Thinking: It Wasn’t the Answer

Thinking is overrated. I know this because I have spent most of my life in my head. Growing up, I thought all problems could be solved by thinking through them over and over until solutions appeared. I thought that constant thinking meant I was accomplishing a lot, that I was living my life and figuring things out the same way everyone else did. Now I realize that an overactive mind is not always a good thing. For me, frenetic thinking is evidence not of achievement but of my over-anxious disposition.

As a child, much of my thoughts were ruminative and obsessive; I thought about things that I had done earlier in the day, events that could have gone better, things I should or should not have said. I replayed long-past situations in my mind to think through what I could have done differently. I thought how I would apply what I learned in the past to future situations so that I could improve upon my grossly-overstated mistakes. It didn’t matter if my thinking caused me to feel bad about myself, kept me up at night, or led to me spacing out while reading a book or watching TV. My reality was that thinking was how every person navigated his or her life.

I also had lots of compulsive thoughts when I was younger. I would be sitting in class listening to an English teacher drone on about punctuation and grammar when a sudden thought would pop into my head. I’m going to stand up and shout out something terrible. I’m going to throw my shoe out the window. What if I did that? What would happen? I hope I don’t do that.

Of course I never did that, but I thought I would. I was starting to learn that not all thinking is productive; sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense. So, naturally, I thought about that for a bit as well.

At some point in my early twenties I stumbled upon books about mindfulness, ranging from Buddhist thought to meditation practice. The first books I read were very basic. You know the ones I am talking about. Garishly colored books with raised Word-Art letters featuring words like “NOW,” “PRESENT,” and “UNLEASH,” usually jumbled in some order to tantalize and draw the reader in to learn about the mysteries of the present moment. The backs and inside covers of the books detailed what would unfold for the reader as he progressed through the illustrious and magical pages of wisdom. A lot of it seemed silly, preachy, and like new-age hocus pocus, but something in those first few books drew me in and hooked me. I tested out a variety of meditation techniques. Some were more helpful than others, but it largely seemed like a waste of time.

It took several years of trial and error, but I now have a daily meditation routine. Starting small by sitting down to meditate for 5 minutes a day eventually turned into 10 minutes, and now, as of two weeks ago, is 15 minutes a day. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of structuring my day to set myself up for success. I think knowing that I have 15 minutes a day to do nothing but sit quietly and center myself is just as important as the act of meditating itself.

To give you an understanding of how meditation has helped me, I need to paint a more detailed picture of my thought processes prior to committing to daily meditative practice. I know now that I have always been prone to worrying. I now perceive this as neither a bad thing or a good thing — it is just how I am. At first I was convinced that incessant thought and problem-solving was the antidote for all that ailed me. The seas of my life have been buffered by anxious winds. There was no telling when I would get caught in their gusts. It was not a matter of if but when they would ensnare me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I would get pulled from soccer games as a child by my coaches for ruminating and fixating endlessly on missing a goal by a mere one foot. An errant shot was a surefire path to an errant mind. Obsessing over these trivial matters only amplified as I got older. I later obsessed over grades in high school and as an undergraduate. When I entered the working world, I read and re-read e-mails to colleagues to make sure they sounded just right. At some point the act of thinking and achieving took precedence over the act of simply being.

Meditation has changed this, and it has primarily done so by helping me to accept my thoughts as they are. By accepting each and every thought, however wayward it may run, I have learned to approach my life with more equanimity. I have learned that I have been training my brain to weather the anxious storms that used to control my emotional state and alter my trajectory. Learning to focus on something as simple as my breathing has untethered me from the intricate spider webs I used to weave in my mind. It has brought me back to the basic state of being, of sitting with myself, moment by moment.

But meditation has not changed who I am. Rather, it has helped me uncover who I truly am in the first place. When I do think, it is purposeful and increasingly focused. There are now longer and longer periods of silence in my life, of just being present in the moment with myself and with others. As I come to understand myself better, I feel more comfortable with who I am.

Dismantling the structures constructed by my anxious mind has taken a long time, and I know it’s a life-long journey. But the result is a liberation and an openness to experience whatever may happen next. I am now more likely to approach life in a curious and playful manner. Meditation did not eradicate my anxious disposition, but it has given me the space to step back and admire it what for what it is, just something that is present in my life. Now, I no longer write and re-write stories in my mind for moments that likely will never play out the way I plan them. Today, I am the wide-eyed protagonist, and life is the narrator.