I Think

Thinking is paradoxical. Thinking completely separates me from the world; thinking reunites me with it to the highest degree.

Do you remember when you first became aware of thinking? For me, it must have been around age five, when I discovered I could have a secret. My mind became a place of exploration: an “inner” that was mine alone, different from and yet somehow in conversation with an “outer.” Back then, I didn’t know I was thinking or that others were doing it, too. It simply felt wonderfully, deliciously alive.

Now, many, many years later, I’m invited to write an essay on thinking solely from the perspective of personal experience. What a challenge. What an opportunity! Taking the hand of my childlike wonder, I go explore thinking from the inside. What is it like to be a thinking creature?

I spend a week going about asking myself, “Is this thinking?” Are we thinking when we dream? Or when we listen to music? What about reading or writing? Is remembering also thinking? There seems to be a never-ending conversation going on in my head. Is this thinking? If I try to stop it, what part of me is doing that? Is this thinking, too? I don’t try to analyze any of this—I just experience the different qualities of thinking as it ebbs and flows through my day.

I try observing thinking while I write. This is odd. There is no perceptible point at which ideas become sentences—words just flow onto the page. But then I pause. Something isn’t quite right. Thinking changes direction, feeling around, groping for the right words, until there’s a moment—a resonance—yes, that’s it! And suddenly, the words align as if of their own accord, and the thought forms on paper.

Attention isn’t thinking—attention gives thinking a direction. Thinking isn’t insight—thinking prepares the ground for insight. Thinking is active, and it is receptive—it is a questioning listening. Everything it encounters is a riddle, yearning to be taken on a journey of discovery.

What Would It Be Like to Not Think At All?

I sit on a boulder in the forest, look at a tree, and try to not think. Can I just “be present?” I place my attention on the tree but find myself just staring at it, feeling a bit cold and empty. It is winter here; the tree is bare, and the air is still. Nothing is moving—except thinking. I discover that thinking can’t be eliminated from presence, because presence is neither numb nor dumb. Thinking is what gently, softly, reverently reaches toward the tree, asking, “Who are you?”

So, I follow that inclination. At first, I only notice details—textures, shapes, colors. They seem somehow unconnected to the tree. Then thinking moves through the details, putting them together, as if growing the tree in my mind. Rough ridges on the trunk gradually give way to smooth skin on the upper limbs. Branches divide into thinner and thinner extensions, in a distinct pattern. Tiny buds on the tips of branches are poised to burst into fresh spring leaves. This thinking doesn’t make me feel less “present” to the tree. I actually start to feel more connected to it.

Thinking continuously takes things apart, separating out the details; thinking continuously puts things back together, seeking relationship. It is like sunlight, making everything visibly distinct and, at the same time, a unity. The separate parts of the tree start to express, using my mind, an essence of tree-ness found in the whole.

I look at the pattern of concentric circles on a piece of wood I found: layer upon layer of fibrous cells that accumulated year after year to form a tree. Cells growing in warm weather are wider, carry more water, and lay down a thick layer. Cells growing later in the year, in cold weather, are narrower, and their layer is thin. The alternating thicknesses create the impression of rings. I run my thumb across them, as if I could touch time. I turn back to the tree and touch it with my mind. I feel it growing, layer upon layer, across decades. Then I touch the boulder with my mind, feeling it deposited, layer upon mineral layer, across eons.

How different the tree’s living hardness feels to my mind, compared to the boulder’s settled solidity! Suddenly, a bird lands on a branch and, just as quickly, lifts off again. How self-directed and fluid its movement feels to my mind, compared to the wood and stone I’ve been contemplating! Thinking distinguishes between the essences of tree, stone, and bird, as if hearing different languages.

I place my attention on the tree again. In warmer weather, water moves up through the living layer of wide cells and out through the leaves to join the air. Now, it is cold and still—the cells in the new living layer are narrow and constricted. Now, water and air are kept apart, in their own domains. The tree seems to contract and expand, separating and reuniting water and air, pulsing with the rhythm of the seasons. The movement leaves physical traces in the wood. I can feel it with my mind.

Thinking moves in resonance with the tree’s breathing through the seasons. I find I’m no longer thinking about the tree—I’m thinking with the tree. Suddenly, I’m immersed in a conversation on a cosmic scale—one going on not just between tree and water and air but between warmth and cold, earth and sun. I’m not listening to it—with delicate thinking, I’m part of it.

Tree thinking, stone thinking, bird thinking, human thinking. Everything is in conversation. I try to render it in writing—the Word begetting thinking, thinking begetting words. Thinking is participating; thinking is belonging.

The Joy of Thinking

What would it be like if the tree, the stone, the bird weren’t there to set thinking in motion? I close my eyes. At first, thinking does what it’s meant for—it seeks movement and relationship, trying to organize the day, fix yesterday’s argument, decide what’s for lunch. I take a deep breath and place my attention on something specific—I recall a meditative verse I’m fond of. Now, there is nothing external to move my mind; I have to do it myself, and it takes effort. I give thinking a sacred task: move this verse, in my mind, like growing the tree. In doing so, thinking structures an inner space for that same questioning listening, this time not to the tree, the bird, or the stone, but to the Silence inside me. “Who are you?”

As a child, thinking helped me separate from the world to become an individual. Now, thinking helps me reunite with the world, as a participant. Thinking separates; thinking connects. Thinking asks and listens. Thinking enables me to resonate with the divine music that creates the world. Thinking offers itself in service to the world and the spirit. Thinking is a lot like loving. Don’t you think?

Image The Goetheanum Weekly graphics team

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