Yesterday, I got a second wind as I was going to bed. Hence, I couldn’t sleep most of the night. So, I used the time to do some thinking. Nothing special. Just thinking.
I was mildly surprised this morning to realize that last night was the first time in a while I’ve spent just thinking. That is, thinking without a purpose or plan.
Lately, most of the thinking I’ve done has been directed, focused and reigned in. It’s been goal-oriented. Last night was much more spontaneous and meditative than that. The difference is a lot like the difference between taking a walk to get somewhere as quickly and efficiently as possible and taking a walk to explore a new neighborhood.
In the former instance, you scarcely notice half the things you pass because they have nothing to do with your destination. But in the latter instance, you pay attention to anything that excites your curiosity, whether it be great or small. Neither way of taking a walk is absolutely superior to the other. It all depends on what you want.
I followed my curiosity last night and came across many thoughts I found stimulating and some thoughts I found dismaying. Looking back, I wonder why I don’t do more “just thinking” these days. My life hasn’t become so demanding that I no longer have the time; it’s that I’ve fallen out of the habit. That’s not necessarily a good thing. “Just thinking” can be a way of staying in touch with ourselves.
When we think with a purpose, we censor or reject thoughts and feelings that fail to fit our purpose. In that sense, thinking with a purpose can subtly alienate us from how we really think and feel about something. When I look at my watch wholly bent on finding the time, I dismiss the irrelevant and subtle pleasure I feel in the mere appearance of my watch. Yet, in its own small way, that fleeting pleasure can have as much to do with the quality of my life as any gratification I take in being able to find the time. But how would I know the importance of aesthetics to the quality of my life when I am constantly dismissing as irrelevant every hint of their importance?
Similarly, I might reject thoughts and feelings that fail to fit my purpose when I am thinking about what is socially acceptable — or politically correct — to say about some public figure.
For instance, if I fully consult my thoughts about the Pope, then among other things, I might recognize that I think of him as a man with at least a few intellectual gifts who I suspect has sold out to an ideology and an organization, and who has consequently become in some striking ways morally corrupt. But if I am more concerned with my purpose of being politically correct than I am with the full spectrum of my thoughts, then I might reject those thoughts of his corruption even before I can fully articulate them.
Instead, I might end up with something like, “I think he was unwise to discourage the use of condoms to prevent disease.” While that might express my honest opinion of him and his policy towards condoms, it is a much more limited and circumspect statement than what I actually think to be the case.
There is a sense, then, in which my goal of pursuing the socially acceptable or politically correct statement can obscure many of my thoughts about a person. Put more generally, my pursuit of a goal can blind me to any of my thoughts that don’t fit that goal. Again, that can lead to a subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — alienation from myself.
Thinking with a purpose, of course, is often necessary and can be extraordinarily useful. I am certainly unwilling to argue that it is absolutely inferior to “just thinking”. But I believe we should recognize that the more pressing our purpose is — the more it shapes and controls our thinking — the more we become literally narrow-minded.
We need “just thinking” to balance “thinking with a purpose” — and probably vice versa. The one seems to balance the other analogous to how inhaling a breath balances exhaling a breath. And perhaps the overall quality of our thought depends on a balance.
So much more could be said about this. I certainly haven’t exhausted the subject. For instance: I could elaborate on why I suspect habitually repressing the full spectrum of our thoughts can subtly alienate us from ourselves. Or I could go into much more detail about the technique of “just thinking”, which seems in some ways to resemble unstructured meditation. Again, the close relationship between “just thinking” and creativity intrigues me. But my hunch is those things deserve essays of their own, rather than to be tacked onto this one. And, in any case, it’s beer time here in the Rockies!