Life within the Matrix is full of myths that are simply misinformation and un-truth masquerading as legitimate different perspectives. It is the challenge of modern living to sift the truth from the un-truth. Thinking is the way out of the Matrix since it is the only way to decypher the many modern myths and discern what is real from what is not. It should come as no surprise to find that the concept of thinking itself has been heavily polluted with untruth.
There are so many common myths about thinking that it has become difficult to discuss the practice from a common understanding. We have already discussed why thinking is so important, and also 10 tips for clearer thinking. Here, in building up to a useful definition of thinking, let us first take a look at what it isn’t by exploring some of these myths.
1. That what we personally do is necessarily thinking
The first common myth about thinking is that everyone assumes that their own mental habits and practices are what constitute thinking. In the absence of education about thinking in schools, and with much of the present (bankrupt) culture actively discouraging it, this is not surprising. The truth is that many people get stuck in mental circles listening to relentless self-denigrating mind chatter, or endlessly worrying. These may be mental activities, but they are not thinking.
Additionally, some mental activity considered as thoughts are actually emotions. There is often confusion between these two, with little attempt made to distinguish them. In my post ‘Emotions – what are they and what do they mean‘ I explore emotions in more detail. The point here Is that it is crucial to know what we think and to know what we feel, and to know the difference.
2. That thinking means ‘any mental activity’
Myth number two follows straight on from the first. Never asking what thinking is, leaves us ignorant of the answer. There is a vast array of mental activities but they are not all thinking. Worrying, remembering, visualising, and brooding are not thinking in its strict sense. [See definition below]
3. That thinking is automatic
Mental activity of various kinds can become automatised. In the normal process of learning thought is required to consider and modify actions, but these actions and thought processes become automated in the subconscious to free up the conscious mind for new thought. By definition automatic mental activity is not conscious. Thinking, however, is a volitional activity that requires effort and must be initiated by each individual. Mental activities that keep you awake at night such as aimless mind chatter and worry are not thinking. Thinking is a consciously initiated deliberate activity with its purpose being the acquisition of knowledge.
4. That we are what we think
It is more accurate to say that we are what we do. No one remembers what Winston Churchill thought, but we remember what he did, and therefore associate him with his choice of actions. Thought precedes action but does not necessarily lead to it. We are not necessarily our thoughts, but we are necessarily our actions. Thoughts, like words, are cheap. Our actions are what define us because they exist on the record – they are what actually happened. It is only if we act in accordance with our thoughts, and to the extent that we practice integrity, that our thoughts correlate with who we are – or who we choose to be.
Thinking is a process, its something we do. It’s not what we are but it affects who we become. Thinking is a function of consciousness. Consciousness is the primary, and thinking is the activity of consciousness. The habitual activity of thinking potentially leads to an expansion in the conceptual awareness of that consciousness, which affects what that person becomes as defined by their action.
Thinking affects actions, and actions define identity. Therefore thinking leads to identity but it is not identity in its self.
Although thinking like an ‘arsehole’ will increase your chances of being one, it is behaving like one that defines you as one!
5. That listing beliefs is thinking
Beliefs are chosen conclusions not arrived at by reasoning that have been recited or repeated so often that they are considered true premises. They are the cemented results of previous thinking that run our lives. However, they must be continuously checked against reality for truth. No ideas should ever remain isolated from scrutiny, or filed away never to be updated. If this were so, we would all still hold that the earth is flat!
When people say ‘I think this’ or ‘I think that’ and ‘I think such and such…’ this is not necessarily thinking. It is quite often merely repeating cultural downloads or popular catch phrases. Many spouted beliefs are a regurgitation of memorized lines, as opposed to the purposeful activity of a sovereign mind. Listing assumptions and conclusions may describe your stand on particular issues, but it isn’t thinking.
Reading from a mental list of stored files may be establishing a position but it isn’t thinking.
6. That thinking can trap you
If someone is considered ‘trapped’ by their thinking I would suggest that it is not thinking that they are doing. Mentally going around in circles is not thinking, neither is clinging to a particular set of ideas or thoughts for whatever reason. Thinking traps are either errors of technique rooted in a philosophy that does not serve the individual, or the refusal to let go of dis-proven ideas. If we hold convictions which have been filed away under the “never to be revisited or questioned” category, then our behaviour and our choices (and therefore our outcomes) will forever be controlled by them. This is why our convictions, beliefs and assumptions that constitute our philosophy must accord with reality, but must also be eternally open for revision in the light of fresh knowledge.
It is specific beliefs that can imprison us, not the practice of thinking itself. Accepting dogma, or concepts without critical examination can trap us. A thinking, intellectually sovereign mind, questioning and using reason to identify what is real and what is not, is liberating as it opens up options. Remaining ignorant of truth (of reality) can never be advantageous!
We can also become trapped by an inability to be objective. But this is another way of saying that an individual is attached to a particular belief or set of beliefs, perhaps creating a sense of identity around them. Thinking is a process of rational inquiry to gain knowledge of objective reality and by definition this cannot be a trap.
7. That the mind is a prison
This one is similar to the previous misconception. People are not so much trapped by the action or process of thinking but their method that is programmed into the operating system of their mind – their mental habits and unhelpful techniques such as jumping to conclusions or using logical fallacies. If done correctly the process of thinking is the way out, because it enables the re-programming the operating system to better method and correct premises. People become imprisoned by their inability and/or reluctance to examine their own thinking habits, scrutinize them for efficacy, and change them as necessary. Thinking is a process that liberates us. It is remaining stuck with counter-productive mental habits that imprisons us.
8. That you need to be careful because you can think too much
Yet more nonsense about thinking that may be comforting to those who prefer to evade the effort required for intellectual sovereignty. If anyone believes they are thinking too much, it is again unlikely that the particular mental activity they are referring to is thinking. It may be the kind of undirected and unceasing mind chatter that plagues so many people. If done efficiently, thinking achieves its goals, identifies knowledge, arrives at conclusions, and informs action.
Imagine a sailing boat without a rudder or a keel. It may do ‘too much sailing’ due to its inefficient attempt to make headway and pursue an intended course, so inefficient thinking can slow or scupper progress so as to require too much time to achieve anything. Proper method and knowledge of process will reduce time spent thinking.
If it is perceived that some one else is thinking too much, it may also be the case that the one making an accusation of ‘excessive thinking’ is challenged by the thinking activity of the one they are accusing. If one seeks to evade the practice of thinking it is convenient to rationalize that choice by concluding that if we are not careful thinking can be done too much. An individual may be imposing their conclusions on others too much, or analysing the behavior of others too much, but this is a behavioural issue, and not of one excessive thinking.
9. That thinking is done by the heart
Some people suggest that ‘thinking is also done by the heart’. This is mysticism creeping in through the back door. Man is distinct from all other organisms by his capacity for conceptual thinking using his faculty of reason. Yes, we enjoy emotions, but this does not mean we are fundamentally emotional beings, because emotions are not primaries. It would be like saying we are blinking beings, or tennis-playing beings, because we have these capacities too. They do not define us because they are not fundamental. Emotions are the means by which we enjoy life. They are consequences, evaluations based upon our values.
There are intimate connections between heart and brain/mind as well as the gut and the brain/mind, but it is a stretch of the imagination to conclude that the heart thinks, or that the lungs digest food, or that the brain filters our blood. The crux of this issue is the mistaken idea that emotions are tools of cognition providing us with information about our reality. They do not. For a more in-depth discussion on the nature of emotions [see here].
10. That the heart should rule the head
It’s the old head or the heart dilemma. Some people advocate that we should listen to the heart more than the head, again placing emotions or feelings above a process of rational thought. It is important to remember that we can feel like a raise in pay, we can feel that the world is against us, we can feel that our favourite horse is going to win in this afternoon’s race, we can feel like not dealing with something important, yet these feelings do not give us any reliable objective information about reality. They do not inform us about what objectively is, or what to do. Observing empirical evidence and a rational process of thought, do.
11. That it’s best to go with your intuition or gut feeling
There is another common myth that going with the gut feeling is a more accurate guide to action than thinking. It is a fact that there is an intimate connection between gut and brain. They are connected by the Vagus nerve, the largest super highway of neural connections other than the spine. We all experience feeling sick to the stomach with apprehension or nervous with butterflies in the stomach. The gut is where we experience the physical component of our emotional responses. We associate these physical feelings with an intuitive offering from the subconscious mind.
Our subconscious offers us lightning fast summations and evaluations of all our previously stored conclusions and beliefs, and it is programmed by the sum of our beliefs and convictions whether held consciously or subconsciously. These offerings are very likely the essence of what intuition is. The accuracy of this information will depend upon how well all the held convictions correlate with reality and to what extent all subject areas of the mind integrate with each other creating an non-contradictory sum of knowledge. The conscious mind remains the ultimate programmer and its conscious decisions, conclusions and intentions can always overwrite previous conclusions in the subconscious or previous cultural downloads.
Thinking consciously and rationally, correctly identifying what is true, is ultimately the way to refine our intuition and gut feelings so that they provide us with useful guidance. To be accurately guided by your gut and your intuition, you must program it with accurate information that accords with reality. In the same way that to get reliable guidance from your SatNav it must have an accurate map of the road network that accords with reality.
12. That all thinking is biased
Bias in thinking is not universal or inherent. It is a function of the degree to which the thinker either identifies with their thoughts, or clings to a particular position, idea or conclusion, resulting in a failure of objectivity. Objectivity is function of rationality. It is a reflection of wanting to know the truth, rather than wanting to be right.The rational thinker knows that getting something wrong is a step towards knowing what is right, and therefore she doesn’t identify with her thoughts, ideas or conclusions, nor any particular position.
It is a particular thinker who remains objective or not, it is not an inherent function of thinking.
13. That we should be ‘Present’ and still the mind as a means of enlightenment
There is value in being focused in the ‘now’ and remembering that your life occurs in a forever rolling ‘now’ moment. However many advocates of this view throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we are to enjoy a uniquely human experience of life it is vitally important to learn from the past and to plan for the future. If we disregard all that is not in the now, to the extent that some advocate, we would reduce ourselves to animals with a limited perception of the moment and with no conceptual faculty with which to contemplate the sum of our years and to plan goals and create our values. Being here now is self evidently what is, you do not have to try and do it, you cannot escape it. You can however escape learning and planning and thinking and improving your lot. Don’t forsake your defining human characteristic for the goal of ‘staying present’. Use your unique human capacity for conceptual thought to look back and learn, enjoy the now, and to think, plan and productively create and improve things in the future. Being present has value, but it is not the way to any particular achievement or goal – least of all enlightenment.
14. That meditation trumps thinking as another key to enlightenment
In the same way that exercise is essential for health but it is obvious that you need to rest, so it is that thinking is essential for life and it is similarly necessary to rest. The merit in NOT thinking is the same as the merit in resting our body, and not doing any human activity continuously. Meditation has value. It is resting the mind, finding the OFF switch and peace. This is self evidently important, but it is not a means to greater awareness and therefore enlightenment. We cannot find enlightenment without knowledge, and it is only rational thinking that leads to the acquisition of knowledge.
Attuning to our senses in the moment is of value, like being present to the moment is of value, but it is not possible to ramp up and increase the sensitivity of our senses. We either pay attention to them or we don’t. But our ability to conceptualise is unlimited. This means our capacity to be conceptually aware is unlimited. It is like zooming out and seeing ever more patterns within patterns in the fabric of existence. Thinking uses concepts and integrates them into a non-contradictory sum of knowledge building ever increasing awareness.
Imagine an architect designs and builds a huge shopping complex. When he entered that structure he would enjoy a vastly greater awareness of all the complexities of its nature, all the wiring looms, the air conditioning system, the relative positioning of shop fronts, welfare facilities and parking areas. On the other hand, imagine the level of awareness of a small child walking through the same building. There would be a massive difference in the awareness of that reality between the architect and the child. The difference is greater conceptual awareness based in more extensive knowledge.
The means to any kind of enlightenment or awakening, or to becoming more conscious, is becoming more aware. And it is through the use of our distinctly human capacity of rational thinking that this is possible.
And finally the Big One…
15. That our thoughts create our reality
To examine this one it is necessary to remind our selves of that old adage “…Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. This is a quote from Rienhold Neibuhr and was written as a prayer.
The point is that there are things we can change in our lives and there are things we cannot. It is crucial to know the difference if a happy and successful life is our goal.
Reality is an objective absolute that cannot be changed, our human thoughts and choices are not, and can be changed. Every decision of any man or woman should be judged and assessed for its merit by all the individual minds of any people participating or observing the decision making. Any such decision can be changed and should be if it is found to be wrong, or in some way anti-life.
Reality is consistent and remains as it is, in spite of the wishes, whims, desires, wants, screams and tears of anyone trying to change it. No matter how relentlessly we bang our heads against a wall, it will not go away. Things are what they are, existence exists, independent of any consciousness. On the other hand our attitudes, our mindset, our habits of thinking, our premises, our generalisations and assumptions can all be changed.
Our thinking creates our experience of reality. Or more precisely our method of thinking and our premises and assumptions create our experience of reality. To the extent that we choose to think and to revisit our conclusions and to test them against reality, to the extent that we are willing and able to change our philosophy we can indeed change our experience of reality. But ONLY to this extent!
This is a separate issue from mans ability to create his reality by, for example, starting a business, offering value to his customers and becoming wealthy, so as to change his physical circumstances. No one would dispute our ability to change our reality and our experience of it by virtue of our chosen actions.
Subjectivists and mystics alike believe that consciousness creates reality, and thus, by implication, not addressing a problem, not giving it our attention, will make it will go away. Of course this is fanciful evasion that simply leads to suffering.
A Definition of Thinking
Others have defined critical thinking, as if to distinguish it from other kinds of thinking. I consider the term ‘critical’ to be something of a redundancy. Thinking in its truest sense of the word must be critical. It must evaluate, enquire, analyse and infer. Thinking is finding out about reality, and so a critical analysis of what ever is being examined is essential.
I offer this definition of thinking:
“Thinking is a volitional and purpose driven process of reasoning, with the acquisition of conceptual knowledge as its goal”
As always, I invite you to join the conversation and post a comment.