Not thinking

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Pink_elephantPerhaps a reasonable proxy for wisdom is the ability to stop thinking when you want, to interrupt the tortured spiraling progression of thoughts that serve no function and lead nowhere, the symbolic productions of a machine gone mad. Like much else, this can (and, I think, should) be approached as a skill that can be practiced, as part of a general package of cultivable techniques and approaches that help in being happy, especially for those not naturally gifted in that way and especially for the anxious neurotic, constantly harried by thoughts that something is not right and that it will all come crashing down[1].

As a (mostly) former obsessive I'm still not very good at this, but I'm thankful for all the time spent practicing. Obsessions and compulsions take an ordinary pattern (that of a persistent thought or behavior) and, by carrying it to an extreme, reveal a pathology that was always there. Being confronted by a thought that won't leave is a dramatic education in the possibility that perhaps the thought wasn't yours to start with and that its trajectory and dynamics are unsettling and alien. These moments shake the uncritical notion of a unified self. I imagine we all have these experiences as we grow and realize that a single unified self is either an illusion (for the Buddhists) or a distant goal lying at the end of many sublimations (for the Nietzscheans and psychoanalysts)[2].

What does one do with unwanted thoughts? The famous example of instructing someone to not think of a pink elephant shows that active suppression is generally futile. It takes constant energy and vigilance, which is exhausting. And anyhow, pushing thoughts away gives them increased significance and emotional valence making them more likely to return again and again. This is all the more true of obsessional thoughts, which are often terrifying; a panicked suppression does nothing but bring them back.

Delaying them seems to work better (“I'll think about this in 3 hours”). It gives a smidgeon of distance between you and the thought and that starts to interrupt the automatic tendency to keep thinking about whatever just popped into your head. This can be hard. It gets easier with time, and judiciously distracting yourself while you're delaying can be quite helpful. Sometimes, though, it just doesn't work and then you're stuck with the thought; at these moments I find it useful to remind myself that it'll eventually pass and either keep gently trying or attempt to sleep[3].

For a particularly tenacious obsessional thought, the flip side of delaying the thought is setting aside time to actively desensitize yourself to its effects, to dissipate the emotional charge using forced exposure. A standard suggestion here is to spend, say, fifteen minutes a day to focus on thinking the thoughts that won't leave you alone. You need to wallow in them, to think them in extremity without letting your mind run away from them (it's the thought-equivalent of getting over a fear of snakes by, say, imagining them and then moving on to touching them). This makes them easier to delay during the rest of the day and helps them return to just being another thought. When I had particularly obsessive thoughts I used to do this most days: delay the thoughts until a certain point each day and then spend that time indulging those thoughts, not pushing back against them, letting them expand to fill my world. I still do this occasionally; it feels clarifying.

Even for more banal things, practicing the flexibility to decide when to think is hugely liberating. Deciding that you'll think about something at 4 pm on Monday moves thinking from a privileged expression of self to something else to do, like doing the dishes, and reminds you that just because something pops into your head you don't have to keep thinking it.

Approaching thoughts this way breeds a certain productive distance from them and requires a slightly ironic view of the self, that does not look for essence and meaning in every object that flits across consciousness. On the other hand, this is not a sterile detachment from the world and experience. Instead, by demoting thinking to another form of behavior, it opens up room for all the other ways we can exist in the world. And treating thought as behavior suggests how it can be shaped and learned; this can be liberating.

Still, do we lose something in this distance? At the least, should we ignore the constant collection of background thoughts? I'm tempted to think that these thoughts do carry some significance, that they do play a role. There is a fundamental terror to being a transient unstable being in a capricious and uncontrollable world. In the spirit of Jung's observation that neurosis is a substitute for real suffering, I think of these thought loops as trying to make this terror concrete, so that something can be done about it in the act of thinking. And the constant act of thinking, the constant interior monologue helps screen the awareness by forming a kind of background static. Is there something to be gained by dropping this static and looking at what's really always there? If we are to live in a way that is not irredeemably tragic, there must be, though deciding this might be more an act of will than of reason.

[1] It will, of course, but perhaps not just yet.

[2] I think this opposition is a productively dialectical way of thinking about a self, or has been for me.

[3] Fleeing into sleep has something of a bad reputation, perhaps because of how easy it is to just sleep and sleep when depressed or when you don't have any energy to face the world. Of course it can become pathological, but there is something of the hard-working moralist in this disapproval of sleep. Sleeping a lot can be a good way of getting through a rough patch, of stopping spiraling rumination or interrupting a cascade of thoughts. Sometimes, all one can do with a set of thoughts or a mood is to realize that it will pass and then just wait it out. It is the mind that makes waiting unpleasant; sleep is a great way to wait.