In Praise of the Meandering Mind
I love paradox. Though I’m not sure I can say why. It’s as if the universe is winking at us, gently teasing us for thinking we’ve figured something out. Like a playful reminder that certainty is overrated, and real wisdom comes from questioning. This is what I love about writing for pleasure. It’s an opportunity to let my mind meander with no pressure to perform. I am excited to open my journal each morning, wondering what will fill the blank pages. I practice wide open thinking and thought-riffing with no external expectation. It is a chance to notice, play with, and actually change my mind. Unlike the constraints of conversation, where I feel a need to be interesting or at least make sense, this freeform writing creates an opportunity to eliminate even internal judgements and go with the flow. Don’t get me wrong, I love to chat. But when I am alone with my pen and free from having to follow any particular thoughts, new thinking is free to arise.
I always admired those professors and philosophers in old movies, sitting by the fireplace in their private libraries with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, ensconced in their wingback leather armchairs, perhaps a pipe in hand, possibly a brandy on a side table, a dog curled up at their feet, thinking. These men (because apparently women didn’t think before the 1970s) were able to work out problems by themselves, in their minds. This, for me, is miraculous. I don’t think I’ve ever worked out a problem in my mind in my life. I might start the practice, but then...oh, I can’t forget to do laundry today...I’d better prepare for that meeting...I think I’ll make the chicken tonight...why did my husband say that...now where was I? If I’ve resolved problems at all, I’ve done it through conversation, action, impetus, or even atrophy. But never have I simply thought something through to an elegant, satisfying, and complete conclusion.
Real solitary thinking takes an extraordinary amount of mental discipline. To focus on a problem and contemplate several alternate linear paths, mentally walking them each to the end to assess their viability, eliminating unworkable options as you go, and all the while being open to non-linear solutions while keeping the initial problem firmly in place. Maybe this is what great chess players do. Though I suspect they, too, do some planning on paper, get coaching, memorize moves - some preparation that involves more than staring at the board. Even strategists must write things down or discuss among themselves. Maybe the solitary thinker and problem-solver is a myth. I suspect that I’m like most people in this regard. We get creative flashes in the shower, on a walk, while cleaning the house, driving the car. Rather than controlling our minds to find answers, we let go. And then the answers come of their own accord.
It seems to me that the only place I’ve ever known anyone do the kind of strict solo thinking I’m examining here, is in the movies. It is the stuff of stories. There is a clear protagonist, a problem to overcome, and a resolution by the hero. Life, I have found, rarely works this way. Every battle is won with countless and often nameless soldiers. Every movement takes at least a village. Every course correction, a team. But stories are powerful. Our culture and societies are built on them, then handed down through generations. The advertising and marketing industries were created to bring narrative to products and services. To build a brand - a story about the product with which consumers can identify in order to have them purchase said product with the hope of filling a hole in their personal narrative. But that’s not paradoxical, that’s just ironic.
Of course, stories are an important part of being human. They are structures for making sense of things, communicating values, and passing along life lessons. But when I think of the professor in his wingback, finding clarity and definitive answers, I feel positively lacking. Unfocused, undisciplined, and scatterbrained. And practicing this form of contemplation only leads to frustration and more evidence of my lack. This is the lesson I continue to learn: There will always be evidence that a particular way of thinking or doing things or acting or believing is the right way. Because everything works for someone. That doesn’t, however, mean it works for everyone. Which also means it won’t necessarily work for me. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but sometimes only the meandering path gets you there. It also makes for a much better story.