Thinking About Thinking And Not Thinking


I think about things. It’s my first instinct when I approach anything. My mind works quickly to size up, make sense, and spin whatever it is — situation, text, idea — in such a way that I can readily process and play with it. I don’t like letting things sit in a haze, vague and inchoate. I turn whatever I encounter into a structure that resonates with me, that’s digested. And just as a rock climber might crave a certain degree of difficulty, I prefer thinking about complex things.

I want to say I see ideas. But it’s not quite visual in any common sense of the term. My son is a visual thinker. He literally sees ideas, creating storyboards, comic books, drawings. His thinking enjoys shape, color, and narrative. Not me. Sure, I see shapes and moving parts but it’s all rather abstract. However, it’s never nebulous. On the contrary, it’s quite precise, a contrived combination of gesture, mechanics, and mood. I sense how the idea works, its logical and mechanical connections, its terms of operation (narrative is a kind of logic but enjoys different connective tissue than mechanics or logic). My thinking is more gestural than imagistic; indeed, I gesticulate a lot as I think.

Unlike my son and artist friends of mine, I don’t see pictures of things. I don’t see colors, not really. I see lots of greys and darker outlines and feel how the idea happens in my veins and various appendages. Thinking, for me, is vibratory and usually happens throughout my body — even if we like to think that thinking happens in the brain. I suppose my thinking forms some kind of outline or schematic of the idea, a blueprint of a sort.

If my son thinks with images, I think with words. Words enjoy affect and sensation but in a very different way than images. Words are less visually aggressive. They’re monochromatic squiggles that carry and conjure concepts and moods but are not much of anything by themselves. (Which makes words magical and exceedingly odd.)

In any case, all understanding is a kind of sensation, a palpable yet invisible intensity and resonance. When I don’t understand, I get agitated, experiencing a kind of existential dyspepsia. When I do understand, especially something complex, I feel a surge of well being, everything moving along smoothly, a dose of existential fiber.

(Part of thinking is to come at ideas with others ideas. These pre-canned ideas can prejudice engagement with the new thing so that there is no actual thinking, just a fitting into an existing schema. This is always a risk.)

Usually, once I understand an idea — once I see how its parts work together — I let it move around my body, permeate my tissues. I want to know how it makes me feel, if it sits well with me. I love that phrase sits well with me. I suppose that is my test for what some people call truth: it’s true if the idea feels right to me. In this case, truth is a matter of whether the idea resonates with me, is something I can use to explain things to myself or others in such a way that I am at once excited and at ease. I test whether it fits with my style, fuels my being, and somehow excites me (I’m not sure this is the best standard).

“The main reason I think I enjoy thinking so much is that it gives me a sense of control. It affords me a semblance of certainty in a world that is anything but.”

There are many ideas I presumably understand but never incorporate into my way of going. For instance, the Hegelian dialectic. I’ve read quite a bit of Hegel; I even did my doctoral exams on him. But I never believed him. Well, that’s not quite right for it’s not really a matter of belief. It’s a matter of speed and shape, of metabolism. Which is to say, his ideas, his writing, his shtick never incorporated itself into my modus operandi. The dialectic always struck me as so much nonsense. I know people who love and spout Hegel. Not me. It just never sat well with me, like calves’ liver and roller coasters.

Sometimes, an idea doesn’t make sense to me no matter how long I think about it. This is certainly true of Newtonian physics. I’ve never understood what happens when you drop a ball from a moving train, regardless of how many times it’s been explained to me. I believe the word for this failure of mine is stupidity. It’s all so much gobbledygook to me.

And then there is Hagakure, the Way of the Samurai. The darn thing downright baffles me; I can’t see how the parts fit together – one minute I’m being told always to use a toothpick, even if I didn’t eat, and the next I’m being told to embrace a certain mania for death. But maybe I find it so difficult because it doesn’t actually proffer ideas. I’m using the wrong tools, taking a hammer to water: I’m thinking precisely where thinking isn’t called for. (Kierkegaard says faith begins where thinking leaves off; faith is its own very strange kind of sense making.)

The main reason I think I enjoy thinking so much is that it gives me a sense of control. It affords me a semblance of certainty in a world that is anything but. Thinking bolsters my ego, makes me believe I’m in control because I can understand — even when the idea is about abandoning control! I understand ideas about never understanding! I think and then nod in my head as if I’m certain — even if the idea is fundamentally about uncertainty!

I’m not just saying that there’s a distinction between knowing the path and walking the path. I’m saying that knowing the path often prevents walking the path.

This is one thing that has always made me suspicious of academia: academics know things. They are rarely perplexed, confounded, or even excited. Grad school is about learning to be in control, to be the expert — to be the one who knows. I learned all these ideas about the death of the author, iteration, repetition, and multiplicity, ideas about the relationship between power and knowledge. And yet I was always in a position of knowing, of having to put forth my take in a paper or lecture. I was being taught to nod along to ideas that asked me not to nod along. 

And now all I want is not to know and I don’t know how to do it. I want not to think but my mind and body won’t stop. My will to know and, worse, to be the one who knows is keeping me from life. It reinforces my ego, providing a temporary and all-too-precarious shelter, as if I could understand life. But then people die and shit happens and thinking fails me, leaving me in a puddle of tears, confusion, and anxiety. All knowing comes to an end; all understanding is futile. By thinking, I try to build a buttress against the teem and flow of a universe that is infinite and relentless and doesn’t give a shit about my ability to make sense. While I understand the idea of surrendering to the cosmic flow, this understanding prevents me from actually surrendering. Thinking gives me a sense of control precisely when I should feel neither control nor lack of control.

I’m not saying that I should or will stop thinking. I’m saying I want to change my relationship to thinking. The fact is, for me, thinking is fun. It’s a kind of exercise and, frankly, it’s a delight. But I don’t want it to yield ego, to yield a state of knowing. I want it to be an activity like knitting, cooking, or kite surfing — something pleasurable to do while I’m alive. At least I think that’s what I want.