Sometimes the best way of thinking about something is to not think about it. To put my mind at rest and simply let things float through it without trying to pin them down for focused pondering. Not thinking is surprisingly hard; whenever I try to do it, I find that I invariably end up chasing down and interrogating some particular thought without even realizing it. The most effective non-thinking happens when I’m half asleep, drifting off or just waking up while my mind strolls through backlogs of memories and fragments of thoughts.
I find myself thinking about work a lot in my spare time, but I almost never actually come up with solutions to problems while I’m pondering them. The solutions come to me while I’m riding my bike and contemplating the shapes of the mountains, or immediately upon waking up to my alarm clock in the morning. On a number of occasions, I have leaped up from my bed and immediately ran to write down a new curriculum idea or answer to a logistical problem, knowing that it would flee quickly once I was in pursuit.
Like seeing faint stars in the night sky by not looking directly at them, not thinking about things tends to bring them more closely into focus, as if there were a blind spot created by thinking too deliberately. A few days ago I was dozing on a red-eye flight with my face squashed against the airplane window, thoughts galloping past my mind. In the not-words, not-pictures, not-sounds way that passive thoughts have of presenting themselves, thoughts of a paper I’ve been editing for work surfaced. In the clarity of fuzzy dreamlike thinking, I suddenly realized a glaring content error that I hadn’t noticed before. Later, I also recognized a few long-forgotten memories that displayed themselves in surprising detail, somehow rescued from permanent loss. I generally mourn the forgetting of vivid memories and cherished details. While I’ve already forgotten what those resurrected memories are, I now know that they are still contained in the stream of my mind, and will be let loose sometime when I am not thinking about them.
Besides sleep, another harbinger of passive thinking is movement. Walking, biking, driving, or sitting on a train, the stream of changing sensory input challenges the senses in the same way that a stream of passive thoughts challenges the mind. Loosening my grip on individual details and letting the scenery pass by, my eyes are able to discern patterns and recognize motifs. I often find that after encountering a deep work of art or a profound experience, the best thing to do is take a walk or a nap, to think away and let the tendrils of meaning take root slowly while my eyes and mind map other patterns.
Even as a Christian I recognized the importance of not thinking, although at that time I attributed it to the work of the Holy Spirit. A few times upon returning from a spiritual experience such as a retreat, I knew that the experience itself was only the beginning of a deep undercurrent of spiritual work that would make itself known over weeks or months or years. It would be the work of God shaping my heart and mind, sowing spiritual seeds that would take shape gradually. Now, through memory and the surfacing of forgotten thoughts and details, I am still reaping patterns and motifs from those long-ago experiences.
Yesterday I was moving into my new apartment, carrying armloads of heavy boxes up and down stairs. When my muscles are working hard to hold onto something, my mind is less able to do so. Thoughts slipped through me in a frenzy, at pace with my quickened breathing and heart rate. But when I took a break and sat down to transcribe the essay that had been composed in my mind, the words fell between my fingers and I was left with only a few syllables and the faintest shadow of an idea. Sometimes ideas are just not ready to be captured; they must be allowed to wander, and take up residence in their own time.