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.

AotM #14: King Tut Day

Happy Tutankhamen Day! Go to a museum!

  1. But before some serious stuff, let’s start it off with BEARS!!! Despite what Stephen Colbert may say, Bears are OK in my book—after all, they’re part of the international coalition fighting the war on terror! But that’s not too surprising, since bears have been fighting for us since at least WWII. And who doesn’t want beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking, artillery-carrying, Nazi-fighting large clawed mammals on their side?
  2. Another area where new studies are only confirming folk wisdom and old knowledge—TV makes kids more aggressive. I mean, it’s been ignored by the media and politicians for a decade, but we’ve known for a long time that violent imagery does indeed condition and desensitize people to violence (I highly recommend reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society for some fascinating research and discussion on the topic). And yet, it’s still a social faux pas to condemn violence in media, even while we’re still vehemently puritanical about love & sex. Time to grow up, America.
  3. Parental control and restriction is psychologically damaging anywhere, but here’s an interesting study that shows the differences between Eastern & Western parenting.
  4. Not only are over-the-counter pain meds the most widely used pharmaceuticals in the world, but turns out they can degrade your flu shot and depress your immune system. Pain is a wonderful thing, since it tells us when something is out of whack, so embrace it and work on the core problem—there’s not much to be gained from masking it, at least for most minor things.
  5. Retrospectives, books, and movies about our men and women in the military all too often focus on standout cases of elite heroes. But the story of an average recruit who spends time in Iraq or Afghanistan is equally important to share, as it reveals more of the realities of military life and war. So enjoy this fascinating and wonderfully open photoessay that follows the life of a young Army enlistee, from recruitment, through training, to Iraq, and back. Bad decisions, warts, & all.

The New Polytheism

In this day and age when so many Things can so easily be Capitalized—by which I mean they can be given lives of their own, anthropomorphized and imbued with meaning beyond their dictionary definition—then those very Things become forces unto themselves, to which we surrender our own Thought, Will, and Responsibility…Those Things become gods. Of course I’m talking about the good old fashioned type of gods, as in pre-Israelite monotheism, or like the gods of the Greeks, Babylonians, or Ugarites. Or maybe even like the ancient Chinese pantheon, or Japanese kami, etc.

Browse through any magazine from the shelves in Barnes & Noble, flip through network news, go to a club, or even listen to our politicians, and you’ll soon encounter a plethora of Powers that seem to saturate our society’s daily existence. Sexual Expression flirts with younger and younger generations of children, all the while courting Media and Entertainment at the same time (the slut). Freedom of Speech (Freedom‘s foul-mouthed but truthful grandchild) meanwhile continues his schizophrenic rampage, sometimes slapping Sexual Expression’s wrist and belting out prayers in schools, and sometimes yelling “Fuck” in playgrounds and posting bomb-making instructions on his blog. Privacy mostly keeps to himself, but the big bully Political Correctness, along with pals Bureaucracy and ever-rigid Law, beat the crap out of Personal Responsibility while (ironically) shouting verbal abuse at the sickly Freedom, and of course Sloth and Entitlement cheer from the sidelines. Money is friends with everybody, but his extravagant lifestyle has left him feeling a bit insubstantial, and Greed has taken to dressing up like Capitalism, (or maybe it’s vice versa)—it’s hard to tell since Idealism and Realism are always blocking our view with their squabbles. And of course War is actually stronger, though also leaner, than ever before, even after working hard for the past 10,000 years straight (if not longer).

None of this is “bad,” per se—it’s simply how things are—but it would help us all a lot if we start to recognize these Powers, these gods for what they are. By acting as though these eternal forces play no part in our lives, we give them free reign to wreak havoc on us, all the while letting our own internal powers grow soft. If we but light a stick of incense to Reason and Awareness and take greater care in choosing which powers we pray to, we might actually benefit from this arrangement, as the Greeks and then Romans did when their consciousness of such gods allowed them to reach great heights of philosophical and scientific understanding.

By accepting this new pantheon as part of our society, we can achieve even greater heights than any previous civilization has, while simultaneously growing to know ourselves better than ever too.

Post Script:

This admittedly unstudied and elementary idea sprung into my head as I read a text for one of my classes: Michael Cook’s A Brief History of the Human Race, which gives an insightful though (necessarily) superficial look at all of human history.