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 #9: Babies!

It’s been a long time since the last Articles of the Moment (there’s a reason I call these Articles of the “Moment” instead of Day, Week, or Month). So to start things back up, what could be more appropriate than a Babies theme?

  1. Infant pain can have a number of repercussions on adults. And here’s some additional, older research in the same vein. Kinda puts an additional twist to the circumcision “debate” (which, FYI, I don’t see as a debate at all—circumcision is a version of male genital mutilation that’s completely unnecessary in any modern culture that has access to running water and education).
  2. Children who are spanked have a lower IQ. It makes perfect sense that additional stress hormones in youth can impact our long-term health. Thankfully physical punishment of children is down, worldwide.
  3. Breast milk should be drunk fresh, not stored for later use, since compounds in it are tailor made for the moment. It’s especially useful for regulating infant sleep cycles.
  4. Another reason why children’s imaginations need to be encouraged and developed, not smothered with modern media: imagination (through guided visualization) has a significant impact on perception of pain.
  5. Even just a sip of water can help to reduce pain response and anxiety in children and adults. Chocolate and sweets work too, but not as well as simple water. It’s because we evolved to take advantage of the resources in front of us while we can (like drinking water or calories). Unfortunately this response probably also contributes to our obesity problem.

AotM #8

  1. If you click this link (although I’m not saying you should click this link), you might, possibly, find out that, if you want, uncertainty is more stressful than negative feedback. Makes perfect sense—when we don’t know where others stand, our minds make up all manner of extreme explanations, but if we know the players and the situation, even if it’s not ideal, we can make informed decisions and move forward. Tell it like it is, folks.
  2. The grass is always greener…White med students are more likely to be interested in alternative medicine and therapies, while their non-white classmates seem to reject their own cultures’ cures. This is not good, since a lot of medical wisdom from Asia, Africa, and India that could use thorough additional research might be lost before Western doctors can collect it.
  3. It seems to be a universal human trait that facial scars increase male attractiveness, at least in the short term (in other words, at least for making babies and spreading genes, but not for long term childrearing).
  4. Another reason not to worry so much about China—even in Asia, the US is the preferred security partner over China. This is probably largely because the US Navy is still (and will remain) the world’s largest and capable by far, no matter what China develops, and because the US still has a much more global outlook than China, which is a more regional power.
  5. Although I usually only include articles that confirm my personal anti-religious/pro-spiritual beliefs, this one is interesting and significant enough to share nonetheless—”attending religious services sharply cuts risk of death“. As the researchers in the article state, more study is needed to find out why this happens, but it’s certainly food for thought.
  6. As yet another reminder of how little we actually do know (i.e. too many people believe that our current level of scientific and medical knowledge are infallible and all-knowing), we only just now found out how bleach kills bacteria. Also interesting—our bodies produce the active ingredient in bleach as bacterial defense.
  7. You may have already noticed this, but food prices are rising a lot more than you may realize, since many companies are “secretly” reducing the volume of their packaging, so you get less for the same (or more) money. If only more people read packaging (ingredients, nutrition info, volume…) more diligently, everyone would benefit.
  8. And finally, for some fun and comedy…Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch is actually a couple millennia old. It’s kind of comforting to know that our ancient ancestors shared our sense of humor so closely.