If there is a thread that connects human beings throughout history, it may be the thread of real thinking, the thread of heart-felt questioning about life and death, joy and suffering, and our place and destiny on this earth. Since ancient times we have looked both within and without for answers to the perplexing questions that challenge us at every breath. We have felt, perhaps instinctively, that these questions—and our search for the answers to them—are what give our lives real meaning.
In the past, our questioning was guided by the Shaman and the priest. It was guided by the great philosophers and scientists who took the time to look, listen, think, and explore. And it was guided by our own magical relationship to a natural world that reminded us through its awesome beauty and power that we were part of something much larger than our thought could comprehend. There was the sense, the premonition, that the magical beauty and power that we saw around us was also, inexplicably, within us.
When Socrates and others uttered the ultimate human (Delphic) challenge—”Man, know Thy Self”—they understood that this “Self” could never be known in any ordinary way, as we know the events and objects in and around us. They understood that this “knowing” involved the totality of our being, that it was a matter more of direct experience than of mental reflection. To be sure, the mind was involved in this knowing, but so was the heart and body. And so was the consciousness within which everything else sprang to life. They also understood that the real question underlying all the others is the question “Who am I?” For only this question, deeply felt, can mobilize all of our energies in the quest for what is real. And so, in one way or another, they helped us search for what was real, what was essential, in ourselves.
Today, for the most part, this kind of thinking, this kind of questioning, is dead. Most of our questioning is guided by specialists in one area or another, who feel compelled to give us ready-made answers from their own disciplines. Unfortunately, these answers, even when they are useful, have to do with bits and pieces of ourselves and our world. We find ourselves emotionally and intellectually fragmented with no real understanding of who we are or what is really going on. Our thinking is what Martin Heidegger calls “calculative thinking,” thinking directed toward manipulation, toward obtaining some specific result. It “races from one prospect to the next. Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself.”
Conditioned as we are by this kind of thinking, it is difficult to imagine an alternative. But sometimes we feel called toward what Heidegger refers to as “meditative thinking,” thinking that “contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is.” This kind of thinking, which for Heidegger lies at the heart of what it means to be human, has to do with pondering and waiting, with going beyond our ordinary understanding and attempting to remain open for the truth to manifest.
Unfortunately, modern society provides little support for this kind of thinking. How could it? If we look clearly around us we see a society in which the mass media, government, religion, business, industry, the medical establishment, academia, even the arts—almost all the institutions of modern life—vie for our attention, energy, and money with “sound bites” and slogans designed to arouse our emotions and our desires. We see a society that depends on “calculative thinking,” thinking oriented only to immediate action and gratification.
Meditative thinking, however, requires patience and silence, being as well as doing. It requires that we somehow stop and recollect ourselves. It requires conditions in which we can practice innocent looking and listening, the kind of awareness that we experience when we truly, unselfishly love someone or something—when we love the truth. For real thinking depends on openness, openness to whatever is in front of us. And it must start with what is closest—our own being. It is only then, when we are truly open to ourselves, that what is true can enter our perception and reveal itself fully to us. It is only then that we can go beyond the “stimulus-response” mode of living, a mode of living that is suited to machines not people.
It is startling to realize that every time we take a breath of air, we are breathing many of the same molecules that Socrates, Jesus, and others from ancient times breathed. But it is even more startling, perhaps, to realize that every time we truly ponder the question “Who am I?”—when it reverberates throughout our entire being—we are experiencing a profound identity with everyone who has ever lived.
Learning to “Stop”
Whatever our occupation, our skin color, our marital status, our hobbies, our beliefs, our personal interests, we are all beings who need, at heart, to rediscover the miracle, the wonder, of existing on this earth. This rediscovery begins with learning how to “stop” inwardly, to turn from the known to the unknown in ourselves. Our lives give us many opportunities to come to this “stop.” When we get into bed at night at the end of a long day, or when we first wake up in the morning and are about to leap forward into our day, there is sometimes a gap between one activity and the next, a space, where we can intentionally pause for an instant and feel a deep underlying wish, a deep longing, for something that we cannot quite define. The ordinary shocks and contradictions of our daily lives can also, if we let them, bring us to this space (see Awakening to the Miracle of Ordinary Life.) We can also sometimes experience it between our various automatic thoughts and feelings, when one thought or feeling is about to run down and another begin, or between our exhalation and our inhalation. If we are to begin to practice real thinking, we need to be attentive to this gap and the deep, inner wish that it sometimes reveals. We need to give this wish time and space to expand throughout our entire being, and begin to enter into more parts of our lives. We need to respect this wish for what it truly is—a beckoning toward our own true nature—and not immediately identify it with a desire for something or someone that we think we need or want. We need to recognize that this wish is a reminder of the miracle of being.
The great teachers have told us that the purpose of real thinking is to help us put into question the ideas, aims, and assumptions that keep us locked in our egoism, our own perceptual prison, and to show us what is required to venture out of this prison into the world of authentic consciousness. They have told us that this consciousness is what lies at the heart of our own being, if we would but open ourselves to its presence. But whatever they have told us, we know in our own hearts that our ordinary thought, however useful it may be in our occupations and for solving the everyday problems of our lives, does not open us to ourselves, our friends, and our world. It does not welcome the profound questions that occasionally arise out of the depths of our being. It does not bring us the deep understanding and happiness, either personally or collectively, that we all desire. For this, we need to learn and experience the art of real thinking.
Copyright 2000-2015 by Dennis Lewis. First published in The Empty Vessel: A Journal of Contemporary Taoism