A Few Thoughts About Thinking

I recently finished reading “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson, for the second time, (not something I usually do) and I was struck by an offhand observation that the young main character makes about another man who may be hundreds of years old. At one point, the old man is chanting and holds the same note for hours, (clearly some kind of re-breathing technique), and the young man ponders what it’s like to have such a different notion of time that you would want to chant the same note for hours. Then he has the insight that a mind that has done that probably has very different thoughts from a mind that hasn’t.

Now, “Anathem” is a novel of big ideas: quantum mechanics, multiple worlds, Platonic ideals, religion vs. science, etc., so when I highlight the old man chanting I’m pretty much focusing on the tiny dot of the “i” of the smallest idea here. But this one line resonated with me immediately — probably because I’ve been chanting daily for the last few months as part of my Qi Gong practice. I realized immediately that it’s true, that I am thinking thoughts that I would not have had if I hadn’t chanted.

This led me to think about what other activities I’ve done that led me to “new” thoughts. Meditation, hypnosis, and self-hypnosis come to mind immediately, but then I entered into those activities expecting – hoping! – for new thoughts. Lest these and the chanting seem too New Age-y, I would add gardening, woodworking, and almost anything that leads to a flow state. However, I have noticed that beyond the flow state, there’s something to a sustained level of activity that inspires fresh thought. Walking more than five miles, watching the birds for hours and days and months, meditating for over 20 years, all lead to a depth or breadth of thinking that early efforts do not.

For that matter, it’s possible that playing Tetris or Spider Solitaire for 20 years may lead to fresh insights, but I’ll have to get back to you about that… when I finish my game.

This article was originally published April, 2018