In praise of thoughtlessness: A strategy for coping

MIT Sloan

In his 1973 Pulitzer prize winning book, The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker maintains that we live life as a constant struggle to control our basic anxiety: the fear of death. “This is the terror: To have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this to die.”

What this means is significant: All we ever think about — what we constantly struggle with — is how to assert our existence; unconsciously, and at every moment, we fight, deny, ignore, or attempt to transcend the fear of the inevitable, final extinguishing. And, since the mind is nothing but a continuous stream of those (death-defying) thoughts, you could further say that the mind’s sole preoccupation, though it is a barely acknowledged undercurrent, is “how to survive,” both in body and spirit.

Bodily survival is no longer a matter of outrunning prehistoric predators, but there is always the danger of an accident, of encountering violent crime, of catching a disease, or even of being randomly gunned down — sometimes even by the police — for that matter. The fear of physical death is a focused fear. It arises out of an imminent, identifiable danger. Our sympathetic nervous system — the flight or fight response — kicks in automatically. But once the danger has passed, we don’t think about it that much.

Survival of the spirit is another matter altogether. Since physical survival does not consume too much of our mental bandwidth, we lavish attention on matters of the spirit; our biological survival instinct has gradually deformed into a protective, but porous shell over our sense of self. Deep down, our thoughts are all about sustaining our self-image; self-esteem is what we cherish above all else. It is existence itself.

Unlike the focused fear of physical death, the fear of spiritual death — the loss of self-esteem — is more diffuse. It manifests as a persistent, omnidirectional anxiety. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard called anxiety “an unfocused fear.” Anxiety, Becker reminds us, is “the peculiar sentence of Man alone in the animal kingdom.” That’s because it’s an inevitable byproduct of Man’s unique ability to think about himself.

In daily life we don’t acknowledge this of course. We may think ourselves to be noble, altruistic, empathetic or devotional, we may assign the highest motives to our thoughts, but in every case a subconscious quid pro quo is at work: We expect to reap some benefit to our self-esteem in exchange for our perceived generosity of spirit. Says Becker, ”Man is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless and supremely meaningful.”

Whether in anxieties or in aspirations, whether we know it or not, we seek always to protect our self-image, or to burnish it. The throbbing ache for self-esteem is, in fact, the background thrum of existence. We are all narcissists, hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.

Recorded history, it could be said, is the account of the human mind’s machinations, through the ages, in service of Man’s self-esteem.

But even more than the content of our thoughts, it is the act of thinking itself that most reinforces our existence. “Cogito, ergo sum,” (I think therefore I am) perhaps the most clichéd expression in philosophy, resonates with us instinctively. It speaks, aloud, what we fear the most: To stop thinking is to die. We can live without a limb or an organ, but insentience is inconceivable. We need the mind to keep conducting this chorus of voices and images.

Or do we?

There’s one thing we know: Our minds may reaffirm our existence, but they also lead us into dark places.

Our “monkey minds,” as the Buddhists term them, restless, dissatisfied and confused, jump about constantly seeking new distractions from the impending doom. And sometimes the deep jungle beckons. Anxiety and its extreme manifestations, depression and schizophrenia, to say nothing of a whole host of other troubles of the mind, are the results of our thoughts run amok. In fact, a little reflection shows that all of the problems addressed by psychoanalysis can be interpreted as reactions of the body-mind to its failures at triumphing over our quotidian existential fears. The fear of death (of the spirit more so than of the body), is Man’s constant and greatest anxiety. “Samsara is dukkha,” taught the Buddha, a statement which I will interpret as “mundane existence is pervaded by infinite dissatisfaction.”

Are we cursed with eternal restlessness? Is incessant mental turmoil a necessary, evolutionary condition for being?

No, it cannot be. Intimations of an abiding inner peace abound in everyday life. We stumble across them, serendipitously. And, in every such experience, peace seeps in as mental activity subsides or ceases. Turns out that you don’t cease to exist if you cease to think. In fact, it may be just the opposite — a state of near thoughtlessness can be enlivening. It may even be worth cultivating.

Most commonly, such experiences can be found in the phenomenon of “flow.” A flow state, also known as “being in the zone,” is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully engrossed, sharply focused and enjoys the process. A state of flow can be experienced in a variety of activities such as painting, drawing, writing, playing a musical instrument, or in any work that requires some expertise. An expert mechanic feels no pain in his arthritic wrists as he plies his skill. For a while, the looming dread recedes. Time passes delightfully quickly.

Another common experience is the so-called runner’s high: A long bout of aerobic exercise, or any kind of repetitive, rhythmic physical activity can induce a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain.

In both these cases, the mind focused on a narrow spectrum of thoughts — or even a single one — ceases its desperate and erratic reactions to threats, either real or imagined. The need to boost our self-esteem recedes into the background, if only temporarily. Our anxieties are on hold.

The benefits of letting thoughts subside are well established in meditative practices, of course. Concentration is the basis of many schools of meditation. Focusing one’s thoughts on one’s breath or on an external object, noticing other thoughts as they arise, bringing the attention back to the object of focus induces a deep experience of peace, reflected also in changes in physiological markers.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the 2500-year old foundational text of the Yoga philosophy of the Hindus, the first injunction is “Chitta-vritti nirodha,” which roughly translates to, “cease the modifications of the mind.” Stop thinking, in other words.

Another example of an ancient practice is the “koan” — a succinct but logically paradoxical statement — a device used by the Zen Buddhists of Japan. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the thought-generating process; as thoughts subside deeper experiences rise to the surface. (An aside: Since the political discourse of the day teems with logical paradoxes, Koan effects may have become commonplace.)

Indeed, Buddhists and yogis cultivate a state of thoughtlessness as a spiritual practice. Stilling the mind is said to reveal one’s true nature, a vision of the divine hidden behind the fog of thoughts. Western religions, too, endorse thoughtlessness as a path to realization: What is to be stilled in the biblical exhortation, “Be still and know that I am God,” is thinking itself.

Metaphysical concerns aside, it is widely accepted that a cultivated thoughtlessness, regularly practiced, can be an effective tool to keep at bay that most dreadful of existential fears: Anxiety, the diffuse but futile fear of spiritual death. Today, meditation is frequently prescribed as therapy for chronic anxiety, though Otto Rank, the noted Austrian psychologist, contemporary of Freud, once maintained that anxiety could not be overcome therapeutically because “it is impossible to stand up to the terror of one’s condition without anxiety.”

In the end the Bible asks what might be the most pertinent of questions on the subject of anxiety: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27).

On the other hand, not thinking so much may add years.

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