If a loved one described you as someone who “thinks a lot,” how would that make you feel? Would you interpret the comment as a compliment? Would you feel somewhat proud of being designated as a ponderer of the world?
Or would you feel slightly insulted? Would you worry that you have a tendency to overthink things instead of defaulting to action?
How we feel about being labeled someone who “thinks a lot” is reflective of our ongoing relationship with thought.
For example, when I was growing up, I often found myself wondering about why things were the way they were. But when I communicated my random musings to my mom, she would say that thinking too much wasn’t a productive use of my time.
In fact, she tells me this even to this day.
My mom takes the view that frequent thinking doesn’t lead to anything fruitful. She believes that asking too many questions gets in the way of taking action and getting shit done. I, on the other hand, find a lot of joy in the process of thinking. In fact, everything I post is a product of me thinking about things like how knowledge works, why we have an infatuation with travel, and the reframing of death.
Whether you agree with my mom or with me, there is an inescapable reality to the consequences of human thought. In fact, almost everything you experience is a product of thought. The smartphone or laptop you’re using to read this is the result of thousands of minds, all thinking together about what it takes to extract raw materials from the earth, assemble everything into the singular shape you see now, imbue it with the properties of computational power, and cleverly market the resulting device so you spend your hard-earned money to purchase it. Money itself is another product of collectivized human thought, with language (yet another product) being used as the tool to facilitate its construction and distribution as a store of value.
Almost everything we tangibly interact with every day has been touched, molded, and modified by thought. This is also true for all the intangible forces that govern and shape our worldview—ideologies and systems such as law, religion, science, art, philosophy, human rights, and history. Thought is the irreplaceable fuel of our existence, powering every gear and component necessary for humanity to survive.
So, if thought is this great thing responsible for the evolutionary backbone of our species, why has my mom been warning against it this whole time? Rather than referring to the usage of thought, she’s expressing her beliefs on its innate character. At its baseline level, the texture of frequent thought can be smooth, allowing for a steady, fluid current of evaluation. Or it can be rough, causing violent waves to rise and crash in the ocean of your mind. My mom tends to associate sustained thought with the latter, viewing it as the source of pointless worry and fear.
Whereas I like to view sustained periods of thought as the only accessible avenue of examination and contemplation.
These two perspectives can be envisioned as the endpoints of a seesaw representing our quality of thought—with rumination on one side and reflection on the other.
While the thought seesaw features two prominent sides, the truth is that we are rarely sitting at either of the endpoints. Although I’d like to think that sustained thought is a reliable pathway to profound insight, I can easily find myself on a train of thought that leads to anxiety and fear. In fact, I find myself in these situations so often that it sometimes makes me wonder if intently thinking about something is worth the potential cost. I may start out examining my life in a thoughtful manner, only to end up worrying and ruminating about the very things I’m examining.
The reality is that the seesaw is more like a spectrum, and we could be sitting anywhere between the endpoints at any given moment. Thoughts swarm and bombard us every moment of the day. Much of the time, we are at their mercy, being pushed and blown around by their contents.
Thoughts are so powerful because each one offers a deeply compelling interpretation of our reality. It has the unique ability to assign meaning to a given event, as the event itself doesn’t intrinsically come with an associated emotion. For example, if we get laid off from a job, the layoff itself is simply an objective event with no innate emotional character—it is only the resulting collection of thoughts interpreting the layoff that causes fear and anxiety to emerge. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.”
We humans have learned to overidentify our very existence with the thoughts we have about it. We like to believe that we are the conscious authors of our thoughts—that our intentions and directives come from a structured, orderly place where willpower reigns supreme. However, if we take a moment to sit in silence, we notice that the nature of thought is anything but that. For many of us, an immediate, ruthless onslaught of thought assaults us—things we have to do later, things we’d rather not do, things we said earlier in the day, things we regret not saying, things we did in the past, things we hope for the future… The barrage is endless. That minute of silence can feel like an hour of incessant chatter, with each thought screaming out for attention.
This is the true nature of unchecked thought—random, uninvited, sporadic appearances in consciousness. And when we allow the allure of these random appearances to dictate the direction of our lives, this is what leads us to fall onto the impulsive, ruminative side of the thought seesaw.
Without being aware that we are being pulled into this tide at every moment, we are at the whims of our impulses, blindly giving in to every wave that strikes the neurons of our monkey minds. If we don’t take a moment to pause and view the texture of these waves, how can we be expected to ride them without crashing? If we don’t take the time to study the contents of our thoughts, how can we navigate the ocean of our minds and safely arrive on shore?
To properly navigate these waves, we require reflection, or what I like to refer to as being on the “right side of thought.”
At this point, some of you may be asking, “Being on the right side of thought is great and all, but is it really that important to spend your time thinking? After all, reflection doesn’t put food on the table, and it sure as hell won’t drive my ass to work. So what’s the point?”
It’s a fair question, and a great response comes from philosophy professor Simon Blackburn’s book Think:
Reflection matters because it is continuous with practice. How you think about what you are doing affects how you do it, or whether you do it at all. It may direct your research, or your attitude to people who do things different, or indeed your whole life.
How you think about the world fundamentally dictates the actions you take in it. If you believe that people are generally cooperative and good-natured, that will color the way you interact with them. On the other hand, if you believe that people are inherently untrustworthy and selfish, that will shape the way you approach your relationships and work life as well. A framework of thought is the prerequisite to any form of action, and it can only be constructed with the ideas you’ve subscribed to. Ideas are the software that runs on the hardware of our minds, and reflection is the only tool we have to reliably maintain and update it.
Unfortunately, our brains have not evolved to be a reliable source of rationality, so the ideas occupying them can be quite faulty. We are susceptible to all kinds of mental phenomena that skew our thoughts toward negative events and incorrectly associate the prevalence of information with its veracity. With all these forces working against us, it’s no surprise that each of our thoughts has a tendency to dress itself with an emotional cloak, dragging us down to the ruminative side of the seesaw if left unchecked.
Reflection can mean many things, but at its core, I think it comes down to our ability to strip these emotional charges from our thoughts. Instead of allowing each thought’s emotional baggage to dictate our every action, what if we strip away that energy and observe the thought itself, without any judgment? One exercise I like to do when I sit in silence is to imagine my entire field of consciousness as if it were a green-black perspective grid:
Since I am somewhat of a normal human being, within moments, thoughts will start bombarding me. A thought about something on my looming to-do list creates a sense of urgency. A thought about something stupid I said earlier creates a feeling of regret. Rather than getting swept away by them, I try to view each of these thoughts as simple appearances on my consciousness radar, blotting in and out as they appear and inevitably fade away.
One thing that I’ve noticed again and again with this exercise is that each of my thoughts has a specific texture. In the same way a spiky pine cone feels unpleasant when jammed against your hand, my angry thoughts have this rough, coarse texture that balloons up uncomfortably.
My worried thoughts seem to have the texture of a turbulent whirlpool, with a sharp, painful epicenter surrounded by slow, dulled ripples of discomfort.
My comforting thoughts, on the other hand, appear as glowing balls of warmth that naturally draw me in.
Even the hum of my boredom has a tone to it.
Noticing the unique texture of each thought helps me identify it and view it objectively, without reacting. The thought is exactly where it needs to be, and there’s no need to interpret it. It’s kind of like the difference between seeing a bug in your home versus seeing a bug in nature. In the former situation, it can freak you out because your home is not a place you expect a bug to appear. In nature, though, the bug’s appearance is fully aligned with its innate surroundings, so you find no reason to react to its presence. Observing each thought’s texture in my mind is like watching a bug flutter around in its natural environment—there’s no need to react to anything here.
When I can objectively identify a negative emotion like anger by its texture, it becomes much easier to discard it when it arises. This is something I used to fail at again and again, due to my prior status as a road rage maniac.
In fact, I once went out of my way to tail a random guy for a few miles because he gave me the finger at a stop sign, honking at him each step of the way, seething at every chance I had to scare him. Eventually the guy got freaked out and drove off, and I felt a strange sense of childish achievement… only to remember that my then-girlfriend-now-wife was sitting on the passenger side, horrified at the mental state of this man she had chosen to date.
This is an example of failing to catch the thought before reacting to it. If I had just taken that brief moment to observe the angry thought as a coarse pattern of randomized energy, it would have seemed ridiculous to act on it. When I can strip away the physiology of these negative emotions, I find that they cease to hold their power over me. Shaving off the emotional coat of the thought leaves just the content of the event looking back at me nakedly, as if it’s ashamed of the fact that it’s even there.
This is when I awaken from the drunken stupor that the heightened emotion initially put me in. From this vantage point of clarity, the event itself can be framed in an entirely different light. What if that guy gave me the finger because he just lost his job, has a family to feed, and is so stressed out that he did something he didn’t mean to do? What if he was taking a family member to the emergency room and freaked out because I happened to be blocking his path? What if it was me who was truly in his way?
Removing judgment from my thoughts also helps to shift the narrative away from myself. Since I only get to experience the world through one singular lens (my own), it’s natural to shape every story as if I’m at the center of it. However, the reality is that for an overwhelming number of situations, I’m not at the center of shit. I’m just another conscious bag of water, blood, and meat coexisting with billions of other conscious bags of water, blood, and meat, trying my best to be on the right side of the thought seesaw as often as I can.
And as far as I know, the most reliable way to be on the right side is to realize every moment I’m not on it. When I find myself in a worried, ruminative state, can I catch the fact that I’m indeed on the wrong side, study the objective nature of this thought, and discard it as an unnecessary one to have? And better yet, how soon can I move my ass to the proper side? The difference between being plagued with worry (or any other negative emotion) for a few seconds versus a few days is staggering, so being able to do this sooner than later is an amazing skill to have.
Reflecting on the nature of thought may not come naturally, but it can become easier with consistent practice. In the same way our muscles don’t bulk up without physical exercise, our minds won’t sharpen without adequate mental training. Contemplative practices like meditation and prayer help, but much of it starts by taking regular moments in the day to ask ourselves: Am I currently on the right side of thought?
Our thoughts provide the lens through which we view the world, and have created everything we experience today. To denounce their existence would render us delusional, but to give them unchecked power would turn us into slaves to our own emotions and impulses. The true power of thought resides somewhere between these poles, and that point can only be accessed through the careful examination of the contents of our minds.