“To Think or Not to Think”
Over the past decade or so, it has become fashionable to talk about “being in the present,” or “being in the now” and “not thinking.” Some of this is for meditation, some of it is for performance enhancement, some of it is for better awareness and some of it is for active listening. This all came to a peak with Eckhart Tolle‘s ground breaking book, The Power of Now, which was a guide for spiritual enlightenment but became the layman’s mantra for “being present.”
Much of this new revelation about being in the present (which has long been a Zen Buddhist ideal), is to stop the epidemic tide of “worrying” thanks partly to our world of information overload. Even I recommend meditation in my book, Putting Fear in Reverse Gear to help thwart worrying, and included links to a site where you can hear my voice delivering guided audio meditations and visualizations (one I called The Power of Wow – sorry Eckhart)
No one knows better the damage worrying has wrought on our frail systems. Worrying is anxiety. It is stress. It overtaxes our adrenalin reserves and puts us into fight or flight responses that were meant only for life threatening scenarios that lasted only minutes (not days and weeks). Some of you have trouble sleeping because of worry. Worry doesn’t work for us. It is a very bad, nasty habit that doesn’t even have the highs that other bad, nasty habits have. So what’s up with that?
But through all this fascination with the idea that we should exorcise our worry by meditating, staying in the”here and now” and “not thinking,” I have a concern.
A yoga instructor recently cooed to her students, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could reincarnate as animals and stop thinking?” To which my instant response was: “Hell, no!”
I don’t think people should stop thinking. Thinking, is one of the things that put us at the top of the food chain in the first place. Let me give you my take about the joys and treasury of thinking and why we should be thinking, and even at appropriate times, daydreaming, to better all of our lives.
Point 1: Those of us who sit and think are happy
When asked to ruminate and reflect on the happiest moments of your life, you may go to specific events, and happy milestones, but, I confess, some of my happiest moments are when I just had time to sit and think. Just look at all those people lined at street side cafes and you will notice that some are reading papers, some are on the inevitable electronic device and some are just sitting there, sipping a coffee quietly, perhaps people watching and thinking. I would have to say that person is me, when I am at my happiest. It doesn’t matter where I am, Paris, New York, Mexico or Vancouver, this sitting and thinking is blissful. And, I am not alone. We don’t have to be at a cafe, we can be walking on a beach, sitting on a porch or bench, or laying in bed staring at the ceiling. These moments are not only soothing and warm but they are also when some of our best ideas come to us … which leads me to argument two.
Point 2: Thinking and great ideas go together.
This may seem obvious to say you have to think to get great ideas but many of us don’t have time to think. We have to get away, stop and allow ourselves to have a time and space to think and for our brain to meander as it were. Perhaps we are in a semi-dream state too as sometimes great ideas come when we are thinking before bed, or when we get up. But it is thinking. I knew of several great thinkers that liked to go on a drive and get away in order to think. This is more than a meditation. It is thinking in a relaxed state. The true inventor of the modern computer, John Vincent Atanasoff, was said to have been trying to work out the details that had confounded him to make it work when he decided to go on a drive. He ended up crossing a number of state lines and kept driving for over 12 hours, but by the end he had figured it all out. This idea of a relaxed state and thinking is important and brings me to another argument.
Point 3: What if day dreaming (or positive visualizations), are in truth, a high form of thinking?
I was always accused by my mother of being a daydreamer. Especially in the mornings over breakfast. I would be lost in thought and she would ask me questions and I would always answer, “yes.” Then she would put another piece of toast on my plate and I would say, “why are you giving me more toast?” She would say, in an exasperated voice, that she had just asked me and I had said “yes.” Well, that’s about as un-present and unaware as you can get. My mother called me a daydreamer and made it clear it was something to be ashamed of. Now, however, I see that day dreaming may be the best form of positive visualization and creative thought that you can get. Granted, you don’t want to be doing it while doing something that should take your focus. No heavy machinery, or brain surgery, or any of those small tasks in anyone’s jobs where you have to “pay attention.” However, it has also been proven that visualizations are critical to success. From entrepreneurs, artists, generals and sports legends have all projected their thoughts into the future to see a positive outcome. Wayne Gretzky said that he would see the puck going where he wanted it to go. Walt Disney visualized his famous theme park. Performers and speakers take time before they go on-stage to visualize a fabulous performance. And it works. I have done it, and many others. You can dream your success. So next time you shame a day dreamer, and I admit, I have done this myself, be careful. It begs the inquiry, what is poor dreaming and what is good dreaming? To me, poor dreaming is unthinking. It is not grounded in some plausible reality. One has only to see the auditions of some of the more humorous and heartbreaking American Idol contestants to know some people are not that grounded and are only dreaming without the thinking part, which is the prudent and judicious part. I applaud their courage, but to get the stupendous benefits of dreaming you have to balance your dreaming, or positive visualizations, with a thinking or critical mind, beyond mindless faith. Which brings me to my next argument.
Point 4: Critical thinking is what we need on this planet to thrive
Maybe it is easier to do as the yoga teacher wished and be an unthinking animal, only focused on survival, but to thrive personally, communally and globally we sure the heck need to be thinking. When we embrace not thinking, or mindless faith, we do not have a curious and open mind. When we do not explore and make connections for problem solving it can have horrible political results where there is much suffering. The antics of the Tea Party on the American political scene is a case in point. There are so many prejudices, pat beliefs and blind religious dogma being touted that they are willing to let their people suffer rather than listen to reason. Canadians watch this in horror. Beyond Tea Party members embracing unthinking, partisan beliefs (beliefs not arguments), we actually see Americans going against their noble Declarations and censoring people who are challenging thought and shedding light on real issues. People like Michael Moore and Bill Maher. Why have these people been censored? Why do my American friends tell me they have never been able to find any of Michael Moore’s films in U.S. theatres when they come out? Why did Bill Maher get kicked off public networks to finally go to the paid HBO channel? This is censorship. Argument and dialogue is something everyone says they want, but you will also want it to be grounded in logical and reasonable facts to ensure health. We need to have interaction and a “group think” to really get cooking. This group thinking should be based on informed, thinking arguments and dialogue. What is the opposite? Well, terrorism depends on unthinking intimidation. To be afraid to speak “your mind” because it might be either unpopular or punished is very much like the environments in Nazi Germany or in China, or other places where freedom of speech is curbed and threatened. Yes thinking is not easy; it may even be dangerous, but worth it.
So here are some tenets on great thinking:
- Make sure you are thinking not worrying. You will be able to tell by how it feels. If it stresses you, it’s worry, if it soothes you, and gives you relief or solves some problems, then you are likely thinking. Avoid worry, embrace thinking.
- Find out how and where you can go to get away and just think. Give yourself time and space. Is it in the bathtub, on a walk, at a cafe or going on a full retreat? Keep returning to this; if you don’t have enough of this time to think, you are missing something special.
- When you have the time, place and space, give yourself lots of permission to day dream.
- Use positive visualizations to dream your way to success.
- Let your thoughts wander and meander.
- Interact with others and apply your critical thinking skills.
- Open your mind and say yes to someone else’s well thought out argument, or debate using some of your own. This is freedom of speech for all.
- Be proud to be a thinker.
Get into the glorious mud of thinking and make yourself happy. Your next great idea awaits, or perhaps your next best dialogue (or a good blog post), and who knows, you may even save the planet, just by thinking both freely and well.