Metathinking

Photo: karindalziel

People who know me know I like to think.  Few things in life give me as much pleasure as coming across a new idea—a good new idea—and examining it from every angle, seeing how it links to other ideas and to what interesting use I can put it.

I also like to think about thinking itself—a uniquely human ability that’s led to all sorts of consequences:  self-awareness as well as awareness of our mortality, to name just two.  Awareness of our mortality is as terrible as our self-awareness is wonderful (leading, as the latter does, to the ability to live happily and well until we die).  Without the ability to self-reflect we couldn’t challenge our weaknesses, gain wisdom, and improve ourselves.  But metathinking—thinking about thinking—can also be taken too far.  For me, the nature of consciousness—of the self—is the most fascinating topic of all (to a large degree the main reason I practice Buddhism, to penetrate the mystery of my own existence), but thinking about it, I long ago discovered, increases one’s understanding only up to a certain point.  After that, it only leads to rumination.

Rumination, or persistent circular thinking, blocks us from experience.  This is one reason psychologists use metathinking to help people manage anxiety:  it tends to bounce them out of experiencing it.  Imagine finding yourself in the middle of sex and having your partner suddenly ask you:  “On a scale of one to ten, how’s this going for you?”  Once your attention is drawn to the fact that you’re having an experience the experience you start to have is one of watching yourself having it.  The same principle holds true when we become aware we’re watching a movie or reading a book.

For us natural metathinkers, rumination represents a real danger.  Rumination has not only been linked to reduced levels of experiential enjoyment, but also to depression.  But it’s danger to non-metathinkers as well.  What do most of us do when we find ourselves with a problem we can’t figure out how to solve?  We think about it.  And think about it.  And think about it.  Rarely do we learn anything from all this thinking.  Usually we just develop a sense of helplessness.

What I’ve learned to do instead when confronting a problem I don’t know how to solve is to not think about it, but to take concrete action.  It doesn’t even matter what.  I just need to try something, to see if it works.  If it doesn’t, I almost always learn something that merely thinking about my problem wouldn’t have taught me—something that may suggest another course of action that’s far more likely to produce results.  When we allow our thinking to run in circles our thinking becomes an obstacle itself.  We need, in a sense, to meta-metathink:  that is, to recognize when our thinking about thinking has paralyzed us.  Breaking a ruminative cycle isn’t easy.  For one thing, it’s addictive.  For another, it’s hard not to believe if we only continue a little bit longer that we won’t somehow stumble across the answer we’re looking for.

But we almost certainly won’t.  So instead, we must close our eyes and leap.  It doesn’t matter how or where so much as that we do.  Getting ourselves unstuck isn’t accomplished by more thinking; it’s accomplished by more doing.

Next WeekThe Double-Edged Sword Of Hope

11 comments to Metathinking

  • A key moment in my life as a metathinker came when I was working on a project at a friend’s house. I’d set out to do something a certain way, but it didn’t work at all, and I went to tell her, feeling like a failed kindergartener. (I was 50 at the time!)
    She said with a smile, okay, now we know one thing that doesn’t work. Why don’t you try…..

    I was dumbfounded. In all my years I’d never encountered that attitude, a parallel one to yours, namely, we can learn by doing rather than by thinking about something and making decisions based on the thinking. Corollary premise of mine: if at first you don’t succeed, quit because you’ve failed. Also wrong!

    I never forgot this lesson. Your post resonates loud and clear with me.

  • Chris

    The Buddhist counter to rumination is “Letting Go,” yes?

    Trouble is, our problem-solving skills are often prized and rewarded . . . at work, for example. Thus, it is hard to let go. Instead we hang on like bulldogs to the problem(s) to be solved.

  • Lil Gluckstern

    I think we are dealing with a paradox here. If we over think something, we don’t act. If we act without thinking, trouble lies ahead. As usual, noticing what we’re doing, whether it is thinking or acting, makes us conscious, and consequently more, um, human. A balance is nice. I like your posts.

  • Experience is what keeps us out of trouble while testing. What is unfortunate is that many people shy away from trying new things because in the past they had a bad experience.

    Persistence and patience is what leads to solving problems. Nothing risked, nothing gained.

    Once you start to find out you CAN learn and solve things, you exit the basement of experience and start to gain the confidence you need to continue to think outside the box and reap the rewards of problem solving.

    As a long time DIYer I pity those who are afraid to try things. My philosophy is never say impossible. Gather info, ask advice, whatever it takes and tackle the problem head on.

    Sleeping on it overnight aften helps 🙂

  • Maria

    A phrase that has helped me stop ruminating is: “When in doubt, take the next small step.”

  • Teodora

    Taking one’s time is not the worst thing one can do! Moreover, you never know what other factors may come into play within, say, 90 days; things happen, one meets new people, why not let the circumstances give you more clues?

  • Maryann Petrosino

    Dancers say analysis causes paralysis.

  • Lisa

    My word for the day, Metathinker! I didn’t know there was a tag for this behaviour, but, I instantly recongized it in myself. I overthink things, and have learned to take action, even if just in a small way to break this cycle. I correlate it with perfectionism, I don’t want to do it, if I can do it right, and I have to be careful to make sure this doesn’t keep me from living in the moment!

  • Great post! I’m guilty of over thinking things before actually taking action. I do recognize it, but it’s hard to actually take that first step. 🙂

  • Thinking is fun. I recently retired and am looking for something new to think about besides the pleasure of retirement. That’s good for now.

  • vusa

    “What I’ve learned to do instead when confronting a problem I don’t know how to solve is to not think about it, but to take concrete action.”

    I presume you don’t practice this when dealing with patients.

    Vusa: With patients I start over: I take the history again and try to figure out what I missed.

    Alex

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