(This is the third article I've published in Maya's and her daughter Radhaa's series, Awakening Starseeds, Volumes 1-3. I appreciate the honor of being included…
“Think, and think, and think,” Art advised. Art Brayfield, former head of the American Psychological Association, learned but reclusive, liked my thoughtful sermons and occasional visits. His advice seems truer than ever.
Thinking has gotten a bad rap in my generation. Positivists and quantum speculators would have us believe no thought is accurate or final. Reason and logic, lauded in the Enlightenment, formerly a pillar for Unitarians, get attacked and dismissed even in formerly sensible UU circles as what created and justified patriarchy. Diverse TV and Internet channels have us thinking with widely divergent thoughts. Multiple perspectives and quantum potentials have many doubting they can think.
Without negating thinking altogether, good thinking can doubt itself.
J. Krisnamurti, reared by the Theosophical Society, who then went on his own in the mid-20th century, asked an important existential question: How do you think you know what’s best for you when you’re thinking with a mind made from the problems of the past? We think we know about ourselves, and that’s the problem. Our brains present us with the automatic thoughts born of the past, habitual thoughts that might be leading us astray.
The newer school of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, would have us admit what we think, accept that, but then question it. Is it true? Could there be other usual thoughts that would serve us better? Thinking can mislead, yet it can be crafted to serve us better. More truth. More wholeness.
Consider the morass of cynicism, divisiveness, and anger in the last election and since. We’re new to the wiles of social media. We got used! Facebook had automatic software that would take any emotional statement and feed it back, augmented. They wanted traffic, no matter the crashes that traffic led to, so hyping the hype served them. And nearly ruined us.
Early Facebook feedback algorithms placed five times the value on an angry statement than they put on “likes.” Evermore extreme news feeds and social connections were made. Our society went viral with extremism. We became tribal camps egging each other on, ever more disconnected from what other tribes were saying.
Add to this the usual tendency to miss the log in our own eyes as we pick at the specks in others’ eyes. We get riled up at how dangerous and bad the other camps are, excusing our own camp’s foibles.
Worse, stressful times heighten our paranoia. It’s harder to think when stressed. Cynicism and paranoia led us to distrust our institutions along with each other. Suddenly, the thousands of scientists who have devoted their lives to their field are accused of tricking us about global warming. Thousands of specialists in the FDA or the EPA are said to be in cahoots with some evil cabal out to poison and control us. Suspicious, cynical, accusatory thinking out-spices respectful, boring, rational thought. Those with absolutely no training in climate or vaccine disciplines assert they really know what’s going on. They’ve “researched” it on the Internet. Their tribe agrees.
Thinking is tricky these days.
It’s not new. Machiavelli advised the prince to lie skillfully. George Orwell warned us in 1984 about doublespeak, as in “The Ministry of Love,” where the torture happens. We’re rife with doublespeak. What used to be the Department of War became the Department of Defense. We have “extrajudicial killings,” which sounds more than legal. We created “No Fly Zones” that only we flew in, attacking any radar daring to look at our planes as we prepared to attack Iraq with millions of actual weapons to defend ourselves from the imaginary ones there. We had angry, tribal people attacking our Congress while claiming to be patriots. They beat policemen with their flags to make their deluded point.
Way back in college I learned of Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Lately, it’s called cognitive bias. What happens is we look for evidence and examples of things that reinforce what we already think. We don’t want the dissonance of maybe being wrong. If we buy a Chevy, we notice the Chevy ads.
Double this up by being steered by our own amygdala, the hurt and wary center of our brain that has more influence over our higher, more rational brain than the other way around. A hurt and angry past can feed us with ruminations that never let us be new and whole. Old hurts and fears can steer us all our lives unless we assert a more realistic update. Rational thought and compassion can create new neural structures that we can travel with kindness and creativity instead of being only swamped with typical ruminating cycles of fear or hate or victimhood or depression.
We can think anew but it takes acceptance, self-compassion, and deliberate strengthening of our more positive thoughts. Some thoughts are hard to face. But pain avoided is pain prolonged, while pain acknowledged is pain transformed. Step one: admit what automatic thoughts we tend to have. Step two: question and update them. Step three: dare to be new.
Instead of blundering forth, consider what you think, why, and what that then leads to. Sit with reactions a bit. Look at them objectively and with detachment. Consider responding rather than reacting. Cultivate your higher self by trusting and using it more. When you have a compassionate understanding of yourself, you’ll have it for others. You’re a bit more noble and helpful when you think.
Our big brains require that we be born about three months earlier than animals our size. That way, we get the infant out without crushing its head or killing the mother. But, unlike animals that get born and start following the herd right away, we need to be held, nurtured, sung to. Then our big brains can develop language as we fit into family and culture. What sort of culture does our thinking promote?
Our culture measures its progress with the Gross Domestic Product. While of course, we do that, but trees don’t contribute to it unless they’re cut. Disease and death contribute to it. Other cultures, like Bhutan, measure Gross Domestic Happiness. The Happy Planet Index compares various societies. Ours comes out far lower in that list than we’d like to admit. What’s the point of all this economic and industrial activity if it doesn’t make us happy and healthy? Admitting it is the first step to improving it.
Wouldn’t it be a shame and a waste to deny, defile, and trick our brains by shaming them, or keeping them stupid, gullible, or obedient? That’s my gripe with how the Garden of Eden mythic story is told, that they were disobedient to think for themselves. Of course, that “knowledge of good and evil” led them to become estranged from the good they originally were. They were naked and unashamed. Then they fell into shame, blame, and pain. Rather than be punished for disobedience, they (we) should question their (our) “knowledge.” More thinking is needed to unthink such subtle, alienated deception.
Thinking isn’t all we do, but it is one of the best things we were born to do. It isn’t always easy, and we learn as we go. We need each other’s thinking, but not manipulated, tribal, and lopsided, as Facebook was doing to us, not lazy and unmindful like we tend to get. In theological terms, we’re units of the universal, outposts of God’s own desire and best self, co-creators with The Creation. Think, but be aware of it; be more you, more new, more whole.
So, yeah, I like what Art Brayfield had to say, “Think, and think, and think.”