may instead be an interpretative issue that goes back further than that. To me it sounds like a facet of the long-standing tension between the Middle Way in Buddhism and the absolutizing shortcuts that often hijack the tradition. The Zen emphasis on spontaneity, intuition and instant insight were themselves part of a reaction against over-formal, clunky versions of Buddhism that preceded them: so those reactions might be part of a gradual move towards the Middle Way for some, or they might just be part of a flip for others.

    1. Thank you Robert . And thank you for bringing up meditation. As I often say, the wrong kind of thinking, such as obsessive thinking while meditating, that should be avoided. But the right type of thinking, that’s what we should aim for. This concept of “balanced effort” sounds fascinating, and I definitely want to learn more about it. Thanks again,
      Barbara (aka Gail)

      1. Hi Barbara,
        The concept of ‘balanced effort’ is quite widely used in Buddhism, and comes particularly from the image of the lute strings which the Buddha uses in the Anguttara Nikaya (‘Numerical Discourses) 6.55. Here’s an online source: Here’s also a source on the Buddhist analysis of the ‘Four Exertions’ (which I then try to update in my book as mentioned above) I think there’s also a psychological parallel in Jonathan Haidt’s image of riding an elephant: the idea that effective effort in changing the overall tendency of our judgements is not immediate, but requires forward planning and addressing of the background conditions, and that may obviously include practising something until it becomes intuitive.

  2. Thanks Robert and yes I think she’s really on to something. I didn’t think about the connection with meditation and the common assumption that it’s about emptying your mind, but you’re spot on. I wonder why that assumption is so common, especially when for anyone who practices meditation, it’s so obviously not the case?

  3. Thanks for the references on balanced effort. Robert, perhaps you, or someone else, might also be able to direct me to some studies–if there are any– on thought during
    meditation. I’d be especially interested in any neuroscientific research into this.

    1. Hi Barbara,
      I’ve been asking around, but I’m afraid I don’t know of any such studies and haven’t found anyone else who does. There are more general studies on the benefits of meditation, but what you’re asking for is obviously more specific than that.

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