Like most writers, I keep a cache of mostly random thoughts, snippets, excerpts, ideas for future projects that I store in a folder on my digital desktop. It’s a big file that I add to whenever I can catch myself in the act of thinking, and in doing so, step outside of that thinking just far and long enough to say, “Hmmm…there may be a blog (or sermon or poem) in that.”
This process, of interrupting one’s unself-conscious immersion in a thoughtstream to consciously note that one is having a thoughtstream that may be worthy of further thinking, is a rather interesting occurrence itself. It is thought reflecting upon thought, which, by virtue of its interruptive qualities, inevitably changes the original thoughtstream that prompted the whole enterprise.
So very meta.
(“I just saw this movie about these people making a movie, and the movie they were making was about the movie industry…” goes one such example of meta-thinking that, taken far enough, eventually eats its own tail in a cascade of ever more abstract circularity.)
Meta thinking gets at something, though, that has relevance not just to writers but to anyone who ever engages in thinking, which is to say, pretty much the whole human race (with the exception of Donald Trump when he’s talking about foreign policy or economics). (Or race relations.) (Or religion.)
(The one and only Trump bash of this post, I promise…)
The issue is this: How do we come to think and form the ideas and opinions and convictions that we do? Where do our thoughts come from?
How do we learn to recognize our thoughts, bring them to some semblance of coherence, reconcile our rational (we hope) thinking with the essentially pre-rational emotions that are constantly whirring underneath our senses and perceptions?
These emotions inform our selves and undergird our responses from deep inside, often unbeknownst to us. They are like a quiet hard disk that in many instances we become aware of only when it begins to belch and smoke and overheat from a particularly strong stimulus that draws it out of the background where we keep it safely tucked away while we attend to the business-like affairs of our day.
People occasionally ask me, “How do you come up with ideas for your blog?” The answer is I don’t come up with them at all—they come up on me. Perhaps there are purposeful writers or artists in this world who devote time on some regular basis to choosing their subjects.
“Let’s see, 7:30 breakfast, 8:15 walk the dog, 8:45 think of topics, 9:15 read The Times.”
But like most people, my thinking, at least with respect to inspiration rather than sitting down at my desk to tackle a specific project of my workday, tends toward the episodic or unpredictable. (Although I can predict with some degree of certainty that taking a shower or a walk will most always stir something up that is worthy of further attention.)
But this is the rub, yes? When we’re not thinking about our thinking from outside ourselves and are instead fully immersed, right up past our hearts and beyond our brains, engaged in pure unself-conscious consciousness, we aren’t so much thinking as we are being thought. We’re not subject but object, thought itself having its way with us. We are merely its vessel, its tool, its mode of working out the thorny dilemmas that beset it in an unfathomably complex, multi-layered world of thought, emotion, body, others, objects, light and heat.
So we’re out gardening, say. We like gardening, and it needs doing, so we get down to it. We’ve also got a troubled marriage, or an impossible boss, or an emotional wreck of a teen. (Or, pity be upon us, all three.)
Here’s what we don’t do: We don’t say to ourselves, “Oh gosh, I think I’m going get in my garden so I can think about my troubled marriage” (or impossible boss, etc.).
No, we do not do this.
We initiate gardening because we want or need to garden, plain and pure. Sure, we know there are corollary benefits, but they are rarely if ever the impetus.
Gardening and showering and walking and running never, I submit, keep us riveted on those activities themselves, unless we are employing the most ardent and emphatic mindfulness meditation exercise that keeps pulling our thoughts back strictly to the activity at hand, like a roshi with a great big stick behind us ready to give our booty a thwack whenever he notices our eyes glazing over.
Instead, what happens in these activities is that free-floating, unconcentrated thought begins to play with and upon our consciousness. We don’t think—thinking thinks us, mostly in a non-linear, not strictly rational fashion that melds intellect and emotion, brain and heart, body and soul.
This is the bliss and the bounty of it all. And as this thought (though it is so much more than thought) has its way with us over minutes, hours, months of repeated, meandering, unself-conscious streaming through our being, one day we think/feel/reflect/know:
“I’m going to leave my husband.”
“I will no longer be a doormat for my daughter.”
Are all these a matter of either thinking or emotion alone? They can be, if we’re prone to being coldly clinical, or emotionally rash and unreflective. But at their best, they are an amalgam, an alignment, of head and heart, thinking and emotion, external and internal, subject and object. They reflect patience, a willingness to tune in, turn on, but definitely not to drop out as Timothy Leary framed it in his infamous dictum from the ’60s.
More to the point was another psycho-pioneer of the same era, the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who mused, “Half the time you think you’re thinking, you’re actually listening.”
The question is: Can we listen closely and patiently enough to the sometimes disparate and contradictory voices inside us, with their various competing claims and points of view, to be true to our soul’s deepest, most liberating, but still realistic desire?
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I hereby invoke that eminent philosopher/poet/musical genius Chuck Berry: “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking…….”
Yo Dennis, didn’t Chuck Berry do some 98% of his thinking with his hips?
One could say they had a mind of their own.
Given that the lyric comes from Little Queenie who was “….too cute to be a minute over seventeen.” I’d say maybe Chuck’s thinking was not be ruled by his better judgement. But don’t it often go that way?
I was about to say that hips have their own sort of wisdom, but as regards a 17-year-old, that wisdom would be severely qualified, to be sure…
Another thought-Full post master Drew – age hold questions rendered in our modern life context… one thought that struck me reading this was the import for me of activities (riding a road/mtn bike, skiing, and such) that require 100% focus or the long arm of natural forces will strike you down! This focused concentration is much like successful meditation in that the I/thou dichotomy – the ego chatter etc. dissolves and you are simply “in the moment” – not only is this change in consciousness delightful in its own right, the after effects in which the reflections/judgements and such come rolling back through are somehow changed a bit from normal, maybe it is just reflecting on the exhilaration itself that is satisfying… in some sense this “in the moment” consciousness can be attained in a wide variety of ways (sports, arts/music, intense concentration that somehow feels effortless) – whatever the case, it is a welcome respite from the constant chatter that seems to dominate so much of my “ordinary” thinking…
Major shades of “flow psychology” in your comment, Kevin, propounded, as you no doubt know, by my fellow Hungarian with that lonnnggg and difficult name, Mihaly Csikszentmihályi. It’s that sweet spot between full immersion and distracting self-consciousness, the “effortless effort” you describe. But I would say that even the activities you mention—particularly road biking—can present opportunities for background thinking & reflecting to go on. We seem to be able to operate on a remarkable number of levels simultaneously, and as long as we’re fairly skilled and experienced at the main activity we’re involved in, we are quite adept at placing that more or less on automatic or cruise control while our consciousness picks at the knots and tangles it is facing in the rest of life. Exhibit A would likely be driving—a highly complex and demanding activity that we can get away with having on autopilot a great deal of the time. We pay for it sometimes when a moment’s inattention can have dire consequences, but the bigger story is how successful we are at managing it while thinking through a million other things when we’re behind the wheel.
This post reminded me of two jolts of thought awareness in my experience. One of them was the sudden awareness, in a clear thought, that “it occurs to me that it has been a long time since something has occurred to me.” This was almost as if an “other” voice had entered my head. The other occurred sometime during the third year of my three years living in France. Entering my apartment after a very hot day at the beach in Southern France, I quickly went to my small refrigerator in search of a cold beer, opened it, and discovered there were no beers. I caught myself thinking in French; the first time that my thought “observer” had caught me doing so. “Merde, il n’y a pas de bier” scrolled across my mind’s eye; much to my surprise and delight. So many times in my career as a college president I was called upon to prepare for public remarks in various venues, and always found that I was best when not forcing myself to sit down at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. to craft a creative and meaningful approach to addressing commencement, the faculty, or a state legislative committee. The best ideas and outcomes came from ideas that emerged during workouts, walks, or not really consciously thinking about the impending task. As you describe in your post, Drew, the thinking came to me and was clearly stronger than most things I could have conjured in a more focused, tasking, kind of approach. Mysterious, indeed.
Most interesting, Jay. The piece about beginning to think in a foreign language suggests a fairly dramatic shift in our entire language/speech/symbol center, seems to me. All the more so when we begin to dream in another language!
And the question of how well or thoroughly to prepare for a presentation was brought into sharp relief for me last week when I participated in a church service on “The Spirit of Jazz,” and in honor of the subject matter, those of us offering commentary decided to do so in an improvisational mode, with no written scripts. After many years of being a writer with the tool of nearly inexhaustible editing with which to hone a piece, I have found myself increasingly hesitant to speak off the top of my head—at least in a public speaking setting. Writing is about (the luxury of) endless revision and a search for a more perfect word or phrase, little to none of which is available when speaking extemporaneously. So the irony is that the better, more painstaking writer I have become, the more resistant I am to relying on being spontaneous and improvising in public speaking. Ideas and images emerge spontaneously on walks and swims and such, as you describe, but the specific content I still want to hone as a writer rather than riffing on as a speaker. But there can be great value in spontaneity, as we know. Ask any jazz player!
What happened last week was that there were two services (fortunately), and in the first one I discovered I’d had too many ideas floating in my head so it felt disjointed to me in the telling. By the second service, I focused basically on one point, one theme, and it cohered better and flowed much more readily. A seeming endlessly looping lesson in that, I must say…