I’ve been thinking about thinking. (And now, as I write this, I guess I’m thinking about thinking about thinking—as well as thinking about dreaming!)
A central aspect of my own spiritual practice is my effort to become aware of what brings me more into alignment with the intricate patterns of all life, and what tends to knock me out of alignment. Even though I’m in awe of the amazing powers of the thinking mind—it’s clearer and clearer the older I get that most of my thinking knocks me out of sync. My everyday habits of thought regularly waste energy, contribute to suffering (for me, and sometimes others), and can definitely prevent me from being fully present and in tune with the world around me.
Some basic planning, organizing, remembering, rehearsing, reflecting, creative cognitive processing, etc. is useful, of course. But really, an awful lot of the stuff that’s going through my head is repetitive, self-perpetuating worries or complaints. I tell myself stories that define me, so that I can keep thinking I know who I am. Maybe your thoughts are more elevated than this? More meaningful? Just listen to yourself for a while and see what you think…
The bottom line is that most (if not all) thinking—even the loftiest, most enjoyable, or most necessary thinking—takes us out of the present moment. The vast majority of thought refers to something either in the past or in the future, something not here and not now.
How does the world look, sound, feel, smell, taste—right now? What is this experience? Yes, some thought responses arise almost instantly even in the moment of experiencing… Yet, if I’m not swept away by my thoughts, not entirely persuaded by the story I’m telling myself about something that happened or didn’t happen or may happen or should happen—well, then I can be just where I am.
Personally, I know that too much thinking makes me pretty unhappy. Each thought has a very convincing argument for its own importance, but collectively they wear me down and make my world seem suffocatingly small.
Just as an experiment, I’ve been dropping every thought as soon as I notice it’s taking over my mind—bringing myself back to what’s happening now—and I’m finding that not a single one of those thoughts was as significant as it claimed to be! Within moments, I forget what I was thinking about, and it really doesn’t matter. My world doesn’t fall apart, in fact, it gets clearer and richer—like an intriguing, and unexpectedly detailed, dream world.
The work being done by the dreaming brain is strikingly similar to that of the waking brain, but there are a few telling differences. Regions of the brain associated with imagination and metaphor are more active in dreaming than in waking. Areas associated with emotion are also more active, and areas associated with cognitive thought are less active. So, broadly speaking, in dreams, we tend to feel more and think less.
Research on the dreams of depressed people (by Rosalind Cartwright and others) suggests that the way they dream can have a lot to do with how likely they are to recover from their depression. In general, depressed people have more active cognitive brains when awake than do non-depressed people. A depressed person who has “normal” dreams—with higher emotion and lower thought than when awake—is more likely to recover from depression, and there are indications that these dreams (especially highly emotional dreams, even if the emotions are negative) may contribute to healing.
Those depressed people who did not show significant recovery from their depression often were having somewhat abnormal dreams that seemed to perpetuate the patterns of the waking depression. Although the emotional areas of the brain were more active (as in normal dreaming), the cognitive areas were also unusually active. In other words, even in the dream world, these depressed people got no relief from their overactive thinking processes.
I’ve found this to be true in my own experience with depression. When I was most deeply depressed, my dreams seemed to perpetuate the over-thinking processes of my waking mind. But most of the time, my dreams—whether pleasant or unpleasant—seemed to give me a glimpse of the immediacy of emotional experience, and relieve me of the burden of excessive thought. Such dreams seemed to contribute to my healing.
On an ordinary day like today (not in the midst of depression, but not euphoric either) I take a walk as if it were a meditation, or as if it were a dream… I keep noticing that I’m lost in one of my preoccupying thoughts, and I let the thought go (in spite of its objections) and just notice the world around me and how my body feels. I do this over and over, because more thoughts are continually coming along.
Each time I return to the moment, the world seems vivid and full of life. I think (is it a thought?) that this is the way I often perceive things in dreams:
Look at the layers of textures and colors, the light and sound, the infinite detail! How remarkable it is that each young tree at the nursery has a bright yellow tag—some fluttering in the wind, some not. And that four-foot tall shiny steel box with a door and two handles on one side, vents on another side… what is it for? why is it here? That trail curving away up the hill, with a mossy brick wall alongside… how mysterious!
If I were lucid dreaming, I’d be astounded at the creative abundance of this awesome dream world—and I can be just as astonished at this awesome waking world!
I’m not advocating that we stop thinking, but I am suggesting that interrupting the cycles of thought that become our whole reality can make for a fresh view, and a deeper experience of living as it unfolds. Taking a break from being caught up in thought can make the real world more real. In fact, reality can even be as wonderfully real as a dream!