Friday, October 14, 2011


Thoughtfulness is not the same as mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves being attentive; thoughtfulness means being considerate.

Mindfulness requires that you clear your mind so you can focus on something external to you. As a meditation practice, it seems to calm the mind.

Sometimes, we are told that we should be mindful of what is going on in our minds, but that means that we should be looking at our minds as though they were not ours. 

Thoughtfulness is something else altogether. We can understand it by looking at the way the word is used in sentences.

Mindfulness is rarely used outside of a religious or therapeutic context. Thoughtfulness is used in everyday conversation.

If you offer a thoughtful gift or make a thoughtful gesture it means that you have taken the time and put in the effort to think about what the other person would like or need.

Presumably, we are programmed to think first about ourselves. It takes work and effort… and thought… to overcome that unfortunate tendency.

If we are not programmed to think first about ourselves, a culture that tells people to say: What about my needs?, certainly points us in that direction. 

For the record, the key to good relationships is to be thoughtful.

Being considerate makes you more sociable, and improves your relationships. Thus, thoughtfulness points you toward good character.

In his new book The Thinking Life, P. M. Forni wants us to understand that there is virtue in thought. Taking the time to think about what we are doing before we do it is virtuous.

Forni explains that in a culture that seems increasingly to value impulsive action, and that has popularized the slogan, Just Do It!, self-control and discipline are being undermined. People are being induced to act before they think, often to their regret.

Forni is not thinking about thinking. He is pointing out the usefulness of thought.

There’s more to it than being considerate. Thinking before you act, in Forni’s analysis, means formulating a plan.

Making a plan means thinking about different possible actions, about the different outcomes that might or might not ensue, and about what can go wrong.

You will have far more success in the world if you formulate a plan than if you act on impulse or emotion.

Of course, we think all the time. We ponder and contemplate, sometimes to good effect, sometimes to no effect.

But, are there right and wrong, better and worse ways to think?

And what do we mean when we talk about thinking. Normally, we think of thinking as a solitary activity. We sit alone in a room and let our minds wander.

Surely, that’s one aspect of thinking. It’s called ruminating. Sometimes it’s purposeful, in the sense of thinking over a problem. Sometimes it’s a way to calm down.

Sometimes we do it to good effect; sometimes to no effect.

But thinking can also be work. If you want to learn something or solve a problem or plan for the future you would do well to speak and write your thoughts.

Discussing your ideas with another human being will often clarify them. Most of the time conversation improves thinking. It will yield ideas you had not thought of previously.

I am not thinking of situations where your interlocutor offers a new idea, but of those where a conversation gets you out of a mental rut and opens you to new and different thoughts.

Often enough, we have our best ideas when we do not think to think.

And then there is writing. Writing down your thoughts, submitting them to the two-dimensional discipline of the page, clarifies what you are thinking. It also allows other thoughts to reach you.

Writing makes you a better listener, to the thoughts that you might have dismissed when you were ruminating.

Hopefully, you have all had this experience. You are writing an essay or a blog post and you  discover new ideas in the process of writing. Wherever you thought you were going is not where you end up. 

If you end up thinking what you had thought before you started writing, you are doing it wrong.

Being thoughtful is the opposite of being thoughtless. Being thoughtless involves underthinking a problem or situation.

People who are young and experienced are especially prone to underthinking. Too often they allow themselves to be led astray by impulse and emotion.

Thus, they do well to err in the direction of overthinking.  

The same prescription is helpful to people who have been traumatized.

When you can no longer trust your instincts, because your instincts have shifted into trauma-prevention mode, you would do well to think long and hard before taking action.  

Sometimes your instincts will be telling you the truth; sometimes they will be misleading you. The only way to arrive at a good decision is to think and think again before acting.

Not every quick decision is thoughtless. People who have accumulated a considerable amount of experience can often find the right thing to say or do without giving it too much, if any, thought.

This is somewhat misleading. Forni would want us to understand that flashes of inspiration normally follow from a considerable amount of preparatory work.

Only if you have spent the time and energy to think through a problem will the solution appear to you as though it were an epiphany.

Only if you have considerable conversational experience will you be able to speak effectively without having thought through what you are going to say in advance.

Even when you have rehearsed a conversation, reality has a way of forcing you to improvise. Some people do it effectively and effortlessly; others look lost when they try.

It’s good to think before you speak, but the rhythm of conversation rarely allows it. If you make a habit of thoughtfulness, your spontaneous statements will be more considerate and more effective.

Overthinking is a different problem. The world is filled with budding Hamlets who spend so much time and energy thinking that they fail to act effectively.

Planning should lead to action, but that only happens when we stop planning, thus, stop thinking. If we cannot stop thinking at the right time and in the right place, we are overthinking.

No great athlete thinks about what he is doing when he is doing it. No great athlete functions as though his thought is directing his action. A professional golfer who thinks about the mechanics of his swing while he is swinging will not be winning too many tournaments.

But a professional golfer will also put considerable thought into studying and practicing his swing. It takes a lot of work to make anything effortless.

The moment where thought translates into action is perhaps the most interesting of all.

More so since Shakespeare wrote one of his greatest tragedies about a character who seemed to have a problem with the transition.

To most readers, and apparently to the culture at large, Shakespeare gave thinking a bad name.

Perhaps I am giving the bard too much credit-- most likely he was reflecting and articulating a cultural attitude-- but British culture is far more anti-thought and pro-action than is French culture.

The British are empirical and pragmatic. They are doers. The French are thinkers.

If Shakespeare warned Great Britain of the danger of overthinking, the French philosopher Descartes countered that thinking was the only game in town.

Being a philosopher, Descartes spent a considerable amount of time thinking about thinking. That’s what philosophers do.

As you know, Descartes founded the tradition of continental idealism by asserting, somewhat tautologically, that while he was thinking, the only thing he knew for certain was that he was thinking.

He claimed that he knew that he existed, not because he was thoughtful toward others, but because he thought that he was thinking.

To my knowledge Descartes did not address the difference between thinking that you are thinking and just plain thinking.

Unfortunately for Descartes, and not just for him, his method was so effective that he got trapped in his mind and could not figure out how to get out. That is, to take action in the world.

Lost in the folds of his mental space, Descartes led the way to ever deeper thoughts that had no real correlation with reality. Of course, true practitioners of the Cartesian method did not need to take action because they did not need to test their ideas against reality.

There’s nothing in reality that can prove or disprove of the fact that you are thinking.

Cartesians left pragmatism for the other side of the Channel, preferring to wallow in the mind/body problem that Descartes had created.

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