I have been musing (not really thinking) about the qualities and purposes of thought. Being a woman in long term recovery I have a guarded relationship with my brain. There are times it give me good information, helps me consider outcome and consequences. It can offer me freedom as I wander around with creative imagination untethered by practicality, a kind of free floating space where everything is possible. It can also vere back into the realm of free floating anxiety or the rusts (samskara) of negative thinking. There are also mental machinations that can be a combination of these and more.
In 12 step recovery rooms we often have signs posted on the wall to help us recenter and come back to the activity at hand: getting well. One of these signs is “Think, Think, Think”. Sometimes good advice, other times not so much. In my experience it depends on the day (my mental wellbeing) and the topic of the thoughts.
There are occasions when acute mental focus is required. I need to bring all my consciousness to bear in order to unravel a process, to provide critical and analytical thinking, or perhaps just to complete a task at hand. This skill was not available to me in early recovery. It took me a while to stay focussed. It took me a while to re-engage memory in an accurate and reliable way. It took me a while to disentangle emotions from my interpretation of reality. It took time.
I needed to be able to cast my imagination into the future combining the experience of my past. This skill is needed to be able to predict consequences. Sure, I was told what outcomes might occur from relapsing into old behaviors: sexual, substance, rage or retaliation, withdrawal or manipulation as well as drinking or using again. I needed to bring these potential results into my conscious mind and reflect on them quickly before I took action. I needed to think it through.
I also have come to value those times when thinking is not a practical process but an unhinged meandering, a place of freedom where there is no outcome required, just the pleasant freedom of creativity.
A recent article by the talented Derek Beres states:
The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work. (http://preview.tinyurl.com/y9pwdrab )
So even thinking about thinking isn’t linear but a combination of forms of thought.
My danger area is perseverant thought: that thought wheel that goes around and around, remaining in the same rut; most often one of negativity, self doubt, self recrimination or anxiety. Overwhelmed with “why did I…” and “I am not…” “I can’t…”, “I don’t…” or “I should…” it begins a downward spiral into a depressive abyss. This negative thinking can become an end in itself, a thought process that keeps me in the past. This past, real or outsized according to my imagination at the time, has a processing sub-routine of curling in on itself to run again and again from the beginning, no focus, no analysis, no creativity; just a pattern of thinking and rethinking. This is not useful. This is the thinking that needs to be redirected and eventually eradicated.
This is where self awareness, kind self-talk and the gifts of both self study and meditation come into play. First I realize this thinking pattern is not healthy. I kindly ask myself to pause, to just put in the clutch mentally. I pull myself into the present moment and ask those questions one would when speaking aloud to another:
This is often enough to soften my heart in order that some compassion slip in and I ask myself what I need right now. Rest? Company? Help in some way? Perhaps a sit down with a cup of tea or a snack. Taking care of myself allows me to bring some lightness into my thinking. I can get out of the rut (samskara) of old thinking patterns.
I may not take this exact moment to meditate; my prior meditation practice has prepared me for this moment, this moment when thoughts can be allowed to float away. I can request of my brain more successfully that these ruminations no longer form the whole of my consciousness. I can disengage from them. I have experience from my meditation practice that I CAN release thought, and I can now use as a model…for more release.
Thoughts are not an end unto themselves; they can be a vehicle to peace, creativity and a greater world understanding, when we train and care for them.