On Thinking

I’m an addict.

But I’m not alone. Chances are you’re an addict as well, to some degree. It’s hard to avoid becoming an addict when you grow up ensconced in modern society.

I’m talking about thinking, of course. Even though we are all so much more than our brains, 99% of us live mostly in our minds as our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves gradually atrophy.

We’re taught from a young age to sit still, with eyes forward, and pay attention to whomever’s in front of us, or we’ll never amount to anything or have the freedom we were already born with. What a burden for a kid to deal with! Soon our minds are racing as we ponder the implications, trying to contain our natural, inborn expansiveness. We spend more and more time fretting about our past behaviors and thoughts, and projecting and worrying about the future.

Eventually, we forget what it was even like to be fully present in the moment, in our bodies. We forget what it’s like to feel and experience the entire range of natural human emotions. We forget what it’s like to even consider the spiritual.

This leads to tremendous unevenness in life—a lack of balance among the various parts that make us human beings—that then trips us up over and over again. When we live mostly in our heads we get mired and stuck in endlessly echoing reverberations of thought. On top of that, repetitive worry leads to overproduction of cortisol (the stress hormone), which has all manner of negative health effects over time.

Runaway thought also prevents us from moving forward and growing after a trauma—whether the loss of a loved one, a difficult breakup, a change of careers, a wrench in our routines…Small or large, our out-of-control thoughts usually only serve to trap us in a rut. There’s a reason why the most common bit of practical advice after a major life change is to “just get out there and do something.” Action at least temporarily takes us out of our heads.

Now, it is true that we wouldn’t want to swing too far in the other direction, either—our minds are as much a part of us as our bodies. But the trick is to get to a place where the mind is a tool, not a puppetmaster. Just like our hands do what we tell them to do without question, our minds can be trained to provide the answers we seek without taking us over or running amok.

It is indeed difficult to de-program ourselves after a lifetime of such mental-centric training, but I assure you that it is possible. There are many ways to go about reclaiming ourselves and our lives from our thoughts, and I’ll share a few here.

Mindfulness and meditation really can have a huge impact on harnessing our thoughts, instead of our thoughts harnessing us. Nearly any style of meditation you find out there can help, but even something as simple as sitting quietly with your eyes closed, and focusing on the feeling of your breath going in and out of your nose can be powerful, even if for just 5 or 10 minutes a day.

And something to keep in mind regarding meditation—it’s never about stopping thinking. Don’t resist the thoughts that will naturally come. Just realize that there’s a part of you separate from your stream of thoughts, and that separate part of your awareness can just notice the thoughts, let them flow, and watch them disappear. Eventually, over time and practice, the flow of thoughts will naturally slow to a drip, and maybe even disappear briefly. That’s when you’re truly enjoying the moment as a multifaceted human being, able to utilize your own mind as a wonderful tool.

Exercise and repetitive tasks can also be meditations of sorts. A nice long walk or jog or trail run not only has physiological benefits that alter your neurochemistry, but it’ll naturally bring you out of your mind and into your body as well. And there’s a reason why so many anecdotes about Zen practitioners involve sweeping the floor, or raking sand, or other such “mindless” repetitive tasks—just like paying attention to your breath, you can dive into repetitive tasks to the point where the mind will naturally quiet down. Even doing the dishes can lead to “enlightenment”!

Finally, there are also loads of wonderful and insightful books available that explore mindfulness, being in our bodies, and generally harnessing the mind instead of being a slave to our minds. Two of my favorites are Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and Daniele Bolelli’s On the Warrior’s Path.

I’ll leave you all with an amusing little parable that perfectly captures the freedom that comes from getting out of your heads, that I highly recommend reading regularly as a reminder:

Heavy Thinking

It started out innocently enough. I began to think at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.

I began to think alone—”to relax,” I told myself—but I knew it wasn’t true. Thinking a bit gradually became thinking all the time.

I began to think on the job. I knew that thinking and employment don’t mix, but I couldn’t stop myself.

I began to avoid friends at lunchtime so I could read Thoreau and Kafka. I would return to the office dizzied and confused, asking, “What is it exactly we are doing here?”

Things weren’t going so great at home either. One evening I turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life. She spent the night at her mother’s.

I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker. One day the boss called me in. He said, “Listen, I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don’t stop thinking on the job, you’ll have to find another job.” This gave me a lot to think about.

I came home early after my conversation with the boss. “Honey,” I confessed, “I’ve been thinking…”

“I know you’ve been thinking,” she said, “and I want a divorce!”

“But honey, surely it’s not that serious.”

“It is serious,” she said, lower lip aquiver. “You think as much as a college professor, and college professors don’t make any money, so if you keep on thinking we won’t have any money!”

“That’s a faulty syllogism,” I said impatiently, and she began to cry.

I’d had enough. “I’m going to the library,” I snarled as I stomped out the door.

I headed for the library with NPR on the radio, in the mood for some Nietzsche. I roared into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors…But they didn’t open! The library was closed.

To this day, I believe that a Higher Power was looking out for me that night.

As I sank to the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye: “Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?” it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinker’s Anonymous poster.

Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting. At each meeting we watch a non-educational video—last week it was “Caddyshack.” Then, we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting.

I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home.

Life just seemed easier somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking.

This story is unattributed—I discovered it through a talk Rob Robb gave in 2000, but it also made its rounds on the internet and even in published books, since at least 1997, with minor changes. The earliest attribution I found was in a slightly longer version called “My Confession” by a Bob Worn, probably from the early 1990’s.