One of the most fundamental skills we can develop in life is the ability to use our minds wisely and effectively. Thought is a tool, an instrument, that has evolved to help us manage, survive, and thrive in our environment.
The ability to think, to reason, to abstract, and imagine, is a precious capacity which we possess, but it is a double-edged sword – if we do not train ourselves to use our minds effectively we can become its servant rather than its master. Instead of using this highly evolved tool, it uses us, and we suffer as a consequence.
Our education system teaches us nothing about how to control and manage our minds in skillful ways. As a result, the mind can grow unruly and run rampant, creating confusion and chaos in our lives. Instead of being the rider with the reins in our hands, we become the horse driven by the obsessive and unconscious patterns of an untamed and runaway mind.
Instead of cultivating the ability to use thought in an intentional, deliberate, and conscious way, we often find, particularly in times of turmoil, we are prey to a plethora of conflicting and contradictory thoughts that can leave us confused and exhausted.
We can see this particularly clearly when we are facing big challenges or making big decisions where there are a whole array of factors and information to consider and the consequences of our choices are quite serious.
In these situations the conventional wisdom is to ‘think things through’. While there is merit in consciously employing thought to reflect on and consider the various different perspectives and aspects to a problem that are in play, incessant and obsessive rumination can be counter-productive. There are so many thoughts swirling around in our minds that it becomes almost impossible to make a decision. We get stuck.
When we crowd our minds with incessant thinking we lose clarity. Intelligent action is born out of a sharp and clear mind that is capable of seeing through things, to deeper levels beyond the surface reality. The ‘rope-ladder of logic’ as Nietzsche called it, must sometimes be put aside to create the space for a more direct, intuitive form of knowing to arise, in order for wise choices to be made.
We can gain clarity simply by dropping the thought process and allowing the mind to calm, go quiet, and fall into stillness. In order to do this we must let go of mental rumination and train our attention to be very alert and present – perhaps by sensing deeply into the body, focusing on the breath, or observing the mind in a detached way – and learn the art of inner listening.
Inner listening involves turning the attention inward and by learning to watch and observe our thoughts, allowing a sense of space and openness to arise within, out of which answers can arise of their own accord. This means that rather than following our thought-train this way or that, or taking flight into the imagination, we start listening to the feelings, images and intuitions that arise from deep inside.
This can be compared to the difference between allowing ourselves to get swept away in the stream of a river versus sitting by the bank and paying attention to the river as it flows by. In this case it means listening to and acknowledging all inner phenomena that arise without clinging or resisting anything, but allowing thoughts, impulses, and emotions to arise and fall of their own accord, gleaning what insight and understanding we can from them by simply watching and observing.
As we do this, as we practice listening to the inner wisdom that arises subtly and slowly within our minds and bodies, we may find that clarity and intelligent action arise in their own time. This way we are no longer paralysed by indecision – with increased space and clarity the right path becomes more apparent, and we just follow what is natural and most beneficial for us. The decision is made for us – we see the way forward and move accordingly.