Thinking About Thinking - 2017

Thinker or Drinker?

By Balaji Prasad

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly
trying to make you something else
is the greatest accomplishment."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The mind is a wondrous thing. While it seems to be trapped inside a body, it leaps and bounds to places that it cannot touch – or even hope to touch, for that matter – or otherwise experience directly. If I put my mind to it, I can visualize an ocean while I am in a desert. I can even smell the scents of the sea, taste the salt on my lips and the gentle breeze on my skin. I can travel wherever my mind can take me. Regardless of whether I am actually there or not.

The wanderer

There is a phrase “Have ___________, will travel" that got into the popular culture in the 1950s, with different people substituting all kinds of things in the blank space. The bottom line of it all is that no matter what people have or don't have, they will travel. Wanderlust seems to be pervasive.

Some wanderers travel cheap. They find ways to travel without spending any money. And, without expending any physical energy whatsoever. An armchair traveler can just sit in place, stare at the ceiling, and let his or her mind travel vast spaces, experiencing things, reachable through the portals of the mind. The armchair thinker also “experiences" things that can be reached only through the mind, because these things may have no existence elsewhere.

Where one's mind wanders to, though, is a different issue. It may go to places that it shouldn't go to, like the “elephant's graveyard" that the young Simba was forbidden from, but to which he went nevertheless. Besides going to undesirable places, the mind may also just potter around on the beaten path – the roads that many have traveled along, following others before them. One more mind would not be one too many for the well-trodden path, we say, as we trudge along following someone who in turn is following someone else. So, should we go to places we are told not to go to, or would it be better to stay with the tried and true? Or, is this a false choice that distracts us from the real choices we have, were we able to see the world in a different way?

The seer

Language is interesting. It sometimes tells us hidden truths if we dust it off to see what lies underneath, and why the thin coating of language was applied in the first place to whatever lies beneath. The word “seer" is generally associated with someone who can see things that others cannot see, for example, the future. The word's existence indicates the desire to separate those who can see – the seers – from those that cannot: the non-seers. It is possible that the term was originated by those who wished to profit from others by creating an illusion that they possessed some extraordinary capabilities that “average" people did not. It is also possible that, in addition to such profit-oriented motivations, people are habituated to believe that there are capabilities that other people have that they do not, and so automatically get into a mindset of followership. So maybe we follow blindly because it is just too hard to examine everything critically and it just seems easier to put your trust in someone else who seems to have thought through something, and seems to know what he or she is talking about. Call it laziness, or call it efficiency, but this kind of convenience-driven following is also generally in play. We may be seers following other seers, or we may be the sightless following the equally sightless.

The zombie

We may be avoiding going somewhere because we are forbidden to do so, or we may be going somewhere because we are urged to do so. We may be zombies, walking in our sleep, following blindly because we have habituated ourselves to operate in that manner!

Surely, that can't be true!? “I am no zombie!" you protest. “I will have you know that I am a seeing, thinking, reflective person who does things because they make sense, not because I am led by the nose by others!"

“But," I say, “is it possible? Is it possible, perhaps, that there are some aspects of our thinking that have been indoctrinated by years and years of conditioning, burying ways of thinking and being deep inside our neural infrastructure, where even we ourselves may not be aware that such ways of thinking exist?"

The thinker

When I realize that not everything I think are thoughts that have their origins in me is perhaps when I really become a thinker. There are many thoughts in me that have probably come from Socrates, carried by many mouths and many scribes, from generation to generation, each adding his or her nuances on top of whatever the man who spoke them said. There are also many thoughts in me that came from my parents, and their parents, who got it from their neighbors, who got it from their teachers, who got it from their cobbler and so forth. So, my head is full of stuff, and much of it did not come from me – at least not as much as I would like to believe it did.

The drinker

So I have drunk from the mainstream, of the water of so-called-knowledge that has flowed from unknown, unseen and unfelt sources. I have acquired words and ideas that may not even exist, other than in my head. I may be drunk on these words, on these accidental concoctions that were mixed by many hands, stirring some strange potion of toadstools, dead cats, poison ivy and all kinds of things. Of course, I think, too. Sometimes. But how much of what I think is think, and how much of what I think is drink from the mainstream? I cannot know, unless I stop to think to separate the think from the drink. Unless I'm drinking, when I'm thinking that I'm thinking. Then it wouldn't matter whether I think or not. What do you think?