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The Tinkered Mind
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January 27th, 2020
How do you decide what your next thought will be?
Think about this for a moment. You could be reading or listening to this episode of Tinkered Thinking and you don’t have any idea what the very next sentence will be. How is this any different from the stream of consciousness novel that we hear in our head as we think?
There are some passive ways to determine what we will think in the future, but they aren’t full proof. We make notes for ourselves. Oh! I need to remember this for tomorrow, I’ll write it down and leave it on my desk where I’ll see it. But think about this for a second. This is essentially laying a trap for your own attention. It’s ‘deciding what you’ll think’ in a rather round about way.
But to decide on your very next thought? Well to even contemplate this question is to have that next thought, which is a contemplation you weren’t necessarily expecting, but there it is. It’s grabbed your attention with or without your blessing.
We don’t decide our next thought. It simply pops up.
In an eerie way, it’s as though the thought is choosing us, instead of the other way around.
Some might regard this as a little summary of the argument that there’s no such thing as free will. And while that debate is rife with lots of head knocking by respected figures on both sides, it’s simply not a useful argument.
It’s more interesting and useful to contemplate how this flow of thoughts is hindered, helped and filtered.
For example: if you are super busy with a whole bunch of little menial tasks at work, do you have time for thoughts about whether or not you are spending the short time you have alive in a meaningful way or not?
No, not really. You’re mind is busy dealing with some minutea, and small potential solutions or directions to each little task are popping up in your mind as you look at the details and you watch yourself implement these solutions and carry out these tasks.
We go on vacations to relax and finally think about things. But is there ever much space for interesting thoughts to pop up in your head while you’re three margaritas deep and you spent the last morning reading someone else’s thoughts in a book they’ve published, and now you have to figure out the next fun thing to do so the vacation doesn’t feel wasted?
Putting wasted time to good use is a skill all unto itself. Carving out 10 minutes or an hour here and there to simply think while full of energy and relaxed isn’t going to yield much. But make it a constant habit and a structure emerges and the mind starts to spin a new kind of story. But who has an extra hour a day? Certainly not anyone with a Netflix subscription.
And while that might seem like a smart jab, it would miss an important point, which begins to emerge with a different question: does anyone watch Netflix in the morning before work?
No. Not at all.
We watch at the end of the day, after a long day, when we are tired and just want to unwind. Escape a little.
At the end of our day, our energy, both physical and mental is spent. It’s a rare person who’s made a habit of forging on after a busy day and forcing themselves to put that extra time to good use. It’s more practical to think about how our energy ebbs and flows and when it peaks. Carving out an extra hour in the morning for a little meditation, perhaps a quick exercise routine and half an hour of quiet contemplation can have incredible results if continued for a few years.
This is a secret within the community of creative people. As Neil Gaiman has said, every time he wants to write a new book, he makes himself incredibly bored, which simply means having a bunch of free time with nothing to do. His mind starts to entertain him at some point, and he simply starts writing it down.
Could there be a simpler definition of inspiration?
Many, if not all of us have experienced that depressing sensation of being locked into a boring job, overwhelmed with the feeling that we aren’t doing what we are supposed to be doing. It’s a difficult situation and feeling to deal with. It can easily lead to darker places.
One useful way to look at this experience is to wonder if that feeling is not actually an impulse of inspiration, waiting at the door while you are preoccupied with tedious tasks.
Think about it, it’s like you’re running around, maybe you’ve got something on the stove, and you’re trying to brush your teeth at the same time, trying to get everything done and then there’s a knock at the door. You’re expecting a package, and you know the delivery man isn’t going to wait for long and he’s not going to leave the package. But that thing on the stove is about to burn, and you’ve got your mouth full of toothpaste froth. Your anxiety spikes.
We’ve all had a similar situation. You. Just. Want. To. Get. To. The. Door.
But there are all these tedious tasks that demand attention.
That thing burning on the stove, and burshing your teeth, and all the other little things that are driving you crazy are like that unfulfilling job. And that anxiety you feel is that going-nowhere-in-life depression as you clock in for another shift.
That package that is waiting at the door?
If you don’t make time to let it in,
how will you ever be able to focus on it?