To Think or Not to Think?
“To Think or Not to Think?” is the title of one of the seminars that recently aired at www.EckhartTolleTV.com. Eckhart Tolle TV is an online subscription service that features new video teachings by Eckhart Tolle along with a monthly live broadcast with people participating from over 120 different countries. Sounds True is a partner in the development of Eckhart Tolle TV, which has given me the chance to work closely with Eckhart and his teachings, an opportunity I truly value.
So, “To Think or Not to Think?” Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that I have been thinking about this question. But ever since I heard Eckhart talk about it, I have been noticing times that I engage in repetitive thinking (thinking about the same thing again and again with no new information coming forward). And how this kind of thinking is distinct from the arising of insight, which happens of its own accord and feels like an effortless “a-ha.” And I have started to ask myself when I notice I am engaging in repetitive thinking, “Why not drop this loop and rest in the unknown?”
Interrupting the runaway thinking process with this question “To Think or Not to Think?” has been immensely helpful to me, especially when I am trying to figure out a solution to some problem to no avail. The irony of course is that when I stop trying so hard to think a solution into being, a next step emerges, and a natural, intelligent unfolding occurs. It reminds me of why so many of us have some of our best ideas in the shower, when we finally give up on solving a certain problem.
Now, before anyone comes to the conclusion that I am proposing living like a thoughtless idiot, I want to be sure to emphasize that Eckhart makes a distinction between rising above the thinking process and dropping below the thinking process. (This is a similar distinction to that made by Ken Wilber , author of the ST series Kosmic Consciousness, when he talks about the “pre-trans fallacy.” In Wilber’s language, there is being “pre-rational” and being “trans-rational.” They are both not rational, but that doesn’t mean we should confuse them as the same thing.) According to Eckhart, if we were to “drop below” thinking that would be a type of idiocy; we would lose access to our rational powers. When we “rise above” thinking, we live as a space of awareness that welcomes the arising and dissolving of thoughts, but we are no longer identified as “the thinker.” Instead, we experience ourselves as a field of sensitivity or what could be called “the space of awareness.”
I notice that I sometimes choose to think think think about something even though I know I have the choice to “think or not to think.” I notice it usually happens when I am afraid, afraid that a situation will not turn out in my favor. Some part of me believes that if I think about it long and hard enough, I will find a solution in which my interests will be met.
So what can I do besides think think think when I notice I am afraid? There are actually lots of options. What I have found most effective is to turn my attention to the physical world (rather than the mental world), to the feeling of my belly rising and falling with each breath, to my heartbeat, to the feeling of my feet touching the ground, or attending to what Eckhart calls “the inner body,”—the feeling of aliveness, a kind of tingling sensation that pervades the entire body. I notice that when I do this I feel calmer, more grounded, and better able to let the unknown be just that—unknown.
According to recent studies I have seen, somewhere between 85% – 90% of the thoughts we have each day are repetitive. It’s like a needle going over the same part of a record, round and round, again and again. There are many reasons I would like to be free of this type of repetitive thinking—it’s boring, it’s dulling, and it is an abstraction away from this sensory-rich moment. It is a type of recoil. Additionally, I am interested in originality and what supports the emergence of original ideas. I love being around ST authors who are “true originals,” people who relentlessly come up with ideas that have never been spoken before, ideas that are quite literally “from the origin” or from the source. These authors are not simply regurgitating someone else’s work. There is something fresh, one could even say revelatory, about their writing and teaching.
I believe such authors and teachers are people who know how to live in such a way that they are not spending 85% – 90% of their time in repetitive thinking. When I am with such people, their very presence feels spacious, like there is room for something unprecedented and surprising to emerge.
Recently, I interviewed the poet David Whyte for an episode of the Sounds True podcast “Insights at the Edge.” I remarked to David that his new audio series with Sounds True (What to Remember When Waking, to be published later this Spring) was packed with insights I had never heard voiced by anyone previously. In the interview, I asked him about this and what he believe leads to original thinking. He commented that it is impossible to try and be original, but that instead originality is a natural outgrowth of living in what he calls our “frontier identity.” According to David, our “frontier identity” is the leading edge of our being, the part of us that ventures beyond territory we have already covered, the part of us that actively meets the unknown. This frontier is where I want to live. Not in the realm of thinking thinking thinking, but in the realm of being—or, one could say, right at the edge of the wave.