The act of thinking is probably the most interesting human behavior, but one we usually pay very little attention to. But bear with me, and… think about it for just a second: What’s actually going on in your head when you think about anything? Or, when you try to think about nothing at all? And is that even possible?
It’s likely that you’ll find that what we call thinking mostly consists of a strange, one-sided dialog: A semi-structured conversation between you and… Yourself? Not that this on its own isn’t weird enough already, sometimes that dialog is even obviously superfluous but still almost always present. For example, on my run this morning, I encountered a tiny bird fluttering around next to me. The thought “That’s an interesting little creature!” suddenly popped into my mind and thus became part of my inner monologue. But this statement itself didn’t add anything valuable to my experience; I had already seen the bird; I had become aware of its presence and its behavior. The thought that followed thus was just an encore, an addition to my ongoing stream of running commentary, which didn’t guide any action but merely… clarified? or tried to explain? or helped to solidify? my present experience.
One thing I particularly appreciate about my meditation practice, apart from the obvious psychological benefits, is that it makes such meta-level observations easier in the first place. For example, when focussing one’s attention deliberately on one thing (say, the breath) and sustaining that focus over a period of time, you then begin to notice the precise moment when that focus is being disturbed by the arrival of a new, unbidden thought. During meditation, the goal is then to observe the lifecycle of such a thought: How it arises, how it floats through the mind, and how, if you don’t actively engage with it, it fades away again. Through regular, deliberate, and patient practice, this ability to inspect one’s thoughts then slowly becomes available outside of formal meditation sessions as well—like in my avian encounter this morning.
If you’re not familiar with the practice you might ask yourself what the point of this would be, and if there even is one. Let me give you another example: In times of distress, say when a lot of turmoil is going on in the world outside and in our private or professional lives, our minds have a built-in tendency towards rumination. People experience this to a varying degree, with the most common form being a circular stream of—mostly negative—thoughts centered around an unpleasant topic, conversation, emotion, or experience. Most of us feel trapped inside that circle, and would prefer to break out of it. Our minds however seem to always find a way of returning to these same unproductive thoughts and thus pulling our attention away from other, more important and more pleasurable, things. The ability to introspect one’s mental processes, and, to some degree, to be able to divorce oneself from those downward spirals, can be of great advantage. Of course, that doesn’t always work, and of course there’s a pathological end to this spectrum which requires professional psychological attention1. Personally however, I find that since I started a regular meditation practice a few years ago, it has become a lot easier to intercept and deflect those ruminative thought patterns, which greatly added to my quality of life.
Another interesting observation is that we encounter quite different “levels” of thinking at different times. At this moment for example, my mind feels like a sharp tool, all attention pointed in one direction: The act of writing this paragraph. Everything else, like the room I’m in, the weather outside my window, or the state of the world, has totally faded away. I’m in flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it. This morning though, during my run, the “texture” of my conscious experience was very different: I wasn’t trying to think about anything specific, but still a lot of thoughts popped up and faded away all the time. Most of them of course were just “commentary”, like the observations about my feathered companion. But some were novel, and a handful were even creative and useful (like the one that directed me to writing this post in the first place). Between then and now, my mind was in a different, third state: The act of reading the newspaper did also put thoughts into my mind, but these weren’t originally mine at all: Instead, my inner voice was merely repeating what somebody else, namely the author of the article I was consuming, had had on their mind days before. And when I tuned into the news on the radio later, suddenly my inner monologue had disappeared entirely and was replaced by the external voice of the announcer.
The Tibetans, in whose culture meditative practices have played an important role for millennia, have many more words to describe different states of mind than we have, and the three examples I gave are by no means exhaustive. But by becoming more and more aware of the different types of mental activity our minds are capable of we gain another benefit: An ability to pick and chose when, how, and to what degree we want to engage in which kind of thinking. And making this choice wisely is more important now than ever: Our present-day environment holds and abundance of “radiators” of information: Our smartphones are chirping and beeping all the time, newsfeeds on social media are endless, podcasts, music, TV, and many other types of media are ubiquitous. Get up in the morning and check your Facebook feed, then put on your headphones to listen to a podcast on your way to work, doomscroll through Twitter on the bus, catch up on Slack messages and email over lunch, watch the news on TV while working out, drift off to sleep over the latest Netflix drama,… and you’ll find that you never actually get to think your own thoughts anymore, but only and always someone else’s.
Cal Newport, in his book Digital Minimalism, describes solitude as times during which the mind is “free from inputs from other minds”. Clearly, such states are necessary to do any creative thinking at all. And clearly, they are under attack by all the stuff that’s being thrown at us from “other minds” all of the time. Again, I’m not claiming that meditation is the one and only solution here, but for me it helped a lot to make this problem more visible, and thus addressable. For example, I now deliberately chose when, and when not, to engage with media: I don’t bring headphones on my runs or walks and thus get to spend at least a few hours per week alone, immersed in my own thinking—regardless if that’s goal-oriented or just mind wandering. I try to not read or listen to anything while eating. I’ve got Slack and email notifications muted on my phone so I don’t get disrupted all the time. I take notes mostly on paper, rather than on my laptop, to reduce the chances of drifting off towards Twitter or LinkedIn during times when my guard is down. While writing this post, I’m using “zen mode” in my text editor to avoid distractions.
These are just a few examples, hacks if you will, that are quite easy to apply (albeit sometimes hard to sustain). They won’t solve the larger, systemic problem of “solitude deprivation” which Johann Hari points out in his latest book Stolen Focus, but they can at least help dampen its impact on us individually and help retain some level of sanity in world that won’t stop yelling at us.
Again, I think that thinking is the most interesting thing we do. And thinking about thinking is something we should do a lot more often and more intentionally. “Know thyself” is ancient advice and taking it seriously is really hard. But practices like meditation (or any other form of mindfulness) can do a lot to foster our understanding of the quirkiness of our own minds. Thus can we not only begin to change our behavior for the better, but also become a bit more empathetic with others.
John Green, American author and outspoken sufferer from a severe form of OCD himself, captured how this feels in his 2017 novel Turtles All the Way Down. ↩︎