Is an active mind a healthy mind? Most people or think so. However, it turns out that our mind, while powerful, mostly gets in the way of our struggles to live a fulfilled and satisfied life.
In this blog post I’ll discuss a different way of achieving big things in the world, a way predicated on thinking less (not more) and following an unconventional and less mentally taxing route to living up to your full potential.
The Full Potential Of Our Mind
A New York Times article by Dr. Moshe Bar, Professor of Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, cites a curious quality of the mind:
“Many psychologists assume that the mind, left to its own devices, is inclined to follow a well-worn path of familiar associations. But our findings suggest that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.”
Note the final part of the statement: “…when our minds are clear.”
The jury is out on how many thoughts we have per day. The number 70,000 is tossed about online. It’s undoubtedly well into the thousands if my own experience is correct! It makes sense to me that all this mental noise can cover up the precious signal of insight and wisdom lurking down below.
If our minds are naturally innovative and creative, as Dr. Bar asserts, it’s worth better understanding what keeps us functioning this way most of the time. The impediment seems to be all that mental chatter going on upstairs. Let’s take a more in-depth look at the problem with our thinking.
The Problem With Our Thinking
We live in the feeling of our thinking, not as the world really is. This is true for everyone, all the time. It’s not a bad thing either. Thoughts carry all sorts of ideas and insights in their midst, that help us make our way in the world.
I’m happy that I get to think. It’s how I get to write these words. It’s how I get to plan my trips. It’s how I get to come up with all kinds of exciting games to play and adventures to pursue. You probably feel the same way. Your thoughts aren’t all that bad. In fact, it can feel kind of good to think!
However, what happens when you are stuck in a bad feeling? Someone cuts you off in traffic. Your boss passes you over for a promotion. A competitor beats you. Your cake comes out of the oven looking a little flat. Mental chatter amplifies and with it, a bad feeling arises that seems to last forever.
None of these external circumstances carry an inherently negative quality. The person cutting you off might be a surgeon rushing to save a patient’s life. The competitor might be the better athlete and more deserving. The flat-looking cake might still taste amazing. Still, we feel buffeted about by our feelings about the changing winds of an external world. This doesn’t pose a problem, until, well, we feel that it does.
The brain has a knack for amplifying the negative; therefore, we tend to overemphasize the less-than-positive thoughts which are felt as crummy feelings. We take our perceptions too seriously, instead of seeing them as merely the product of our personal thinking, which varies depending on who is the thinker and which side of the bed they woke up on!
As described by spiritual teacher Sydney Banks, in The Enlightened Gardener:
“Take that rose bush, for example. We are all looking at the same plant, but our perception of it varies according to the way we each think and see. One person may see a vigorous rose, another may see a rose that could benefit from a little pruning, and a third may see a mess that no amount of attention would save. The rose bush isn’t changing; it’s the way we personally perceive it that differs, the way each of us thinks that colors our perception.”
The truth is that it’s not the circumstances that create what we feel, be they positive or negative feelings, it’s our thinking about the circumstances that cast a spell. Spell? You might say it is magic or a curse, depending on the feeling that goes along with the thinking.
I’m spending so much time discussing the nature of our thinking, and how it runs our experience of life since this understanding is fundamental to sorting out how to make our way in the world more fruitfully. If our thoughts get us into trouble more often than not, wouldn’t it be logical to see that thinking less is a promising solution to our predicament?
How To Think Less
Let’s conduct an experiment: Try not to think about a what you are going to eat for your next meal. Don’t think about how good the food will taste, where you will eat it, who you will eat it with or what you will have for dessert!
How successful are you at not thinking about it?
What we push away grows stronger. Our thoughts are the same way. It’s not possible to force thinking to stop. I’ve never been able to do it, and I’ve wasted a lot of energy trying!
Instead of trying to eliminate your thinking, you can follow the path set forth by experienced meditators and spiritual seekers. This is a similar path that works wonders for top-performing Executives who are looking to improve their Emotional Intelligence and Elite Athletes who are looking for peak mental performance. It’s all about getting out of your own way. Noticing an obstacle makes it easier to contend with. The obstacle is your nonstop mental chatter.
Notice your thinking, and allow it to move through you. The less you hold on to your thinking, the less the thoughts weigh on you. No judgment. No story. Just let them go, each and every time. It’s a process of letting go vs. trying to do anything actively.
This is where a meditative practice can be invaluable. Dr. Barr, as mentioned earlier, calls meditation one of the few practical tools we have to cultivate a calm and clear mental state:
“It is clear to me that this ancient meditative practice helps free the mind to have richer experiences of the present. Except when you are flying an F–16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander.
As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life. Honing an ability to unburden the load on your mind, be it through meditation or some other practice, can bring with it a wonderfully magnified experience of the world — and, as our study suggests, of your own mind.”
Mindfulness and meditative practice is an art. There is no right or wrong way to do it. You can practice it while walking, eating, writing, working, playing or doing any other activity. While I personally enjoy going for a quiet walk or sitting for 10–20 minutes in silent meditation, you can cultivate whatever practice seems to work for you. I highlight three simple ways to meditate here.
The important thing, is to find a way to notice what is happening in the world, including in your thinking mind (your thoughts are part of the world too!). Allow your thinking to arise and flow through you without ruminating on them or buying into the stories you want to tell about them. Naturally and inevitably, your mind will settle and the benefits of a relaxed cognitive state will be revealed.
What benefits? Try it and see for yourself!
We do our best when we have less on our mind. We are more creative at work, superior athletes on the playing field and feel better overall. What gets in the way is over thinking and attachment to our thoughts.
Thoughts have a purpose, but when we engage in the world, we are best served by being present and connected to what is actually happening, not stuck gazing at the movie theater of our mind.
While we can’t stop our thoughts, we can notice them and remember to observe, but not grasp them. Meditation and mindfulness practices also work wonders. What is revealed through the settling down of the mind is a more creative, innovative and relaxed state that will undoubtedly lead to positive outcomes in many parts of life.
Modern scientific research, such as the work done by Doctors Bar, Goleman, Davidson and others; are starting to uncover these benefits. However, there really is no need to wait for scientific proof to catch up, you can experiment for yourself and experience the benefits if you are willing to try.