There’s no more serious problem than compulsive thinking.
Let’s use “thinking” or “thoughts” to refer to what are sometimes called “mental formations” or “mental forms.” These are not just thoughts that are judgments or images, but they also include memories (of the past) and anticipations (of the future). Since, as I argue in How to Survive College Emotionally, there can be no emotions without thoughts, it’s important also to include all emotions.
All these are typically enmeshed in thoughts that are egocentric evaluations: “I like this” or “I don’t like this.”
Thoughts typically form a dense filter between us and reality, so dense that, for example, we don’t even relate to other people but only to our own thoughts about other people!
Obsessive or compulsive thinking is the most serious problem because it spawns all dissatisfaction (discontent, suffering, unhappiness, uncenteredness). (Please distinguish psychological dissatisfaction from physical pain.)
There are two relevant facts. Although researchers seem to agree upon them, there’s really only one way to prove them and that is by direct experience.
First, about 80 to 98% of thoughts are repetitive or recycled. This means that they are neither fresh and interesting nor useful. Obsessive thinking is addiction to them. We mistakenly identify with them.
Mind is incessantly looking for more content. It is always restless and eager for more thoughts to consume. It drives the desire to gain.
Mind is easily bored. Boredom is always a sign of compulsive thinking. When obsession with thoughts is overcome, boredom vanishes permanently.
Second, about 2 to 20% of thoughts are original and nonrepetitive. This means that they are fresh and interesting as well as useful. These are all the creative thoughts, the original solutions, the insights behind all our achievements from philosophy and science and art to solutions to everyday economic and interpersonal problems.
Mind is a terrible asset to misuse.
Compulsive thinking is the paradigmatic misuse of mind. An excellent example of this misuse is the racing mind insomnia that occurs when you are tired and trying to sleep but unable to because of attachment to repetitive thoughts.
Believing that becoming a master thinker was the way to live well, I became a master thinker. I have the doctorate in philosophy and the publication record to prove it.
There’s nothing wrong with becoming a master thinker. In fact, it has many advantages. It can take you very far in mind-dominated occupations such as the academy. (I had a secure job as a philosophy professor for 32 years.)
However, mastering life is not one of the advantages or consequences of being a master thinker. Master thinkers tend to be slaves to obsessive thinking. Living well does not mean being bound by obsessive thinking.
Living well means being free from compulsive thinking. Thoughts are there only when needed.
To make this point, sometimes spiritual teachers go too far when they state for example that mind is maya (delusion).
Mind is not evil, but attachment to mind is the wrong way to live well. Compulsive thinking, obsession with thoughts, is foolish.
Living well is using mind well without misusing it.
The right approach is a middle way between too little thinking and too much thinking.
Our human tendency is to be so successful using mind to understand the world in order to manipulate it better to suit our preferences that we become attached to using it too much. This is the vice of compulsive thinking.
How is it cured?
Simple: drop the 80 to 98% of thoughts that are repetitive and retain the 2 to 20% of thoughts that are fresh.
The way to do it is not to make overcoming compulsive thinking into a goal to be achieve in the future. If you do that, you make it impossible to cure! Why?
There is no future! The future is nothing but a set of thoughts. The future only ever appears as present. Nothing actually ever happens in the future.
The cure for compulsive thinking is in the present moment. The idea is to get “out of your head” to let go of attachment to thoughts.
Thoughts will still arise. Simply notice them as they arise and let them go. If you don’t attach to them, they vanish.
Mostly, attempts that require time to do this fail. This is why common meditation techniques and practices don’t work well for most people. Most practitioners make overcoming compulsive thinking a goal to be achieved in the future, which entails they will not achieve it.
Addictions can only be broken by paying attention in the present moment.
The most immediately effective tactic may be aliveness awareness [click here for how to do it]. Like focusing on your breathing in standard meditation, it draws your attention out of your thoughts.
Putting more and more “distance” between you and thoughts puts compulsive thinking behind you and undermines the tendency to identify with your thoughts.
You realize you are free when you release that identification, when no future gain could significantly improve the present moment.
Not only will you be free, but also your thinking will become better! You might think that deliberately letting go of most thoughts would make thinking less effective, but the opposite is the truth.
Want more help? Because it’s difficult or impossible to live well with an unhealthy brain, begin eating and exercising well (see the physical well-being category on the menu bar) and have a look at all the posts in the spiritual well-being category on the menu bar. All the help you’ll find there won’t cost you a penny.
If you are willing to spend a little money, I recommend the books, CD’s, and DVD’s of Eckhart Tolle without reservation.