Why We Think

I was woken up by an idea. I’ve been thinking about Thought for a long while, and this morning an entire stream of thinking showed up the moment I awoke. I spent 30 minutes snoozing and drifting, creating this article in my mind but feeling too good in my bed to actually get up and come put it down on a page. Until now! 🙂

What has been puzzling me for a long time is why most of what we think is out of our control, or seemingly so. You have thousands and thousands of thoughts each day, and more of these are random. Or so it appears. Of course, when we refer to “thinking” and use that term in common language, we often mean “proactive thinking” or “conscious thinking”, as in the process by which we choose to engage in a certain way of using our mind to construct or articulate something – an idea, a reasoning, a view. But I would be at a loss if you asked me to write down all the thoughts I’ve had over a 12 hour window. Chances are, you would be as well.

Most of what we think seems to be presented to ‘us’, the conscious self that says “I”, rather than ‘us’ choosing to think it. Just notice what is showing up in your mind every 15 minutes and you will have an entertaining glimpse of what I am referring to (I did this experiment… it’s rather hilarious).

Now, I’ve held for a long time this idea that our mind is like a natural spring and each thought is like a droplet of water coming out of it. I often used this metaphor with my clients to help them see that Thought simply appears, because that’s the nature of the mind, and it is our choice to engage with it or not. We don’t have to. And it sure looks random when you consider that you can switch from remembering the figure on your bank account to what you’ll have for dinner to a memory of your first Summer job to what your partner said to you the day before whilst you were brushing your teeth. All that within 15 seconds.

But then this explanation has not been sitting well with me for some time due to another indisputable fact: the extraordinary complexity and artful design of our bodies and brains. We are complex creatures and nothing in the way our organs, blood vessels and neurological system are interconnected is random. Everything fulfils a function, even when we don’t know what that may be yet. Every day, scientists discover something new about the brain, about what it does, about how it works, about which part helps with what. We still don’t grasp much.

So considering that, I started to see Thought in a different light. What if my thoughts did not appear randomly? What if they appeared in a certain sequence, unbeknownst to me, to teach me something? What if they were some kind of subtle – or sometimes obvious – hint from this divine energy behind life that I need to contemplate something, consider something, learn something, so that I can evolve and grow?

Over the years, some people have shared with me some of their darkest and most sinister thoughts such as hurting others or even killing themselves. Maybe you’ve had some similar thoughts yourself over your lifetime. I have. Rarely. Now and again. Not regularly and not for long. Just once in a blue moon, for a few moments. Sometimes in dreams. I barely remember an occurrence of them because I never consider them seriously. I don’t pay them much attention. I’ve got so much else to play with, contemplate and create. It’s just what thoughts do: they appear and then they’re gone, if you don’t entertain them. But let’s say that you had some dark, terrible thoughts, and let’s say you had them repeatedly. Let’s say they started causing you fear, anxiety, restlessness and pain.

Here’s what I am exploring: what if these thoughts were not a problem? What if we considered them as teachers, emerging in your mind with the potential to awaken you to something? Then wouldn’t we see these thoughts as a warning sign from this life force animating your heart and your mind? Wouldn’t we interpret them as a reminder that you need to create more meaning in your life? Wouldn’t we understand that they will keep coming back until you choose to heal and bring forth a meaningful existence for yourself?

This would explain why mine showed up and then they were instantly gone again. I have done much healing. I have got much meaning. No need for Thought to cling on to my conscious mind and start ruling over my every waking hour. I’ve got the lesson, and Thought knows it. Hence Thought appears, and disappears. And now I’ve got other recurring thoughts at the forefront of my mind, frustrating and annoying me on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. They are the blessed messengers of the Lesson I’m not getting yet.

We are hard-wired for survival, are we not? Our sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” response, is here to help us and save us when we perceive threat or danger is near. And when the danger is gone from sight, the parasympathetic system comes into ascendancy and takes over, calming us down, wiping away the no longer desirable hormones, repairing and restoring the body. Well, why would thinking not be another tool in our wonderfully complex arsenal, another defense mechanism we have for survival? But we don’t listen to it. When painful, we consider Thought to be a problem. What if it’s not?

Consider that everything that appears in your mind might be a lesson in disguise. Something that can teach you something. A reminder to heal your inner child. An encouragement to create purpose and meaning. A wake-up call waiting to be heard.

I don’t know if this is why we think. I know life looks brighter to me when I believe it is.

Don’t Wait ‘Till You Die

I have little patience for talk, talk, talk, and no action. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am often reminding myself of my own mortality, and the awareness that I still take many things for granted… Or perhaps I just like to get stuff done and I don’t suffer procrastinators gladly. Who knows?

Some years ago now, a friend of mine got irritated when in conversation I brought up the Stoic practice of contemplating death – I’m sure other schools and communities used similar rituals – to remind oneself of both the fragility and gift of life. He got frustrated and interrupted the conversation. I guess for him I had just become another one of these annoying nutcases talking about death and playing with these grandiose ideas to look cool.

Whatever my friend’s problem was, the fact remains that looking at my own mortality, as scary as it may be sometimes, has numerous benefits. I have written about death before and you can read some of the ideas and insights I shared here, here and here – I recommend you take a look 🙂 . I do find the topic profound and useful, although I’ve got a lot more to learn and it doesn’t make the reality of death less challenging to deal with.

But here I want to relate death to another area which, as a coach, I very much cherish: ACTION.

This same friend was often postponing and procrastinating on his dreams. He did not even articulate his desires as dreams. He was simply getting by, living life as it came, by default. Not much ambition, not much drive. A What-s-the-point type of attitude. Every day looking the same. Flat line. Whenever I’d ask how he was doing, he would reply “fine”. The exact same “fine” that Simon Sinek describes in this interview on millenials. Slowly dying out of boredom. Resolved. Cynical. Living, but not really alive.

Not that I think it’s “bad” to live this way. Everyone can do as they please. But it’s clearly not the life I choose to lead, and given the line of work I have been called to do, I generally don’t want this for other people either. I want to achieve my goals. I want to create my dreams. Not just talk about them. I want to DO, and what better fuel for DOING than the wisdom that my time is finite?

Unfortunately, we often continue to pretend and act as if we’ll live forever and we’ll do that thing, “someday…”.

I speak to too many people who are continuously putting off what they say they want. And the tricky part is: they always have good reasons for it. We all do! Whenever I am not owning up and stepping up to a desire I have that I’m not creating, you can be certain that I’ve got a bunch of reasonable arguments to defend my pitiful lack of initiative in the direction I want. I am blind to the truth, and blind to my own blindness.

We ALWAYS find ways to rationalise our lack of self-leadership, our hiding, our playing small.

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind that you don’t pursue a desire you have – actually that’s not quite true because I know I love seeing my clients create what they set their mind to… But what I really do care about is when we bury our head in the sands of incongruity between what we say we want and what we actually do about it.

I don’t want people to feel “fine” in their life. I want them to feel extraordinary! Not always joyful perhaps, as life has its ups and downs, but at least inspired, meaning-rich, walking their journey! This is my mission, this is what makes me feel alive. I don’t know why, it just is.

Don’t wait ’till you die to get started on your dream. If you’ve got a chance to take a big step forward towards it, grab it. If a small one, step forth. Be bold and trust that things will work out. Because they do.

Don’t wait ’till you die to invest in yourself. There will be nothing left to invest in by then. YOU are your greatest asset, no doubt about it. The best time to act and stretch yourself is now. It’s the only time you ever get.

Don’t wait ’till you die to say what’s on your mind. To do what your heart calls you to do. To look people in the eyes and say “I love you”.

Please, don’t wait ’till you die.