Thinking better

I think about thought a lot. More accurately, I think about being conscious. It seems to me the central question to be asked and answered. By science, by religion.

For example, when I accept the Jesus as my Savior, who exactly is He saving? because “me” is a very nebulous entity. Not always there, as they say.

Unpacking a little, we know we have experiences, even in the womb. These experiences ensure that I am never ever entering the world as a blank slate. And upon entering I continue accumulating experiences, which also are dependent on things outside my control: inherited DNA, socioeconomic status of my parents, the moment in history I am born into, and so on. Basically, everyone is born with a spoon in their mouths – for some people it is a wooden spoon while for others it is a silver one.

As my brain develops, the experiences are encoded on layer upon layer of connections, until they coagulate into thoughts. These thoughts then guide me towards further experiences (and way from others). Thoughts, basically judgements on the safety/desirability of whatever experience, react to my personally accumulated, though impersonally filtered, experiences. It looks backwards and then projects in a calculus of survival.

The problem comes when we live so divorced from our embedded, embodied software that we cannot use it for pretty much anything apart from communication. Not saying communication (intra and inter, infra and supra) is a bad thing. But the reality is that all my aversions/attractions are programs to make me survive in the wild *without having to think*. This is both curious and important.

We then use this survival tool, our intellect, to think. It seems the most obvious use of it, but I am increasingly unconvinced of it. I do not think (hah!) thinking should be used this way…it can be clearly seen in the deadening clarity of naturalism when reading the myopic statements of someone like Francis Crick, who says “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons,” one has to be grateful. There is a clarity there – the clarity of rushing at full speed down a road only to realize that it is a dead-end and there is a brick wall in front of you. The same is true of saccharine pious statements which punt the hard questions to an afterlife.

So we have this really cool thing just idling, and we want to use it. How should we use it? I am proposing that how we are using it now is, if not totally wrong, then certainly misguided.

Perhaps this would be a better way of saying it: we misuse our capacity for thinking when we use to it focus on creating pain and pleasure, repulsion and attraction, by projecting from past (suspiciously reconstructed) experience into a fantasy called future.

From fantasy to fantasy is all my thinking. St. Gregory talks about our interiority as being ruled by “passions” (irrational), and he saw these as being somehow exterior from your real self. Anthony of the Desert also regards our passions as “animal traits.” This is a common position in monastic thinking across all religions. It is, in fact, a cornerstone of the apologetic for a monastic program: our regular thoughts are like wild animals that must be tamed, or at least mastered, to become useful. Again and again monastic life asks: if someone is dominated by their passions can they be considered fully human? Can someone be considered a “potential human”? Without being able to do some inner work someone is surrendering their self to outside forces. This, in my view, is how the language of “bondage to sin” is helpful. Sinful living, then, becomes not an exploration of freedom, but rather a deliberate decision to be subhuman, and less free.

Am I doomed, though, to always fail, because I am incapable of living without relying on inferior thinking? Not always. And I more and more drawn towards those other moments of other-thinking, which are not fantasies. Moments of deep prayer. Moments of poetry. Moments of great leaps of thinking in understanding of reality. All the great moments when one person overcomes the immense invisible barriers that separate them from their neighbor, and they reach out and touch and help and love – and fear ends.


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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