Getting the mind to pipe down

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An article in More Intelligent Life called “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” brings up the following point: thinking too much can make you mess up. Examples are given of tennis players who fumble when they think too much about their backhand, opera singers who falter if they start to think about whether their voice is at its best, and songwriters who can barely string together lyrics because their thoughts are interfering with their creative processes.

It’s not just any kind of thinking that messes you up, but badly timed self-conscious thinking, when you’re thinking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it (and on top of that, maybe thinking about how you appear to your audience). This cripples creativity and makes you second-guess yourself at the worst possible moment. What you may be hoping for instead during those moments of performance or creative functioning, is what the article calls “unthinking”:

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

How do you best remove yourself from the equation? That’s definitely something I’d like to explore in future posts. I know what it’s like when I’m writing, and critical voices intrude during that first draft when everything should be coming out uninhibited. My mind is hamstringing itself.

In large part dealing with badly timed self-conscious thinking has to be a matter of mental flexibility and discipline. There are times when you want to evaluate your own thinking – revising your assumptions, checking yourself before you do or say something you’ll regret, evaluating your performance (after the fact, not during). It’s not good to always operate unselfconsciously. But you need to command the ability to switch between one mindset and another so that self-conscious thoughts don’t overtake your mind at exactly those moments when you should be acting with unthinking clarity and focus. Any advice on how to do this well? (There’s a topic for several future posts.)

Also it takes trust – the ability to let go and trust yourself. At the right moment you have to forget what you know and what you don’t know, what others think of you, what you think of yourself – you become a conduit for creativity, talent, ingenuity and unselfconscious thought. You have to trust that what you know and what you can do is enough, more than enough, and that for the moment at least you are sufficient and complete. All considerations of success and failure must disappear from your mind, because you’re entering a state of mind where the typical yardsticks measuring failure and success don’t exist anymore.

Easier said than done. How do you get to that state of mind when you most need to?

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