The Thinking Epidemic

What happens when we allow ourselves to be completely defined by the thinking mind? What are the consequences of such a thing? This is turns out to be a crucially important question for two reasons – one reason being that we are all allowing ourselves to be completely defined (as if this were unquestionably a ‘good thing’) and the other being that the consequences of us allowing this are both extraordinarily far-reaching, and not at all good.


It’s not just ourselves we are defining – we are busy defining everything in sight! This is what thinking does, and we are all the grip of a mighty ‘thinking academic’, whether we realise it or not. Somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine that letting the thinking mind take over (which inevitably means letting it define everything in sight) is what ‘progress’ (or ‘positive human advancement’) is all about. We are as a result in the throes of some kind of supposing growth spasm whereby, it seems to us, we are in the process of ‘thinking our way to greatness’. A glorious future is unfolding for us – or so we fondly imagine!


It’s not really ‘greatness’ that we’re thinking  our way to however – a better way of describing our destination would be to say that it involves ‘complete immersion in some kind of pointless, time-absorbing rational game which has nothing to do with life itself (although it claims – of course – that it does). We never tire of saying that what we are collectively doing is ‘celebrating life’ but nothing could be further from the truth! We not celebrating life – we are denying it. That’s what this pernicious business ‘defining everything’ (and ‘analyzing/organizing everything’) business really comes down to – the denial of life.


The process whereby thought insidiously categorizes and analyses and organizes everything it encounters under the pretext of ‘helping us’ can be seen as a form of ‘prototype bureaucracy’ that creeps up on us and, without us realising what is going on. The justification of the bureaucratic yoke is – as always – that it is serving us as a valuable tool which will facilitate us in living life in a better kind of a way. The end result is however always the complete opposite of this – bureaucracies choke life rather than facilitating it. Bureaucracies, we might say, ‘have no natural predators’ – there is nothing to prune them, nothing to limit them, nothing to stop them growing out of all proportion to their potential usefulness. The unspoken promise is always that once the necessary regulations have been obeyed, then we can get on with the important business of ‘living life to the full’ but the fact it is but the fact is that this just never happens – the bureaucracy just keeps on growing and growing until one day it actually substitutes itself for life, which was its ‘aim’ all along so to speak. ([It doesn’t have ‘an aim’ really of course, that’s just what it does.]


This is as true for actual bureaucracies as it is for the bureaucracy of thought, and if we can’t see this to be true then we really do need to shake the sawdust out of our heads! If we can’t see this to be true then this is because the insidious process of ‘bureaucratization has set in too thoroughly, has taken root too deeply, with the result that we can no longer ‘see the wood for the trees’. We started off this discussion what the consequences of us letting thought ‘run the show ‘ and organize the whole shebang for us according to its rules, its criteria, and its values, might be. We can take a stab at answering this question by saying quite simply that the consequences are that we become  as time goes on more and more alienated from all that is good (or ‘wholesome’) in life. The process is inevitably going to leave us very effectively disconnected from all that is wholesome in life and this disconnection – we may say – lies at the root of the ‘crisis in mental health’ that we are now witnessing at the start of the 21st century.


It might sound melodramatic to talk in terms of an ‘epidemic’ of thinking – people nowadays need to think anymore nor any less than they used to, we might argue. People think a lot – that’s fairly normal! There is a difference now though. In recent times we have, to a considerable extent, ‘externalised’ our thinking; out of our thinking we create this ‘designed world’ and then – as David Bohm says – this designed or constructed world ‘reaches back’ and thinks us! Or as we could also say, we determine our environment and then that environment turns the tables on us and determines us. We construct the designed world in time terms of our purposes, and then these very same purposes effectively trap us.


This is an old and familiar motif and we really ought to pay more attention to it than we do! There are a number of ways that the motif may show itself: the articer is trapped by his own artifice; the mechanical servant we create gets the better of us; the wish-fulfilling genie that we have let out of the bottle turns out to be more than we have bargained for… The lesson in all these tales is – we might say – that we should be careful what we ask for, because we might get it. Wishes are dangerous things! All machines involve a ‘simplifying down’ of the world – that’s what a machine (or a ‘model’) is – it’s an oversimplification of the world.  Stuff is (necessarily) left out. The peril here therefore is that we are very likely indeed to fall into the trap of mistaking the oversimplification of the world for the real thing. Or to put this in a slightly different way, we make a choice about ‘how to see the world’ and then some strange type of amnesia sets in and we forget that we have made a choice. We forget that there was any choice involved. This is what getting ‘lost in thought’ is all about – thought is a ‘choice we make about how to see the world’, only we never seem to remember that it is just a ‘choice’! We forget that our model is only ‘a model’.


What we are talking about here is remarkably simple and straightforward, and yet it turns out to be rather difficult to put into words. There’s an art in talking simply about things, and that art does not come easily. Carl Jung talks about our overvaluing of the rational faculty resulting in ‘a soul sickness’; and says that this malady manifests itself in terms of a profound lack of meaning in our lives. Of all the possible deficiencies that we might suffer from, this is without question the most insidious. For the most part, most of us would probably deny that we are suffering from any such thing. For me to admit to a ‘profound lack of meaning’ my life would be – in the current vernacular – tantamount admitting to being a ‘loser’; having no meaning in one’s life isn’t exactly what you would call ‘a success story’, after all!


It’s not usually the case that we deliberately pretend to have a meaningful life when we don’t; the lack of meaning that Jung is speaking about doesn’t ‘honestly manifest itself’ in the early stages of the process – that only happens right at the end. We could actually go so far as to say that it’s not the ‘lack of meaning’ itself that is the problem, but our inability to see it. There’s a very good reason why we are blind to the lack of meaning in our lives and that is – we might say – because we are so fixated on the arena of the outer life, that we entirely lose sight of the inner. It’s not just that we are ‘fixated on the outer life’ either; that’s not putting it strongly enough – we’re so entirely fixated on the outer life (i.e. the ‘show’ that is going on outside of us) that we don’t even know that there is such a thing as ‘the inner life’! For us, that simply doesn’t exist…


It doesn’t seem right to say this, of course. It doesn’t seem fair to say that we ‘have no awareness of the life that is going on within us’ because we all do perceive ourselves to be in touch with the internal world of feelings and emotions and cogitations. Sometimes it’s very busy in there; sometimes it’s so busy that it’s completely overwhelming, and so of course we know it’s there! The point is though that thoughts and the emotions that are brought about by thoughts, aren’t what we mean by ‘an inner life’ (or ‘a sense of interiority’); the true inner life is independent of what seems to be going on outside of us rather than being a mere reflection of (or ‘reaction to’) the outside world and the events taking place there. Similarly, our inner life isn’t a function of the thinking process, but rather it is ‘other than it’; the inner world is ‘its own thing’ so to speak, and not a mere ‘back-projection’ of the outside world, or an extension of the rational thinking process. The inner world is quintessentially ‘discontinuous’ with that rational mind – it belongs to another realm entirely.


The ‘external world’ (which is the world that is created by our thoughts and rule-based perceptions) has its own form of ‘meaning’. This isn’t really ‘meaning’ at all when it comes down to it but a system of motivation that is based upon’ reward and punishment’. It is of course easy to see how such a motivational system can substitute itself for ‘meaning’ – if I am yearning to achieve something that is going to bring about a very big reward if I succeed, then I’m very likely to say that ‘working towards this big reward’ is highly meaningful to me! Everything seems meaningful to me in terms of this final, all-eclipsing goal – the goal ‘gives meaning’ to what I’m doing. It ‘gives meaning to my life’, even. What we talking about is only a very superficial form of meaning however. It’s not meaning at all really since ‘steps towards the goal’ are only meaningful in terms of that goal, not in terms of themselves. Things are not ‘meaningful in themselves’ therefore. The moment is not ‘meaningful in itself’, but only in terms of a projected (i.e. ‘illusionary’) future!


So if we say that working towards the goal is a genuine form of meaning then we are saying something very peculiar indeed – we are claiming that seeing everything in life in terms of some projected future state (rather than appreciating it for what it is in itself) actually constitutes a genuinely wholesome and perfectly satisfactory way to live life. But it just plain isn’t – this is a very empty way to live life, it’s a way of going about things that is just not going to ‘feed our soul’ at all. What feeds the soul (so to speak) is the world as it actually is in itself, not the world as it appears when it seen as some kind of ‘stepping stone’ to a projected future state which is itself – when it comes down to it – no more than our own vacuous mental projection.


This brings us to the nub of the whole issue – the only type of meaning that the thinking mind produces is the type of meaning that is related to its own mental projections. There are two possible types of ‘mental projection’ – one is the type which we are attracted to, and the other is a type which we fear. There is the ‘reward’, and there is the ‘punishment’, in other words; these are the two types of projection that are created by the thinking mind. When we say that we find life ‘meaningful in terms of our goals’ then what this means is that we find life meaningful in terms of our attachments, which is to say, we find life meaningful in terms of the ‘projected world which we have mistaken or confused for the real one’. This is clearly absurd! How can we ever talk about ‘life’s meaning’ if we never see through the murky illusions of the thinking mind to life itself, which is what we are supposedly talking about?


The whole question of ‘meaning’ is very confusing; it is not at all as straightforward as we think it is. ‘Life itself’ is not a projection and so it doesn’t actually hold any meaning to us in the way that we understand the word! Obviously, when I talk about ‘meaning’ I mean ‘meaning in relation to me’ (i.e. ‘a subjective sense of meaning as it is determined by my own personal model of reality’); the unprojected world (i.e. the real world!) has no meaning in this sense. Because it’s not my projection it has nothing to do with me, and if it has nothing to do with me how can it be said to have meaning for me? If it’s not a function of my model or map then how can it be meaningful in relation to this model or map? The whole notion of life ‘having a meaning’ is problematic therefore; the way we use the word is referential, which is to say, it is meaningful only in terms of my own arbitrary viewpoint, only in terms of the game I am playing. The magic or mystery of life is however precisely that we are not projecting ourselves (or our ‘mental maps’) ahead of us wherever we go so although people often say that we ourselves are responsible for the meaning that life has (i.e.  that ‘we make our own meaning’) this is a type of ‘inverted truth’!


We don’t make meaning at all; what we make something very different – we make up games, we impose our own ‘private meaning’ on the world, but all of this is quite sterile. It is sterile because it’s only ‘us reflected right back at ourselves’ – it’s like looking in a mirror. When we define the world (or define ourselves) the result is always a perfect tautology. For us not to see that defining the world always produces a sterile self-referential reality is the most tremendous lack of insight. It is at the same time of course entirely to be expected given our proclivity for idolising rationality, but it is nevertheless a tremendous lack of insight! This state of affairs is what Professor James Carse calls ‘the silencing of the gods’ –

There is an irony in our silencing of the gods. By presuming to speak for the unspeakable, by hearing our own voice as the voice of nature, we have had to step outside the circle of nature. …

Forgetting that the way we have chosen to see the world is only a choice is what places us ‘outside the circle of nature’ – it is precisely this that traps us in ‘the tautology that we cannot see to be such’. We can’t really place ourselves outside the circle of nature of course, as James Carse goes on to say. We can’t really do anything that isn’t an expression of our own inalienable freedom. We’re only ‘outside the circle of nature’ on our own terms, the terms that we ourselves have made up. The thing is, however, that these are the only terms we believe in!