‘What is it?’ Harry asked shakily.
‘This? It is called a Pensieve,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.’
‘Er,’ said Harry, who couldn’t truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.
‘At these times,’ said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, ‘I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.’
‘You mean … that stuff’s your thoughts?’
The above passage, from J.K. Rowling’s fifth book, marks the first appearance of a Pensieve in the wizarding world. It also describes why it is a magical object of such power. The Pensieve, as a tool, allows for the unburdening of the mind. It helps it’s user to view their problems, experiences and anxieties from a different perspective. It helps it’s user to reframe the problem, to ask better questions and to gain clearer answers.
Another way to understand the purpose of a Pensieve, is to examine the etymology of the word “pensieve”. A quick search pulls up the following from the Harry Potter wiki:
“Pensieve is portmanteau, combining the words ‘pensive’ and ‘seive.’ The latter is an object in which something may be sorted, drained or separated, and ‘Pensive’ is derived from French, and originally from the Latin ‘pensare,’ meaning ‘to ponder,’ and in common English usage means ‘thoughtful’ or ‘reflective;’ thus a ‘pensieve’ allows for the sorting of thoughts, or memories”
The Pensieve is a recurrent and important theme in the later part of the Harry Potter series. Through it, we come to understand some of the major motivations and complexities of the characters. For example, Snape’s love for Lily Potter and how Voldemort was able to discover and acquire the objects he wished to make into Horcruxes. The ability to unburden the mind and transfer one’s thoughts into a separate medium is of great value. Especially for those dealing with problems and dilemmas of abnormally large consequence, like Dumbledore, Harry Potter and Snape.
Unfortunately, as mere Muggles, we don’t have access to magical objects like a Pensieve. So what are the alternatives we can use to sort our thoughts, to relive our memories, and search for patterns and connections?
Alternative #1 — Books
I consider books to be an alternative for one sole reason. Literature acts as a mirror in which we see the reflection of our true character and concerns. By consuming the experiences of others we can better understand our own. By learning about other’s struggles we can more easily overcome our personal obstacles. By exposure to the greatness and baseness of history’s cast we can sense our own great and base tendencies.
As you read more, you find that our problems are not unique. Most of our problems are eminently human. We are not the first generation to be ravaged by fear, doubt, suffering, envy and the complexities of life. And we certainly won’t be the last to find the solutions to our own problems in the lives and ideas of others.
Alternative #2 — Meditation and Mindfulness
To sort our thoughts, we must first be sensitive to their presence. Meditation and the practice of mindfulness aim to cultivate this awareness.
Meditation is not a new invention. It has been practised for centuries. From my personal experience it does help to control stress and anxiety. Through the focus on breath, and the acknowledgement of the thoughts and impulses that try to detract focus from breathing, you learn to relax. You learn, not to repress and rebel against the negative emotions that rise up, but to accept them and to not let them influence your state of mind.
Whether you learn through a guided meditation tape, by using apps such as Calm or Headspace, or by attending a workshop or retreat matters not. What matters is the fact that meditation and mindfulness are powerful because they give you the opportunity to improve your self-awareness and to gain a measure of control over negative impulses. The increased awareness of our thoughts means we can be more effective at examining them.
Alternative #3- Journaling and Writing
Writing is one of the oldest ways to externalise our thoughts. The very act of writing forces you to distill your thoughts. It forces you to arrange and order your ideas in a communicable way.
Some balk at writing, wondering, “why on earth would I write? I’m not going to publish this or put it up on a blog.” But this overlooks the point. Writing to publish is different from writing to understand your thoughts and think clearer. Often, for authors and professional writers the two coincide. But even if you have no designs on being published, writing and journaling in a notebook or diary is an incredibly powerful way to unload your mind and hone your powers of clear thinking.
Alternative #4 — Index Cards and the Commons
A “Commons book” is an idea that I first found in Ryan Holiday’s work. Quite simply, it’s a collection of personal notes, observations, ideas and quotes, organised into themes.
Consider two scenarios. In the first, you are looking for something specific. You are working on a particular problem or are researching a particular theme. A commons is powerful here because it allows you to detect patterns in your search, create themes, move and re-organise the evidence you have collected and to play with the material you have.
In the second scenario, in which you have no particular aim or purpose in accumulating knowledge, the commons is still useful. By making a note of thoughts that recur to you, or ideas that consistently emerge in your work or reading, you can see the natural course that your thoughts and perceptive abilities run down. The very lack of purpose for collecting and organising your observations is something that may in fact allow you to discover a new purpose. Even without a definite purpose, seeking patterns and making connections can still be rewarding.
Alternative #5 — Visual Representation of Thought and Storyboarding
This is how I process ideas from my commons into writing. Storyboarding and other schemes that allow you to create and manipulate visual structures of your thought have been part of the toolbox of the creative class for decades. Writers, directors, designers. All have found utility in taking their ideas into visual form.
Alternative #6 — Conversation
Conversation is a great alternative to a Pensieve. By conversing with someone unfamiliar with your problems or concerns, you are compelled to relay, in a clear and concise manner, the nature of your problems. This very exercise is sometimes enough to help you see it in a new light or jog your mind into action.
Conversation with someone who is already acquainted with your problems can be equally useful. Since you both already understand the basic nature of the problem, you are free to plumb it’s depths and to examine it from unlikely angles. The questions you ask each other and challenges you make to each others views can be the fuse that leads to further inspiration.
Alternative #7 — Denarrate
The final alternative is of increasing importance. The first time I came across the concept was in Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan:
“I propose that if you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denarrate, that is, shut down the television set, minimise time spent reading newspapers, ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions; nudge System 1 (the heuristic or experiential system) out of the important ones. Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical. This insulation from the toxicity of the world will have an additional benefit: it will improve your well-being.”
The TL:DR version:
Minimise the noise so prevalent around you; quit newspapers and other sensationalist media outlets, the gossip and hyperbole that make up most blogs, and the subtle advertising found on television and social media platforms. Take a walk.
The point is that once your senses are no longer bombarded by incessant noise, the true colour of your thought and perception will become more apparent to you. And here’s a little heuristic. If the thought of denarrating and cutting down on the noise in your environment strikes you with terror, then you are perhaps someone who would most benefit from it. Try a week with no blogs, social media, emails or television. The experience is enlightening.
The above are tools that I (and many others) use when, like Dumbledore, “I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” For troubled minds, a Pensieve would be an item of great worth. But then so would a magic wand.
We all have, at some time, dearly wished for the creation of an object that could magically solve all our problems. It’s an attractive idea. But you can’t deny that it is wasted energy. Energy that would be better spent working with the tools we actually have at our disposal.
We Muggles may not have wands and pensieves. But we should at least be grateful for the many effective alternatives to the Pensieve we do have.