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5 Easily-Overlooked Truths About Thinking

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People don’t talk about thinking very much. We talk about what we’re thinking about all the time, but rarely do we talk about thinking itself. Thinking is a huge part of our lives, maybe the most prominent part of our experience.

It affects everything else in life too. It affects your actions, your self-image, your possibilities in life, your stress levels and your health. Your thinking habits determine whether your predominant experience in life is one of fear, excitement, abundance or scarcity.

My life got a hell of a lot better when I started paying attention to the role of my thoughts in life. There was a time when I would have balked at the following five truths about thinking, but now I’d consider them to be pretty basic facts of life.

1) We are thinking almost all the time.

Young children are great observers. Most of the time their attention is occupied by what they’re currently seeing and hearing. They can definitely think and ruminate, but the present-moment sensory world seems to be more important to them. It’s not unusual to see an adult lost in thought, barely aware that he’s there, but it would be strange to see a two-year-old in with that same glazed, absent look.

By the time we reach adulthood, thought occupies the foreground of our experience nearly all the time. Even when we’re actively paying attention to the sensory world, we’re constantly interpreting, predicting and judging.

As children get older, they devote more and more attention to their own internal “mapping” of the world, until it becomes more important than making fresh observations of the present moment.

Imagine tourists walking around, navigating with a map held out in front of them. They see the real-world landmarks beyond the map, but they use them only as a reference to find out where they are on the map, and how they can get to other places on the map. Most adults engage with the world in the same way, out of habit — the contents of our thoughts and impressions make the main landscape, and the present-moment sensory experience is secondary.

2) Most of our thoughts don’t really accomplish anything.

We absolutely need to think, and our minds can do amazing things. But most trains of thought aren’t leading to any kind of decision or insight that’s applicable in the real world. They’re just kind of kicking up dirt.

One thought always leads to another, but following a train of thought is something like following a trail of randomly-growing flowers, rather than a trail of purpose-placed breadcrumbs. 

If you make a habit out of asking yourself what you’re actually trying to accomplish by thinking about what you’re thinking about right now, you might not be able to come up with an answer.

What good is a thought if it’s not going to prompt some kind of decision or resolution? There are other purposes to thinking — to distract ourselves from more upsetting thoughts, or to gratify ourselves with fantasies. But these are real-world ends too, and most of the time these aren’t intentional, or particularly helpful.

The majority of thinking is just unconscious free-associating, which takes up our attention and often stresses us out. It’s habitual busywork of the mind, and it will eat up as much of your attention as it can get, until you cut off the supply.

3) Thinking is addictive

Who cares about the name of the actor who played the middle child in that 80s sitcom, the theme of which has been running in my head since I woke up? My mind does, for some reason. It would put aside the rest of my life to resolve this matter if I didn’t step in.

The mind is happy to get to work on anything at all, even if there’s no conceivable payoff for you. Just like a salesman who will keep selling you stuff — anything at all — until you stop buying, your mind has a tendency to want to keep working as long as it can. It just really likes figuring, placing, matching and creating things.

We can all agree how wonderful it is that the mind can do these things. But it needs your attention to do them, and there’s only so much of that to go around. If it knew it had to work within a budget, the mind would be a little more prudent with the projects it takes on. (Ah! It’s Tracey Gold!)

We adults are so used to this constant mind activity that it can feel a bit weird when it stops, for the same reason that it’s difficult to peel yourself away from an unplanned Netflix marathon. It’s not necessarily because the series you’re watching is particularly good. It’s because, in that moment, continuing to watch feels more comfortable than having to decide what to do instead.

4) We often confuse our thoughts with the subject matter of our thoughts

We’ve all been so consumed by thought that we lose track of what’s really happening in the present. You can be totally engrossed in the details of an old relationship, or the schedule in your office across town, or a future in which there are no wild fish left in the oceans, and barely be aware that it’s 4pm on a Sunday and you’re sitting in the bathroom.

Your emotions, in these cases, probably correspond better to the topics in your head than what’s actually going on around you. That’s because all thoughts happen in the present — even thoughts about people who aren’t present, or things that aren’t happening right now.

So when you think of something that upsets you, you’re really experiencing a reaction to the thought, and not its actual subject matter. Obviously it isn’t your mean ex-girlfriend that’s making you sad in the bathroom right now, it’s your present-moment thought about that person and time that’s upsetting you. She’s not here. At all. The thought is.

Your body certainly gets fooled on a regular basis. You can just think about a plate of fries and your salivary glands will actually get the party started in real life, unaware that there are no fries for them to help digest. Or you can think about sex and your genitals will get busy redecorating, moving fluids and other things around, ready to greet a visitor that isn’t actually on the way. If you decide to humor your body in its misapprehension, it may even attempt to conceive a child by itself.

When you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep because of all the political violence around the world, it’s actually not the state of the world that’s making you unable to sleep. It’s the present-moment thought you’re having, right here in your bedroom. Otherwise, why hasn’t “The State of the World” been bothering you every moment since you were born? We can only react to what’s present.

5) We can teach ourselves to live inside our heads a lot less

I’m not trying to demonize thought here. Thoughts are absolutely necessary for us to even operate. But the noise-to-signal ratio is staggering, if you get in the habit of checking in now and then. Knowing that most of our thoughts aren’t really serving us, we can learn to reclaim our attention from them and return it to what’s happening right now.

Your attention is either on your thoughts, or it’s on the rest of the present moment — the sensory world of sights, sounds, smells, feelings and tastes. There’s really nowhere else for it to be. So living inside your head less amounts to living in the physical world more. Sometimes the world around us is just so damn beautiful that it rips your attention away from your thoughts, but the rest of the time you have to put your attention there manually.

It’s not particularly hard to do that, but it’s definitely hard to remember to do that. It has to become a habit, because Living in Our Heads Without Realizing It is something we adults are better at than almost anything else. But becoming present can become a habit if you do it often enough.

As many of you know, I wrote a guide that explains how to do exactly that. It’s called You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present and it will go on sale tomorrow, July 31 at 9am EST. If you’re subscribed to this blog you will be notified. (If not, you can enter your email in the form below.) I hope you enjoy!

-David

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Photo by kalidoskopika
Tobi July 29, 2014 at 2:16 am

David,

Once again of course brilliant article. But I must disagree with one thing… it is NOT easy to teach ourselves to live outside our thoughts! At least not for some of us… whenever I try, I start thinking about not thinking. Also, most moments in my life right now don’t seem worth paying attention too, I’m either at work (something boring that I don’t want to drag out by paying attention) or at home alone (another place I’d rather just let time pass).

That’s pretty scarey when you don’t even find your own life worth paying attention to. Did you ever feel this way?

David Cain July 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm

If you try to not think, you’ll think. You can’t approach it form that end. Non-thinking is a by-product of mindfulness. This is an important point I make in the guide.

George July 29, 2014 at 2:27 am

If you make a habit out of asking yourself what you’re actually trying to accomplish by thinking about what you’re thinking about right now, you might not be able to come up with an answer.

And actually this applies to activities other than thinking. We can spend a lot of time in OCD-type activities that really aren’t building towards anything, and are not even that enjoyable – perfectionism or unwitting avoidance – where we’ve just fallen into a mindless habit. Not everything has to be “constructive”, but if it isn’t then it should at least be a conscious decision and/or enjoyable.

David Cain July 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

Good point. Web-surfing often falls into this category. Usually the only thing I’m trying to accomplish is to avoid dealing with a tricky part in something I’m writing.

DiscoveredJoys July 29, 2014 at 4:07 am

Imagine tourists walking around, navigating with a map held out in front of them. They see the real-world landmarks beyond the map, but they use them only as a reference to find out where they are on the map, and how they can get to other places on the map.

Very true… but if everyone else is wandering around ‘living by the map’ then doing the same yourself is socially attractive. Hideously so, because it works well enough to get by and avoids the risk of social censure.

Of course ‘getting by’ doesn’t have to be pleasant…

David Cain July 29, 2014 at 8:35 am

There are definitely worse ways to be different :)

BrownVagabonder July 29, 2014 at 7:32 am

I love the point about ‘Thinking is addictive’. I sometimes find myself lost in a maze of thinking, not realizing what is going on around me and how much time has passed. Sometimes I try to analyze how I got to my last thought, from where I first started. Extrapolating my thought process as such stuns me at the rapidity of connections and forward movement in a thought process. I have been reading this book called ‘Super Brain’ by Deepak Chopra, and their main point is that you have a mind AND a brain. The mind can control the brain, or you can let the brain control the mind (which is what most of us do). This book helped me clarify the way I think about things, and how I think.

David Cain July 29, 2014 at 8:41 am

I do that too. I notice I’m thinking about something, and then I think of what triggered that thought, and trace it back several thoughts to the external thing that caused me to start thinking in the first place. It’s amazing how quickly the mind can skip over to something totally irrelevant to the original thought.

Ed Herzog July 29, 2014 at 7:46 am

Another really great post David! It’s amazing how easily we get caught up in our thoughts without even realizing it. And those thoughts carry us out of where we ought to be…the present moment!

At the same time, thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, the wonderful inventions that have made our lives a lot easier than those of our ancestors were all the result of thinking.

David Cain July 29, 2014 at 8:47 am

I wonder if we always had this much trouble staying in the present. I’m guessing not. Our ancestors would have needed much more acute awareness of their surroundings, and wouldn’t have so many things drawing their attention into the abstract realm (like schedules, social media, etc.)

George July 31, 2014 at 1:37 am

A friend and I had a conversation about this the other day, wondering whether it’s because we’re now brought up to constantly narrowly focus on things (at school, television, at work), to concentrate our attention, rather than be open and receptive, and to work things out by effort rather than intuit them – so we get stuck in that focused mode. And in that mode, we’re always in slight ’emergency response’, being either lost from ourselves in something, but also constantly distracted by peripheral inputs and then being absorbed by them until the next ’emergency’ (distraction).

I re-read Marion Milner‘s book A Life of One’s Own recently, which is basically about her quest, after noticing she occasionally slipped into a ‘way of being’ that felt open and relaxed, to maintain a non-narrow state. It’s basically a mission to understand what you’re saying above, and break out of it. (See excerpts at Google Books.)

An illustrator did a great graphic book review of it here, which is a visual treat as well as capturing the essence of it.

Rose LaLuz July 29, 2014 at 9:09 am

These truths are important in there simplicity and invisibility. Few of us realize the power that our thoughts have in our lives. To keep thinking the same habitual thoughts is to keep creating the same known reality. Great minds like Einstein’s can sit and think for hours about the speed of light and such with amazing results. But all of us can create the habit of pausing to look at what our mind is doing and change it if it does not meet our needs. I have established the habit of summoning thoughts of gratitude and potential at the moment I feel myself begin to awaken every morning when I am only partly conscious. And with full consciousness as I fall asleep at night. From there it is a smaller step to catching myself at random times during the day and repeating. This habit has enormous real world consequences for me. I am not speaking of positive thinking here, but of gratitude for “what is ” in the present moment and for all that I dream of in future present moments.

Chris Fuller July 29, 2014 at 9:14 am

Hi David,

Great post. #2 especially resonates with me as I recently realized the same thing. I catch myself in a train of thought that jumps around so many areas of my life, and if I let this happen I’ll eventually feel like I have a lot of problems, and feel very uneasy. Then it’s a vicious circle from there, because that uneasy feeling of having a problem makes me think more and removes me from the present moment. I often find I stop what I am doing to just stare out a window and allow myself to think, so that the present moment doesn’t distract me! How absurd, eh? I am literally pushing away the present moment to follow a endless rambling of thoughts.

So I’m now doing two things to help this. Every time I find myself thinking endlessly, I’ll stop, and meditate for a short bit. I’ll try to find the source of my unease, which is always much easier when meditating. I’ll ask myself if I was trying to solve a problem with my thoughts, and then try to pose that problem as a clear question that I can focus on answering. I find this focused thinking goes a long way towards preventing rambling. Often, I find I cannot even pose a question – because there are no problems – and I then focus on cultivating a clear mind and letting my worries flow away.

The other thing I’m doing is allowing my cat to bring me into the present. Cats are much like children (in the spirit of truth #1 above). I’ve noticed when I am living in my head too much, thinking constantly, that I’ll get annoyed at my cat when he comes up to me for attention. I’ll ignore him, so that I can continue thinking. It’s because he brings me into the present moment and distracts me from my thoughts. My false heightened importance of my thoughts makes me feel justified in getting annoyed. Maybe this also ties in with #3 about thinking being addictive and being hard to stop and come back to the present. I definitely find a momentum-type trait to thoughts in the sense that once you start, they reinforce themselves and make you feel like you need to think more. Thoughts seem a lot like bad moods – doing what they can to self-perpetuate. :-)

When I am living in the present, I do not get annoyed when he wants attention. Maybe he’s noticed as well because he now comes up to me nearly 100% of the time when I am meditating and rubs his soft fur against me, which is actually very pleasant when in the present. I’ve started to embrace my cat as a way to come into the present. I imagine kids, and other animals can help in similar ways too.

I actually have a post in progress of 3 realizations I’ve made that greatly improved my life, and one of them is essentially “There are no problems in the present moment”. If you think you have a problem, you do. If you don’t think you have a problem, you don’t.

Thanks for writing, as I always enjoy reading your work.

-Chris Fuller

George July 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

I guess this is really about purposefulness more generally, isn’t it?

There is such a thing as “attentive thinking”. In other words, rather than being “in the stream” of thoughts, you are aware and a step back, guiding them. I guess when problem-solving, or using juxtapositions for creativity.

You can just as well get obsessed with other aspects of your self, in a way that fragments you from the world around you and your aims – e.g. Self-consciousness in its different forms.

It’s perhaps a matter of too-focused attention in anything, to the exclusion of everything else.

matt July 29, 2014 at 10:06 am

It’s not unusual to see an adult lost in thought, barely aware that he’s there, but it would be strange to see a two-year-old in with that same glazed, absent look.

I have a 3 year old who already sports this look (and did so at 2 as well…), and a 1 year old who is starting to demonstrate it. They inherited this great skill from me, and I’m looking around for opportunities and methods to teach them these truths while they are still young…

PR July 29, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Get them involved in something physical! Maybe sports.

George July 30, 2014 at 4:15 am

Totally do this. I was always very non-sporty; I regret that now. It’s a great way to disrupt moods or thought patterns. Without it, they can ‘settle’ into long term states that require real ‘life hits’ to knock you out of them.

Also, physical exercise teaches you self-mastery of the mind as well as the body: you are more “present in yourself” and less likely to be dominated by or fooled by impulses which you mistake for intuition, for instance.

George July 30, 2014 at 4:27 am

Also: art projects, so they get in the habit of transferring what’s in their heads to an external thing, and associate thinking with doing.

Leela Morales July 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

Brilliant! And so true. I’ve realized how incredibly addicted I am to thinking. My husband says he sometimes thinks I’d be happier if I have a miserable job or an abusive spouse because it would give me something to worry about all the time. It’s dangerous how often we can create drama or problems when none exist just to “entertain” our minds!
Thanks for sharing this, David.

PR July 29, 2014 at 11:43 am

Hi David, long time reader first time poster. Greetings from NYC. I am really looking forward to the release of your guide tomorrow. You have an amazing ability of expressing practical insights in such a simple and intuitive manner. A lot of your insights around being present are lessons I have also learned and experienced through my own meditation practice. It is so refreshing to hear someone else describe those very insights so well, and reinforce them so eloquently.

I’d also like to add one thing that I have discovered about thinking. A lot of times our emotions give rise to our thoughts. For example, when I’m feeling lonely, I’m more likely to start thinking exaggerated thoughts that reinforce that feeling of loneliness. When you feel an emotion, the thoughts automatically start toiling away, trying to help, but usually just making things worse. Treating my thoughts as a “symptom” or a reaction to my emotional reality usually helps and allows me to discount and detach from whatever exaggerated thoughts pop into my head.

I wish you the best of luck for the release tomorrow! Hope everything goes smooth.

John July 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm

How perfect. I’m just now listening to the audiobook of “The Power of Now.” It’s blowing my mind! Or rather, my “non-mind.” It really can’t be put into words what it feels like to just “be” and not have our minds constantly going, dreaming, creating the future that doesn’t really exist. I always look forward to your articles that very neatly articulate how to do this.

paul July 29, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Your mention of maps reminds of E F Schumacher’s Guide to the Perplexed, where he mentions walking in Leningrad and looking at churches that were not on the map because they no longer existed in the Soviet state. How disorienting to think of perfectly useful landmarks erased from a map but still present in reality. Makes one wonder how useful maps are…

Kamil Devonish July 30, 2014 at 10:05 am

Great post. I would argue that it is simplistic to dismiss certain thoughts as “noise”. I imagine that just as many of the greatest things ever to transition from thought into action and reality, were once the rambling, aimless wanderings of a mind with a little free time as they were the product of a disciplined mind on a deadline. Daydreaming could easily be dismissed as ‘noise’ and figuring out a problem at work could be ‘signal’. But that doesn’t make one more valuable or worthwhile than the other. Did relativity or calculus, or the steam engine come to someone who sat down and hashed it out in a night? Or did the come together slowly from the rumination of someone who thought they were going a little mad as a thought began to snowball, build momentum and finally become something externally expressible? Who knows, but I’d like to think that some thoughts that don’t seem to go anywhere are actually just taking the scenic route to their destination.

Ellie July 30, 2014 at 4:15 pm

This. Is. It.

This is a wonderful summary of everything I have been looking for to understand my own thinking process.

Thank you. Thank you.

George August 1, 2014 at 2:51 am

Has anybody tried to use acting techniques to develop ways of being more present? The idea being to use them to make sure you are fully ‘inhabiting your character’ and are focused on listening (“..acting is, in a large part, reacting and listening” – Michael Caine, on Film Acting) by approaching life as a set of scenes in which you are playing your part.

Particularly interesting are the concepts of the Psychological Gesture and the Leading Centre, which are like a mnemonic you could use to ‘get back to yourself’ in a particular state. It’s a bit like NLP anchoring.

Whereas meditation is great for keeping yourself focused, it’s easy to let practice slip – whereas having set up a ‘gesture’ there’s no excuse for not ‘getting into character’ before heading out in the morning, no matter how rushed you are. (And you can do it covertly to get back to a relaxed, particular present state at any time.)

Early experiments have been pretty good using a mental gesture. Some of this is probably just “it’s fun to try something new”, though…

Aaron L. August 1, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Currently dealing with the emotions and thoughts of a break-up and I’ve never been so addicted to thinking about one thing, or had so much difficulty in returning to the present. Every open second my mind returns to the past.

Lili August 11, 2014 at 2:40 am

Another truth is that we cannot exclude our brains, if we do that we will be dead:)

Marie August 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

Hi David, have you heard of the spiritual teacher Mooji? You might like hime.
Marie

Dave August 15, 2014 at 6:59 am

I like the promotion of awareness you’re giving to thoughts. They truly do have more of an effect than people realize. The only point I’d disagree on is that your emotions are more affected by thoughts than the present environment. I posit that emotions happen almost 100% due to the physical environment you’re in, which includes the state of your body and its processes. These emotions form a base on which to think certain thoughts. I believe emotions always come first because thoughts are formed in a much ‘newer’ and less primal part of the brain, whereas emotions are hard-wired into the amygdala which has root-access to the nervous system.

Mindfulness, in my opinion, is realizing that you feel the way you feel because of tangible environmental factors. Rather than being confused and thinking your emotions are arising because of the reality your thoughts construct for you (which is desolate and insurmountably bad) you’re probably just holding in a #2 and you need to go do something about it. Or you’re lost in thought at work and the anxiety of being noticed and exposed as a slacker is manifesting as an internal feeling of inadequacy.

Dave August 15, 2014 at 7:06 am

I like the promotion of awareness you’re giving to thoughts. They truly do have more of an effect than people realize. The only point I’d disagree on is that your emotions are more affected by thoughts than the present environment. I posit that emotions happen almost 100% due to the physical environment you’re in, which includes the state of your body and its processes. These emotions form a base on which to think certain thoughts. I believe emotions always come first because thoughts are formed in a much ‘newer’ and less primal part of the brain, whereas emotions are hard-wired into the amygdala which has root-access to the nervous system.

Mindfulness, in my opinion, is realizing that you feel the way you feel because of tangible environmental factors. Rather than being confused and thinking your emotions are arising because of the reality your thoughts construct for you (which is desolate and insurmountably bad) you’re probably just holding in a #2 and you need to go do something about it. Or you’re lost in thought at work and the anxiety of being noticed and exposed as a slacker is manifesting as an internal feeling of inadequacy. In the real reality, problems are much simpler and straightforward. And after a cleansing half hour (or even 5 minutes) in reality, you can go back and tackle the problems you were thinking about.

Sebastian Aiden Daniels August 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Our thoughts are not reality. I love the example of getting upset about a mean ex girlfriend. It is the thought you are reacting to and the emotional connection that has in your brain. The sad thing is that we can get so consumed by our thoughts and emotions yet we forget that it is only us who are feeling and thinking these things, so why not try to make it better for ourselves.

I think it is important to get outside of our heads as hard as it may be. Meditation I have found is a great way to train oneself to do this. Thanks for the post.

Christine August 19, 2014 at 3:08 pm

This article reminds of the movie “The Private Life of Walter Mitty”. I’m enjoying reading your blog. Thanks for the thought fodder.

Jessi Tidwell August 25, 2014 at 12:06 am

You know what would be incredibly cool? A raptitude class focusing on your articles and what you’ve discovered about life. This is the sort of thing humans REALLY need to learn.

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