Remember the famous line, “I think, therefore I’m” by Rene Descartes, the French philosopher who fired the modern course of reductionistic science through giving precedence to rational way of working with information. Knowledge derived from thinking, and that too the rational kind, became the reigning mantra over the ensuing centuries.
We have troves of self-books and articles available in books stores and online about ‘proper’ thinking and self-professed gurus regularly dish out expensive advice on how to think right kind of thoughts and how to think your way from rag to riches. From physical billboards to digital media, someone is always there to straighten our thoughts so that we can be happy and successful.
In some ways, the intention of these advices and counsels is not very much off the mark. They tap into our inherent desire or fear to be happy and successful. Indeed, we need to learn to think right kind of thoughts and find ways to calibrate our mental space in such a way that it pulsates with wholesome energy.
The challenge is how to do it.
We all have some sense what the right way of thinking is: that, negative thoughts suck us into a spiral of gloom and doom and positive thoughts have the potential to pitchfork us to greater heights. But despite our best efforts, we often find ourselves at the receiving end of a mental chatter that is largely negative, self-critical, discouraging and damning.
Since the seventeen century, Descartes’s original dictum has also found some interesting caricatures reflecting the shifting cultural times. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, labelled it as, ‘I share, therefore I am’, reflecting the compulsive need of social media users to announce every teeny tiny detail of their daily adventures. In some sense, social media users accumulate their sense of ‘self” through sharing frequent status messages. And when it does not, it may lead to envy and even depression.
Meditators jestingly have a different take on it. “I think, therefore I am confused” is their rejoinder to Descartes’s famous line, meaning that the more we try to think more we end up getting confused. This is where it brings us to ponder why thinking through thoughts, howsoever tempting it may be, may not be the best strategy to change the negative and troubling thoughts. Even the conventional idea of positive thinking is now being challenged.
Changing thoughts at the same level they appear from is like re-arranging furniture at home. It feels nice for a little while but sooner or later we come to realize that it is the same old furniture, just shuffled around. May be for the same reason, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is effective in reframing the thoughts but not as effective as mindfulness-based therapies which allow the users to step above the thoughts by looking at them objectively.
To throw some scientific weight behind this observation, we know that our mind frequently wanders (at least 47% of times, according to this study) and wandering mind is less happy than stable mind. Similar thoughts were expressed by Juergen Fell from Germany who went on to publish a scientific article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience titled ‘I think therefore I am (unhappy)’ in 2012.
Recent research in human neuroscience has also been pointing to the fact that our mind has a mind of its own and noticing our thoughts in a spirit of non-reactive observation may be a better alternative than forcibly wrestling with them. We have a system in our brain (called default mode network, DMN) which kicks our attention from the object on which we try to focus on. The integrity of this circuit is very much involved in establishing if one’s attention is going to be stable or not. Some of the studies have indicated that experienced meditators are able to significantly dial down, and in some cases, completely turn off DMN under fMRI. That is one of the reasons that meditation training is indicated to significantly improve attentional capacities.
Additionally, the more our mind wanders more wobbly we feel in who we are as a person. For most cases, when our mind is wandering we are often caught up in a treacherous stream of comparative thinking, self-criticism, reactions and judgments. More settled one’s attention is, more one’s sense of being/self is likely to be settled. Wrestling with thoughts during such moments will be an invitation to be swept in their fury.
Next time when you feel swept in a storm of thoughts, instead of impulsively changing them to positive, or at least wishing that way; see if you can bring yourself to just notice the whole storm without reacting to it the way you always have done in the past.
Even if you are able to do it for a second, you have started a journey of working with thoughts little differently than before.
If you are interested in mindfulness, our next course starts on March 27, 2015. Only few spots are available. More information is here.