Thinking is undoubtedly a useful tool for navigating much of life.
It is good to think carefully when you are baking a cake. Sugar will produce a more tasty product than salt, even if the salt shaker is more accessible at the moment your recipe calls for a teaspoon of white stuff. You are more likely to arrive at your desired destination if you think about following your instructions to turn left, even if turning right might feel better at the time. I am happy that the orthopedic surgeon was thinking carefully when he cut up the torn cartilage in my left knee and made tiny fractures in the bone to facilitate healing.
But, the usefulness of thinking has limitations. And there comes a point at which thinking can become a real liability.
Ian Leslie in “The Economist” recently wrote “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” in which he points out some of the drawbacks to the over use of the thought processes.
Describing tennis great Roger Federer’s recent struggles as a tennis player, Leslie writes,
Federer’s inability to win Grand Slams in the last two years hasn’t been due to physical decline so much as a new mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments. In the jargon of sport, he has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed. Perhaps Federer was so upset because, deep down, he recognised that his opponent had tapped into a resource that he, an all-time great, is finding harder to reach: unthinking.
What is “unthinking”?
Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.
In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense.
Perhaps this is part of the problem in the conversation between atheists, agnostics, and theists. Perhaps thinking alone is never the sole vehicle by which any of us ever finally settle upon a particular worldview. It may be that our commitments and our responses to the deeper questions of life, are ultimately decided, not so much by reason alone as by more instinctive and less purely rational skills. Too much dependence upon thought may pose a hindrance to the conversation by failing to give a full or honest picture of how any of us comes to conclusions about the deep questions of life.
We may need to add the skill of “unthinking”.
How do you learn to unthink? Dylan believes the creative impulse needs protecting from self-analysis: “As you get older, you get smarter, and that can hinder you…You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.” Flann O’Brien said we should be “calculatedly stupid” in order to write. The only reliable cure for overthinking seems to be enjoyment, something that both success and analysis can dull. Experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place. Thinking about it is a poor substitute.
We live in age of self-reflection, analysing every aspect of our work, micro-commentating on our own lives online, reading articles urging us to ponder what makes us happy. Much of this may be worthwhile, but we also need to put thinking in its place.
To”put thinking in its place” means to build gaps into our lives where the chatter of our mind can fall silent and we can open to other dimensions of our being. It is in these other realms that we expose ourselves to the possibility of the reality of mystery and the penetrating depths of being that are never accessible to mental processes alone.
It may be that atheist, agnostic, and theist will never really be able to meet fully until we are able to sit together for a time in silence. From this place of stillness, a new dialogue can emerge that may untangle some of the confusion in which this conversation so often seems to be bogged down.