“Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?”
Winnie the Pooh
“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
When I was younger I used to think that thinking was the best thing since sliced bread. So I thought. And though and thought. And then I thought some more. It had some wonderful and positive effects such as helping me to get good grades in school.
But on the other hand this thinking was also trapping me and limiting me in various ways. One of my biggest insights in recent years is that there are a lot of both positive and negative sides to how you think. So learning to use my thinking in a better way has become a main focus and also one of the most beneficial things I have ever done.
Now, this may sound a little vague so I let's explore some of the facets of thinking with the timeless help from clever people that have gone before us.
1. You are what you think.
“As you think, so shall you become.”
Understanding this is essential to start thinking in more useful ways.
It's perhaps the most basic statement of how we work. Think about what you are thinking today. What do those thoughts say about you? About your life? And how well do they really match your plans for your life and your image of yourself?
It's easy to forget about this simple statement in everyday life. It's easy to be quite incongruent with what you think on an ordinary day compared to how you view yourself and your goals. A simple external reminder such as a post-it with this quote can be helpful to keep you and your thoughts on the right track. A brilliant and beautiful expansion on this thought can be found in James Allen's “As a man thinketh”.
2. Thinking has its place.
“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
“Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action. Twice would have been quite enough.”
Thinking has its place. But it can never replace action. I sometimes think there is some kind of wish when overthinking that thinking will somehow replace action. A wish that if you just think enough you can find some easy way out. Or get what you want without having to actually do something.
Without taking action you'll most likely not get what you want. Thinking is however seldom as scary or uncertain as taking the leap into the unknown and taking action.
So it can become a place where you hide from taking action and then rationalize to yourself in different ways how all this thinking will help you. Even though you know deep down that what you really want and need is to take action and get going.
3. Your mind can become a prison.
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.”
Franklin D Roosevelt
“It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”
Thinking isn't always all it may be cracked up to be.
What you believe about yourself and the world is what you will see and find. Here's the big problem though: when you are in your prison cell you can't see it. You think your beliefs and what see is reality and that it has you boxed in. But it's just a perspective.
So you have to take a leap of faith and try out a new belief and viewpoint to actually experience a change in your world. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking: “well, when I see some proof of this being true then I might make a change in how I think”.
Such reasoning doesn't really work that well because it's just theory and it's seen from your current perspective. Your mind won't allow you to see what isn't aligned with your current beliefs. Or you will just disregard it as nonsense or something that may work for someone else but not you. You mind wants to keep your perspective of the world stable.
I think it's better to think about what would be most beneficial for me. Yes, you may see a lot of proof in the world that your current negative attitude is the correct one to have. But don't you think a positive attitude would be even more useful to make you happy and successful?
4. We are emotional creatures.
“People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by the heart which first dictates the conclusion, then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.”
Anthony de Mello
“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
It's alluring to think you are someone in complete control. Someone who controls his/her life with a good head on those shoulders.
But your emotions play a huge role. Sure, everyone likes to think of themselves as smart and in control. And the mind is fond of thinking that it's in pretty much complete control too.
The thought that what we do is often based in an emotional response to something that happens to us and we later on rationalize as the right thing to do isn't as appealing. The ego that is based in the awesomeness of human thinking doesn't like that. Such theories may make us seem just a bit too much like animals for the ego to be happy about it.
This may sound a bit depressing but I also think it is very important to keep in mind. So you don't blindly follow what your thoughts are telling you. So you become more attentive to your emotions (and other people's emotions too). And so you can make decisions that are more based in what's helpful and positive rather than for example based on old emotional fear patterns you may have.
Word and thoughts are important in our lives. But don't underestimate the importance and power of emotions.
5. Think for yourself.
“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too”
This is not always easy though. But it is very important to learn to trust your own judgement and thoughts.
It's easy to assume that someone that you view as an authority is telling is the truth. There is however just opinions, no matter who is speaking. Sure, it can sometimes be easier to just do what someone else says. It takes some of the responsibility off you for your life (you can always blame them when things go wrong). And taking it the other way and becoming totally unreasonable is of course not helpful either.
But you have to make yourself the highest authority in your life. It can't be your parents, boss or some personal development guru.
Let other people think for themselves. Listen to what they have to say.
But find a lot more freedom within and in your world by holding your own opinion the highest.
6. Don't worry what others are thinking about you.
“At the age of 20, we don't care what the world thinks of us; at 30, we worry about what it is thinking of us; at 40, we discover that it wasn't thinking of us at all.”
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.”
The biggest part of thinking and doing what you really want is to stop caring so much about what other people think of you.
A lot of the actions you take – or do not take – may be because you need approval from other people. When we are young we get grades in school that tells us that we are “good”. This makes it very easy to create a life where you always go looking for the world to give you the next hit of approval. It may be from your family, boss, friends, co-workers and so on.
But this need creates neediness. And the stronger the need the stronger the neediness. And so other people will sense this. And approval may be withheld or used to manipulate you. Or they may just not like your neediness.
The people on the other hand that does not care that much about getting approval often do more of what they want deep inside. They may be considered courageous for instance. So the way they live their lives will gain appreciation and approval from the people around them. It's a bit counter-intuitive.
7. When you think, think in a constructive way.
“The ‘how' thinker gets problems solved effectively because he wastes no time with futile ‘ifs'.”
Norman Vincent Peale.
It's very easy to spend your time thinking and imagining all the horrible things that may happen if you stand up and face the obstacles and troubles in life. But if you actually do that those negative images seldom come into life. They are just huge monsters that you build in your mind. Just like you did when you were a kid and imagined monsters in the closet or under your bed.
When you actually stand up and face your obstacles you may find that the experience isn't as bad as you imagined. Sometimes it's actually a bit anti-climatic. You think to yourself: “What?! Is this it?”.
So, after having done some thinking about how to go about doing something don't fall into the trap of overthinking and monster-building. Just go and do what you need to do instead.
8. Don't think. Just be here now.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.”
“True salvation is freedom from negativity, and above all from past and future as a psychological need.”
Many times the best thing you can do is to not think at all. Well, maybe it's a bit of thinking, I don't really know but it's like your mind is empty. You are fully present in this moment. Without dozens of thoughts running through your mind like a wild river. There is stillness within. This is not just a very enjoyable state of mind. It is also practically perhaps the most useful state of mind.
Because when you are present your focus is not split. Your thoughts are not in the past or future. And so there is very little fear or negative emotions inside of you.
This is the perfect state of mind to take action. When you do something while being present the anxiety or fear that comes from thinking about for example the future (“will I lose this race?”) disappears. This increases the quality of whatever you do while being present.
Being present also makes you more creative because you let your subconscious puzzle together impressions and concepts until you get an idea. Often in the shower or someplace like that. Because there you aren't actively thinking about a solution. Your subconscious gets some space to work while you focus your conscious mind on not getting soap in the eyes.
Finally, being present makes any activity more enjoyable because the suffering you may feel often comes from a split focus or just too much thoughts running around in your head.
My favorite way to reconnect with the present moment right now it to see everything as I was seeing it for the first time. I imagine it like that, I take that role.
Like someone who has never experienced this before. Like a child or someone who has never been here before. I like this one and I have been doing it from time to time for years (although back then I didn't really understand why it felt nice when I did it).