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?
Come on, swing on by this blog’s public page on Facebook for daily, 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography. You’ll be glad for the brief excursion! http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Caterpillar and both mountains photos by Wendelin Jacober, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wendelinjacober/
Clothespin photo by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/