I often find I am telling myself that I need to “take a break”, to “relax”, to find some “peace and quiet”. Life gets hectic, and we often seek out a calming state of mind. But what do we do when we get that opportunity?
Chances are our hyperactive minds still dominate our state of mind. We try to relax, to “let go”, but instead our brains keep churning, jumping from one idea to another, to some thought or worry, some whatif or shouldhavebeen. We have trouble shutting off. Sam Harris:
I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.
I am by no means denying the importance of thinking. Linguistic thought is indispensable to us. It is the basis for planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other capacities that make us human. Thinking is the substance of every social relationship and cultural institution we have. It is also the foundation of science. But our habitual identification with the flow of thought — that is, our failure to recognize thoughts as thoughts, as transient appearances in consciousness — is a primary source of human suffering and confusion.
Our relationship to our own thinking is strange to the point of paradox, in fact. When we see a person walking down the street talking to himself, we generally assume that he is mentally ill. But we all talk to ourselves continuously — we just have the good sense to keep our mouths shut. Our lives in the present can scarcely be glimpsed through the veil of our discursivity: We tell ourselves what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, and what might yet happen. We ceaselessly reiterate our hopes and fears about the future. Rather than simply exist as ourselves, we seem to presume a relationship with ourselves. It’s as though we are having a conversation with an imaginary friend possessed of infinite patience. Who are we talking to?
This can prevent us from truly experiencing. Instead of staying in the moment, engaging with our environment and our own breathing, we get lost in an inner dialogue.
We can gain clarity from a couple of different practices, including meditation. Historically, such escape from inner dialogue has been achieved through religious practices:
A Christian will recite the Lord’s Prayer continuously over a weekend, experience a profound sense of clarity and peace, and judge this mental state to be fully corroborative of the doctrine of Christianity; A Hindu will spend an evening singing devotional songs to Krishna, feel suddenly free of his conventional sense of self, and conclude that his chosen deity has showered him with grace; a Sufi will spend hours whirling in circles, pierce the veil of thought for a time, and believe that he has established a direct connection to Allah.
Whatever the technique, and however difficult it may be, achieving mental clarity by shutting off can help us thinkers to do what we really would like to: make good decisions and think critically. But even the brightest minds need to recharge from time to time.
EDIT: Here’s a follow up thought from Joel Gold, who writes of the benefits of Adaptive Regression In the Service of the Ego (or ARISE). Adaptive regression need not be as negative as it sounds – and Gold highlights the positives:
There are numerous vital experiences that cannot be achieved without adaptive regression: The creation and appreciation of art, music, literature and food; the ability to sleep; sexual fulfillment; falling in love; and, yes, the ability to free associate and tolerate psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapy without getting worse. Perhaps the most important element in adaptive regression is the ability to fantasize, to daydream. The person who has access to their unconscious processes and can mine them, without getting mired in them, can try new approaches, can begin to see things in new ways and, perhaps, can achieve mastery of their pursuits.
In a word: Relax.
It was ARISE that allowed Friedrich August Kekulé to use a daydream about a snake eating its tail as inspiration for his formulation of the structure of the benzene ring. It’s what allowed Richard Feynman to simply drop an O-ring into a glass of ice water, show that when cold the ring is subject to distortion, and thereby explain the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Sometimes it takes a genius to see that a fifth grade science experiment is all that is needed to solve a problem.
In another word: Play.