The most offered advice we receive nowadays is to stop thinking. We are advised by religious leaders, gurus, yoga instructors and other wise spiritual leaders to stop thinking and start living in the present.
“Stop dwelling in the past and worrying about the future,” is a generic quote that simplifies the core advice in thousands of books. The thinking, if I can use that term, is that we waste precious time in running repeated tapes in our heads about the past and fantasizing future catastrophes that never happen.
“Be here, stay here, kiss the joy as it flies.”
Otherwise, we have just spent another moment of our life missing it. Kids grow up and parents pass on while we are engaged in relentless thinking.
Anyone my age, around my age and certainly those older than I am have some feeling of appreciation for the thought (if I can use that term) of non-thinking because looking ahead is too much like looking into the abyss. The present is much more attractive.
Thinking out loud
Here’s my take (borrowed from Fareed Zakaria) on thinking: I adore thinking (note the name of this column). I can’t imagine an empty mind, a statement that cries out for thinking.
I figure that thinking has got me through some very difficult times. I also enjoy the process of analyzing and connecting dots. I don’t always get it right, but I get satisfaction from attempting to develop a challenging concept.
So, what’s the value of an empty mind?
Thinking too much or at the wrong time can cause problems like the time I was playing piano in a recital and started thinking I would forget the piece and I did. I was the 9-year-old who missed the lesson on mindfulness in music.
Overthinking a problem or dilemma can result in indecisiveness, procrastinations, no action or being too late to matter. “That’s so last week, where have you been?” Overthinking also can complicate a simple matter like the time I attempted to carve “The Last Supper” out of a bar of Ivory soap.
Who hasn’t been in conversation with someone only to realize the other person was spending their time planning a response instead of listening? Listening and being present would go a long way to healing our divided nation. But then, we often have conversations with ourselves.
We are occasionally plagued with intrusive, even obsessive thoughts at 3 or 5 in the morning. That’s usually around the time REM sleep kicks in, the sleep that’s supposed to help us process the day. Seems to me that we probably overloaded during the day, causing a process spill that wakes us. We start ruminating and tangential ideas creep into a relentless tape of unresolved stories in our lives. We long to empty our mind.
Aren’t there risks in not thinking?
If we think about it (again, that term), we realize not thinking has gotten us into messes we regret to this day and probably think about too much in the present. Impulsive acts in the mood of the moment have resulted in long-term effects on our lives. Thoughtless trust in others has resulted in serious financial hardship or lasting emotional pain for some.
Those are most often the tapes of repetitive thought that return and don’t easily leave our thoughts. Letting go or not thinking about real or perceived injustices is especially difficult. To me, it is a form of self-torture that either requires therapy or an empty mind practice.
I came late to reading about mindfulness and meditation, contemplation and prayer from the viewpoint of spiritual practice. It was exhilarating. I felt like I was surfing the universe of spiritual thought in which I caught different waves.
To me the writings were engaging and amazing, all different but the same in important ways. Most advised me to get out of my own way. The preferred method was to clear the tapes of thinking. There is no point, we are advised, in living in the past or contemplating a catastrophic future.
I’ve read enough to learn that some thinking is in order. We are not being advised to stop thinking. We use thinking to plan, to work, to play, to learn and for important emotional things like forming successful relationships and kicking self-blame to the curb.
It’s the thinking curse that’s the problem.
The thinking curse, in my opinion, is what I heard the Buddhists call “monkey thinking.” Picture a monkey swinging through trees never landing on any one branch long enough to know it. In this case, it is thoughts running in and out of our minds that result in wasting time that could be better spent in a moment of true awareness or sleeping. If we want to learn the practice of controlling monkey mind and becoming masters of our minutes, there are those thousands of books and people offering help.
I could tell you that I’ve mastered meditation or other forms of mind clearing, but I haven’t. I’ve tried but I’m not good at it.
I work at thought weeding instead which could lead to a serious meditating skill. Thought weeding is taking out thoughts that are crowding out important things like listening, perspective, necessary problem solving, seeing rainbows and sleeping.
I may be hopeless. I can hardly get through a sentence without using “thinking” or some like expression to talk about not thinking.
On the other hand, I find it entertaining to entertain thoughts.
Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.