Several years ago, I changed my daily routine to include an hour of meditative time each morning. It changed my life.
I suppose that is a rather dramatic statement, but I believe it to be true. A conversation with a friend this week prompted me to think about it more deeply.
Think, deeply. We often struggle to think. We make little room for it. We tend to skim along the surface, flitting about on life’s subjects, rarely delving too far into any one particular thing.
To be fair, we do a pretty good job at applied thinking. As a society that is all about “doing,” we approach thinking in much the same way. We apply our thinking to the problem, decision, or situation at hand. We absorb the data and work to actively draw a conclusion. In this sense, thinking is very much an action verb. We make it happen, seeking to control a relevant output. In this way, we are effective at processing the inputs.
For me, thinking deeply is about contemplation and discernment. It can be problematic because, to be helpful, it has to be unstructured. We don’t contemplate in the same way we process. If processing information is a pathway of “if, thens” then contemplation is more a cascade of possibilities. Applied thinking is the following of a path, like solving an equation, one piece at a time. Deeper thinking in the contemplative sense is walking in an open field, or jumping into deep water, there are no clear paths and the structure of equations, “if, then’s,” gives way to less linear thinking and “what if’s.”
Most of us are quite uncomfortable with such unstructured thinking. In some ways, it isn’t natural. For the task-oriented, it is akin to daydreaming, a bad habit which our formal classroom educations sought to break in the earliest days of our growth. Don’t daydream, it is a waste of time. Don’t let your mind wander, be focused and present. We were taught that such purposeless thought was, gasp, a waste of time!
Of course, the issue wasn’t really about the value of letting our mind wander, it was the timing of it. Learning to focus when needed and apply ourselves to the task at hand is a critical skill to survival. Some of us struggle to this day with focus, but that is a post for another day. The implication of our indoctrination into applied thinking is that we lost much of our capacity to daydream, to truly let our mind wander, and ultimately the contemplative benefits of such unstructured thinking.
Applied thinking. Deep thinking. Contemplative thinking. Structured thinking. Unstructured thinking. Daydreaming. You may be thinking, didn’t he mention meditation earlier? Where is he going with this?
My morning time is a figurative and literal Holy Hour for me. It is a time slot I hold sacred by observing it religiously. It is also literally a window of time in which I pray, and listen. Though I am passionate about my faith, the power of prayer, and the impact my daily Holy Hour has had on my life, the exercise offers profound implications for anyone seeking to tap into his or her own powers of contemplative thinking.
The secret to tapping your own pools of deeper thought more constructively lies in the opposite direction of the action-oriented process of applied thinking. Seeking to solve a problem, looking for an answer, or processing inputs to draw a conclusion, require us to gather bits of data and throw them into the pool of reference points we need to actualize the equations and “if, then’s” that take us to a point of conclusion. The counter-intuitive necessity of deeper thinking is that we must first empty ourselves.
What? Yes, empty.
In all our years of focus on constructive thought and resultant action, we’ve become really ineffective at letting go enough to allow things to happen. We want control. Control of things and outcomes around us. And, control of our thinking such that it produces the results we need to function. Again, these are necessary skills to our day-to-day survival. However, for the truly intractable problems, the big unstructured questions, and the creative leaps that propel us to great discovery, we must empty ourselves, surrender control of the outcome, and allow the insights, answers, and ideas to come to us.
Deep thinking happens when we allow it to happen rather than when we force it to happen. We can actively choose among multiple options but true discernment requires deeper thinking. Within the contemplative depths we merge reason and conscience while we allow our incredible brains to bridge connections among our spiritual, aspirational, charitable, and intellectual selves. The creative energies we so often struggle to bring to bear in our waking world flow so much more naturally in the dark pools of still, contemplative thinking. They more frequently emerge in the deep thinking we allow to happen rather than when we try to command them actively – a place where creativity can be stubbornly resistant to appearing.
There are numerous paths to cultivating your own deep thinking, though creating time and space for it can be a challenge. The bigger challenge will likely be in letting go, emptying yourself, and embracing, then releasing, the tension of the silence necessary to get there. For me, prayerful meditation has been an incredible gateway but I claim no mastery. I suspect mine will always be the journey of a novice. However, I recognize it as a worthy and, necessary, challenge.
The other side to the pathway to deeper thinking centers on the fertile field of our mind itself. We nurture deep thinking by sowing thoughts and ideas. We must feed ourselves intellectually if we want our efforts at deep thinking to produce meaningful results. Reading. Conversations. Listening. Watching. The chaos of information forms the reservoir from which our mind pulls the creative or the contemplative. Feeding our intellect with good information, the ideas of others, and our own efforts at processing life’s inputs will dramatically impact what comes back to us when we find the silence and emptiness to receive it. We cannot reap what has not been sown.
The title of this post is a play on the title of Napoleon Hill’s classic motivational book, Think and Grow Rich, which centers on the power of thought to drive success. The point is very much the same. A rich life, full of amazing possibilities, and the achievement of true success comes from thinking deeply about the things that matter. To get there, we’ve got to create space, be intentional, empty ourselves, and face the silence where the big answers hide. Then, we need to allow them to find us.