To Think or Not to Think? Why Not Do Both?

I recently read an article based on the work of Eckhart Tolle called “To Think or Not to Think?” It presents a view that is virtually universal in alternative spiritual circles: a view that greatly minimizes the value of good old-fashioned discursive thinking, seeing it as mainly a barrier to real insight and spiritual growth. This is an unfortunate view in my opinion, for I believe that discursive thinking — thinking characterized by elements such as logic, reasoning, discernment, and analysis — is absolutely vital to the spiritual journey, a tool that we simply cannot do without. It is certainly vital to the path of A Course in Miracles.

The article is a blog post by Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, a company that produces audio and visual programs featuring a number of prominent spiritual teachers, including Tolle. She begins by describing what she calls “repetitive thinking,” which she defines as “thinking about the same thing again and again with no new information coming forward.” She says later she has seen studies that claim that 85-90% of all our thinking fits this description (a finding which I find difficult to believe).

In Simon’s view, there are a number of problems with repetitive thinking. Of course, a big problem is that it is repetitive, “like a needle going around the same part of a record, round and round, again and again.” Since it is repetitive, it is “boring” and “dulling.” It is also unoriginal; no new insights come out of it. It is rooted in fear of the unknown: In her experience, “it usually happens when I am afraid, afraid that a situation will not turn out in my favor.” And, in her view, it improperly detaches us from the vibrant aliveness of the senses: “it is an abstraction away from this sensory-rich moment. It is a type of recoil.”

What is the alternative to all this repetitive thinking? Simon is careful to point out that she is not “proposing living like a thoughtless idiot.” However, what she does propose is essentially a form of not thinking — at least not thinking in the conventional discursive, analytical sense. She says that instead of getting stuck in the endless loop of repetitive thinking, we need to keep the mind clear of our own thinking so that insights can arise, a process “which happens of its own accord and feels like an effortless ‘a-ha.'” We are to “rise above” thinking and be in a “space of awareness,” in which we disidentify with “the thinker” and let insights naturally bubble up from a deeper place in us. In Simon’s experience, insights come when she stops that repetitive thinking process and lets solutions to problems arise naturally.

How do we reach this state? Simon says that one way is to realize that when we are in repetitive-thinking mode, we have the choice “to think or not to think.” She says that when she gets stuck in this mode, she’ll ask herself, “Why not drop this loop and rest in the unknown?” What she has found most helpful is to “turn my attention to the physical world (rather than the mental world),” to get in touch with her body and tap into “the feeling of aliveness, a kind of tingling sensation that pervades the entire body.” Her goal is to live in what poet David Whyte calls our “frontier identity,” the aspect of us that stretches beyond what we already think we know and “actively meets the unknown.” We need to live “Not in the realm of thinking thinking thinking, but in the realm of being — or, one could say, right at the edge of the wave.”

I believe there is much of value in this approach. Certainly there are patterns of repetitive thinking that accomplish nothing and that we would be better off giving up. There is great value in spending time in stillness beyond the usual thinking process, as we do in meditation. In my experience, insights do sometimes arise when I set aside my thought process for a while. I have even found physical activity to be an aid to this at times; I like to go for runs. And certainly all of us would like to be in touch with that part of us that is on the growing edge. The spiritual path is a path of stretching out of our comfort zone into the great unknown.

But that being said, it seems to me that Simon (and Tolle) have presented us with a false dichotomy. Is the choice really between “thinking” in a useless, repetitive way or “not thinking” and just waiting in stillness for insights that arise in “aha” moments? I don’t think so. There is something crucial left out here, and that is what I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: good old-fashioned discursive thinking — the use of logic, reasoning, and analysis in an intelligent, nonrepetitive way that leads to real growth and insight. I don’t know whether Simon’s omission of this is because she doesn’t believe it is valuable, or simply because she chose not to talk about it in this piece. But I do think it is an unfortunate omission. For while all of those other modes of acquiring insight have their valued place, I think discursive thinking is a tool that we simply can’t do without — not only for living day-to-day in this world, but in the realms of spiritual growth as well.

I added that very last point to address a common objection (though not one raised in Simon’s piece) when I bring this issue up. Even people who minimize the importance of discursive thinking will usually admit that it has its uses. They’ll say yes, of course, if you need to balance your checkbook or fix your leaky faucet or resolve that difficult legal case, then that left-brained stuff comes in handy. But if your goal is to be truly creative, gain insight into the way things really are, or get in touch with spiritual reality, then all that logic and analysis has just got to go. It is nothing but a barrier to intuitive knowing. Get out of your head and into your heart.

I got a taste of this attitude in the very process of writing this piece. I decided to google the term “discursive thinking,” so I could learn more about it and see what others said about it. (A definition of the word “discursive” is “Proceeding to a conclusion through reason rather than intuition.”) When I clicked the search button, I was immediately met with the number one search result, from a website called “heartspace” (definitely not “headspace”). It was a link to an article entitled “The Entertainment of Discursive Thinking,” and the sentence underneath that heading pretty much said it all: “What discursive thinking is, is simply ego entertaining itself, solidifying itself in a subject-object dance that creates a sense of ‘home’ in a body-mind, a feeling of centrality at a superficial level.” Yikes!

As I’ve said, I think this devaluing of discursive thinking has robbed us as a vital tool in our spiritual toolbox. Without unapologetically applying our intellects to the spiritual path, we are missing a crucial means of discernment. One result of this is that our ability to evaluate the “insights” that come to us is compromised. Without careful thinking in which we rigorously evaluate our apparent insights based on reasonably objective standards of evidence, our only measure of whether any given “insight” is genuine will be the highly subjective one of whether it “feels” right. And in my experience, “feeling” or “intuition” all by itself is an extremely unreliable measure; I’ve seen countless cases where people’s “feelings” have convinced them of ideas that couldn’t pass the test of even the most cursory examination.

Don’t get me wrong: I value intuition and gut feelings highly. I think they are extremely valuable tools for evaluating the apparent insights that come to us. But if don’t also subject those “insights” to reasoned examination based on standards of evidence that are outside of our own sense of “aha,” then many of the “insights” we come up with will be nothing more than wishful projections of what we already believe. And we won’t realize that they are wishful projections, because we’ve set aside the tool that could reveal that to us. This process is unlikely to lead to genuinely new insight.

Another related result of devaluing discursive thinking is that we will tend to be unskillful when it comes to assessing the many and varied offerings of the spiritual marketplace. Without discernment, we are likely to get pulled this way and that by anything and everything that seems to make us feel good. It becomes much easier to get suckered by spiritual snake-oil salesmen; as I’ve heard it said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” At worst, it can lead us into things that are truly dangerous, like mindless cults. This is not a hypothetical scenario; I have seen it with my own eyes, and the results can be disastrous. Lives can be destroyed when thinking is no longer allowed.

A further problem with devaluing discursive thinking is that it makes it difficult to acquire the theoretical understanding we need to advance on any spiritual path. On every path, theory is foundational; the rest of the path is built upon it, and without that firm foundation our path is built on sand. Theory gives us the roadmap for the journey we are to travel, and without clear understanding of theory we are very likely to get lost in a trackless wilderness. And while understanding of theory certainly can come in spontaneous “aha” moments, such moments are no substitute for the usual process of study and thinking that we’ve always used to learn new ideas.

The strange thing to me is that all spiritual teachers implicitly acknowledge the importance of theory and the role of thinking in our learning of theory, even as they devalue it. Eckhart Tolle, the inspiration for Simon’s article, has written books that are chock-full of theory, which certainly came at least in part from his discursive thinking. (I’m sure it came from his spiritual experiences as well, but not entirely.) He obviously wants us to understand his theory, which requires such thinking on our part as well. Simon’s own article presents theory and obviously required a lot of serious thinking to produce. I’m sure she wants us to use our thinking skills as an aid to understanding the theory she’s trying to communicate to us.

It’s truly amazing to me how many spiritual teachers and writers present extensive, well-developed theories about why we should get away from theory. But the fact is, we can’t get away from theory. That is why every spiritual path has an intellectual tradition. As I said, we need theory as a foundation for everything that follows, and we need discursive thinking to understand that theory. And anyone who tries to refute that statement will inevitably present a thought-out theory (oops!) for why it isn’t so.

But what of Simon’s experience and that of others who share her perspective, experience which seems to provide evidence that discursive thinking is best set aside? I respect others’ experience, but I have to say that mine is quite different. For instance, I have never found that major insights come only when I’m in a non-thinking mental space. Indeed, I have had insights come up while engaged in just about every kind of thinking or non-thinking mode there is. They have come up as a direct result of the process of discursive thinking. They have come up after such a process, in a way that I’m convinced was facilitated by that process even though the insight came afterward. And yes, I’ve definitely had other times when insights came after I had set aside a repetitive and fruitless thought process and entered into a clear mental space through something like meditation.

As a general rule, I’ve found that the quality and frequency of my “aha” moments greatly increases to the degree that I have actively done serious thinking on an issue. I believe that discursive thinking and flashes of insight are often complementary aspects of the same process, rather than opposites in which you have to stop doing the former to experience the latter. I understand that the experience of others may be different in this regard. But my broader point here is that, at least in my experience, insights come in many ways, including as a very direct result of making the effort to think.

My experience has also been that setting aside the usual kind of thinking and waiting for “ahas” to bubble up is not inherently a road to greater insight. In both myself and others, I have seen countless ideas that are both demonstrably wrong and utterly unoriginal arise as a result of so-called “heart-oriented” or “right-brained” or “beyond-thinking” processes. I have also seen brilliant and highly original ideas come up through such processes. My point here is similar to that of the last two paragraphs: Just as insight comes in many ways, lack of insight comes in many ways. The ego can use what we call the “heart” just as well as it can use what we call the “head.”

And since I’m speaking of my experience, I have to add that for me, the mental world is not the cold, heartless, lifeless place so often depicted by alternative spiritual types. For me, that world is far more real, alive, vibrant, beautiful, and rich than the world of the senses could ever be. Don’t get me wrong; I have a great appreciation for other modes of being and relating to the world. I’m a big meditator, I love passionately emotional music like Wagner and Mahler, I’m a runner, I do home care for the elderly, and I sing in a choir. I don’t spend my entire life in my head.

But the truth is that deep thought has been a crucial element (though not exclusive element) in virtually every real breakthrough I have ever had. It is also inextricably linked to my emotional experience; it has often led directly to feelings of deep love, peace, and joy. And I have had powerful spiritual experiences directly attributable to it; it has definitely brought me closer to my spiritual reality and to God. I’m sure this is to some degree a matter of personality type. I certainly don’t expect everyone to fully to share my enthusiasm for the mental world. But I do want to call into question the often unquestioned assumption that the body and the senses and sheer emotionalism divorced from thought is where all the aliveness is.

Everything I’m saying here about the importance of discursive thinking is especially true of my path, A Course in Miracles. After almost twenty years of studying it and walking its path, I can say with confidence that intensive use of our intellectual powers is an absolute requirement to pass the Course. At the most basic level, this is necessary just to understand it, for the Course is a true intellectual tour de force. I have found that there is simply no substitute for studying the Course carefully using all of the mental faculties at our disposal. Without that we are truly at sea. Indeed, whenever I hear someone who hasn’t done that intellectual work share his or her “intuitive insight” into what the Course says, it is quite often wrong, a fact which can be easily demonstrated by examining the words of the Course itself. Yes, intuition plays a valuable role in learning the Course (as it does in any thinking process), but it is woefully insufficient by itself. Plain old mental elbow grease is an absolute must.

This should not be surprising, for the Course itself places tremendous value on discursive thinking. It is a Course that “require[s]…careful study” (T-1.VII.4:3). It stresses that its “theoretical foundation” (W-In.1:1) is “necessary” for its practices to be effective. It constantly uses reason and logic to persuade us, even telling us that the ego, while capable of logic, is incapable of real reason (T-21.V.4). It tells us that emotions are the logical outcome of thoughts. It regards Heaven, a realm of pure thought, as the only realm that is truly alive (T-23.II.19), and regards the world of the senses as not alive at all (though life can be reflected there). It stresses the importance of asking “real questions” (T-2.II.3:5), and urges us to “think carefully” (T-21.VIII.4:1) about many things, including how we should answer such real questions. It gives us ideas that “can not be too often said and thought about” (W-pI.152.3:6). It assigns us readings which it says “should be slowly read and thought about a little while” (W-pII.In.11:4). It even gives us a lesson (Lesson 66) in which the entire practice is to “try to see the logic” (W-pI.66.5:6) in a logical syllogism, a practice which is meant to bring about a spiritual experience.

Yes, the Course does tell us that in the ultimate sense, our thoughts in this world are not our real thoughts. And of course it also trains us in the use of many other tools, including asking the Holy Spirit for guidance and meditation practices in which we temporarily set aside all thoughts. Especially as it progresses, it places more and more emphasis on the value of “wordless, deep experience” (W-pII.In.11:2). All of these things are crucial elements in its program; discursive thinking is a necessary but not sufficient element for passing the Course. But it is necessary.

The odd thing is that I think most people instinctively get everything I’m saying here. I’m guessing that if Tolle or Simon were to respond to this article, they would acknowledge that discursive thinking has an important role on the spiritual path. They would probably agree that we should use our discernment to weed out bad ideas and avoid dubious spiritual teachers. They would likely acknowledge that they themselves are presenting theories that they want people to read, think about, and understand. And they probably both use insightful, nonrepetitive intellectual thought processes far more than they realize. The problem is, emphasis matters. When a spiritual teacher radically de-emphasizes discursive thinking and depicts it mainly as a barrier to real insight, that can’t help but cause people who already have a tendency to avoid careful thinking to avoid it even more. Is this really helpful?

So, my plea is this: Let’s robustly affirm the tremendous value of unabashedly intellectual thinking. Let’s fully embrace logic, reason, discernment, and analysis as important elements on the spiritual path. Let’s stop being so leery of this vital tool of thinking, and give it its rightful place in our spiritual toolbox. Yes, let’s honor and use the many other tools we have, but let’s not lose this one in the process. Let’s bring it out and make the most of it. Why not use all of the tools at our disposal? Instead of saying “To think or not to think?” why not do both?

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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