|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
“Many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Many people of average intelligence are skilled thinkers. The power of a car is separate from the way the car is driven.”
― Edward de Bono
Attitudes and Goals
There are many different ways of thinking: deductive, inductive, reductive, analytical, emotional, literal, lateral, metaphorical, free, expansive, positive, negative, restricted, or shut down. Thinking is not just executive function, it also includes your inclinations, prejudices, triggers, memories, and associations. Your personality is defined by the ideas that emerge outside of your control, that is to say how you think.
Each of us has a personality that more or less exerts itself through attitude. If I were to read to you a detailed history of your life, a history that contained all of those sensitive things you never told anyone, you would recall past actions out of step with your current personality. At different ages and under different circumstances you were a different person even though you remember yourself as you are now.
You would not be able to reconstruct the ways you thought then, unless you could re-experience those moods and emotions now. You would find that you could recall some of these moods and emotions, but it would take time and lead you into unfamiliar mental spaces. These spaces might be more comfortable or less.
We sandbag the foundations of our good memories with objects, photos, and friendships, we clean up our mistakes with explanations, excuses, and dismissals. These are the intellectual things we do and they sort of work to maintain our intellectual image and presentation of ourselves. Because we can clean up our conscious, social presentation, while we cannot clean up our deeper subconscious, emotional, and traumatic memories, we naturally shun them and find ourselves living an ever more intellectual, social, and superficial version of ourselves.
As we pad our memories with the good and distance ourselves from the bad we paint ourselves into a corner where the sun always shines but without the soil of reality not much grows. This is why our society has so many unhelpful elders. It’s a consequence of our indifference to and lack of responsibility for our larger environment. It comes from the illusion that because you fulfilled the terms of your employment, your work is done and you are due your reward. It’s the direction that many of us are headed.
Support or Isolation
Your personality is a set of unconscious habits and thoughtful intentions. A fungus grows out from a central point creating a starburst of tendrils in all directions as it looks for nutrition. This is how your thoughts develop from a central idea or condition, searching outward for recollections and encouragement. You’re attracted to some ideas and repelled from others. These triggers, once set off, dominate your attention until you put them out of your mind or are attracted to something else. They create a set of focus points that act like bits of food for thought.
When you encounter something toxic, your thoughts will try to disarm it. Toxic areas will be avoided, diverted, neutralized, or forgotten. They will be hidden or turned off. You won’t notice what you choose to avoid as that would bring it to your attention. This could include trauma you’ve experienced or inflicted on others. Just as we have the tendency to consciously justify, we have the tendency to create different memories unconsciously.
Isolation along with rejection are two of our great fears. Because these are actions rather than destinations we shape our personalities around our recognition of these needs. Social support is like breathing, it’s something we need all the time separate from our goals. We’re always assessing ourselves in social terms. To be rejected for achieving our goals is taken as a defeat. It takes a strong character to be indifferent.
Few of us are even aware of our style of thinking and don’t suit our thinking to our problems. We blame elements in the problem, the world, or ourselves for our lack of solutions when the real problem is how we’re thinking. We would do well to be more flexible.
There are reasons for our inflexibility. We’re rewarded for being skilled at one thing more than we’re rewarded for being skilled at many. I have found the truth is different: deeper rewards always come from broader skills and deeper thinking.
One gains skill in the usual way: practice. You do learn what you practice, but that doesn’t make it good. Practice often embeds poor performance. Even good performance doesn’t assure you of skillful thinking. You don’t necessarily learn skillful thinking when you learn a skill.
Because thinking is unknown territory, you must go into unknown territory to develop your thinking. Thinking is inherently creative, and there is no one measure of creativity. You cannot be tested on thinking because your creative potential is unique to you. Your creativity cannot be measured by your achievement of someone else’s goals.
A reasonable approach to any field is to get good at one thing first and then broaden your skills. This works in sports, music, art, science, relationships, and thinking. There is one big difference between these and thinking: no one teaches thinking.
It’s possible to teach thinking, but I question the wisdom of it. One learns to think in the context of situations, and without real situations one doesn’t really learn to think. The best way to learn to think is to perfect yourself in a variety of circumstances. You want to be able to navigate a variety of seas.
The worst way to learn is to do nothing, to avoid the water entirely.
The second worst way to learn is to get no feedback and consider nothing. A rudder doesn’t work unless there is something passing over it. You drift with no control.
The third worst way to learn is to become a specialist so that you see everything from a single perspective. You are a tool with a single setting. In each of these circumstances you are not developing the skills to compare, decide, or react.. You learn by reacting to what you don’t expect.
Most of our conclusions can be predicted given our style of thinking regardless of the details of the problem. A lack of thinking skills is a fundamental problem. If you explore what people say about having the right attitude, you’ll be encouraged to be positive, solution focused, collegial, and realistic. However, for a person who is depressed, oppressed, overpowered, or defeated, sunshine admonitions have no traction.
“Don’t waste your time in anger, regrets, worries, and grudges.
Life is too short to be unhappy.”
― Roy T. Bennett
For example, “the power of positive thinking” defines a thinking style. For most people, this means seeing things in a positive light. This weak interpretation imposes a bias indifferent to reality. Seeing things in a positive light can help you see the positive potential in situations, but it will not clarify what is obstructing positive outcomes. The overly optimistic thinker develops a strategy that presumes rather than protects the desired outcome. They will achieve failure due to circumstances they did not see and cannot control.
“You can always turn no into yes, and usually make people happy, but it’s a lot harder—sometimes too late—to change yes to no.”
― Bob Knight, from The Power of Negative Thinking:
An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results
Thinking of all possible threats to a positive outcome is seen by many as negative thinking. Such a negative thinker is always seeing dangers, threats, and problems but that does not mean that these are goals. In order to judge a strategy’s valence you have to see beyond the method to the goal. Our goals are often unclear because they are presumed rather than explained. We may see our near term goals and be blind to where they’re leading.
Negativity or positivity should be a property of reality not perspective. Recognize whether you’re talking about goals or means. Recognize negative means that lead toward positive goals if you want to avoid them. Recognize positive means toward positive goals if you want to engage them. The means and goals are separate parts of the process, but not always. In quite a few situations the journey is the destination.
Negative goals are a contradiction. Whatever your goal, it’s positive when you achieve it. Let’s redefine a negative goal as one that is destructive or disappointing. In many cases, the result of reaching your goal is something you won’t like. Your attitude along the way may be more of a reward than what you accomplish.
A positive perspective will not assure a positive goal, nor a negative perspective condemn you to a negative outcome. If you aim for security and achieve a secure job that makes you miserable, are you being positive or negative? Can you balance the emotional and the intellectual results? Can you see your paths and goals from both emotional and intellectual perspectives?
Duality and dichotomy
“In order to eat, you have to be hungry.
In order to learn, you have to be ignorant.
Ignorance is a condition of learning.”
― Robert Anton Wilson, from Leviathan
You may be admonished to avoid duality. There is a nondualist philosophy that’s popular among dualistic thinkers. As is usual, you cannot not have a thought or attitude unless you first have the attitude you aim not to have. Nonduality is a nonstarter because if you are really avoiding duality, then it does not exist for you to avoid. The truth is that we are duality machines. All analytical thought is built on contrasts. All rhythms are built on duality. Duality is fundamental to current, frequency, and resonance which are the building blocks of existence. Without duality, you cannot have the phenomena of time.
Dual thinking is fundamental but dichotomous thinking is not. Dichotomy is the existence of conflict and dichotomous thinking is thinking that creates conflict. This is a mode of thinking in which strife is a source of illumination such that without conflict, situations fade from view. A dichotomous person is one who exists for conflict and feels a lack of existence without it. I suspect that non-dichotomy is what most non-dualists are looking for. Until they use their language correctly, I don’t think they’ll find what they’re looking for.
Here is a dichotomy disguised as a duality: “Seeing the mud around a lotus is pessimism, seeing a lotus in the mud is optimism.” The duality lies in seeing contrast. The dichotomy lies in assigning opposite values to each.
A non-dualist view does not see the ground in contrast to the flowers and does not much mind the mud over the solid ground except for the extra effort required to walk over it. The nondualist doesn’t distinguish mud from solid ground, nor flowers from brambles. They don’t notice or appreciate the differences. Nondualists don’t have green thumbs. We need duality.
A non dichotomist sees the benefits and drawbacks of both kinds of grounds and plants. Mud and solid ground are both good and necessary, each for their own purposes. Flowers are as good as brambles, and neither are of greater value. They look, smell, and play different roles, but both need your respect, appreciation, and support.
Reduction and its opposites
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring
We reduce in order to analyze. We seem to be hardwired for simplicity. We think we have to reduce in order to understand things. This is an odd mistake. The world isn’t reductive. It doesn’t need to understand anything, and it has no trouble operating. The difference for us is that we’re trying to predict things so that we can pick our future.
You don’t need to be reductive to figure things out, but you do if you want to think linearly. If you think linearly, you reduce things to single events in order to understand them. There are a number of situations where this does not describe what’s happening, and where being reductive does not work.
Think of the future as if it were a maze. At every intersection you would like to know which way to go. You want a formula. The formula is only useful if it’s fairly simple, which means the maze needs to be fairly simple. Most of our games and entertainment center around maze-like situations where the choices are not simple.
We like reductive pictures because they let us focus on the steps of a path. We like this. We want to focus on a chain of events, to see our path and identify our paths with our destinations. If the destinations are our goals, then these paths will take us there.
This is all very orderly. We search for formulas that we can use. We train specialists to find formulas, elevate them to positions of authority, and follow their directions. We assume this kind of thinking will always work, but it’s a faulty assumption.
The more complex the situation, the less likely it will be reducible. In order to protect ourselves and assure success in thinking linearly, we build for ourselves limited and linear worlds. You can see this in our lifestyles, our economy, culture, and politics. It all starts with how we think.
There are several alternatives to being reductive. They are not opposites in the dualistic sense as there are more than two alternatives. Here are a few.
“My core philosophy is that I might be wrong.”
― Asaad Almohammad, from An Ishmael of Syria
Nonlinear things don’t go in a straight line. Nonlinear thinking changes direction in new ways. Creativity is a version of limited nonlinearity. To think nonlinearly, stop following your path when you get to a point where a decision can be made. At this juncture, consider a different rationale, consider a new direction, make a new decision, and then proceed in your usual, linear manner.
Nonlinear thinking is when you learn and apply new tools, or apply existing tools to novel situations. If you drove a car and now you ride a bicycle, then there will be some changes in your thinking that are nonlinear. If you had a childless marriage and now you have children, your life will no longer move in a straight line.
“If complete and utter chaos was lightning, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armor and shouting ‘All gods are bastards!’ ”
― Terry Pratchett, from The Color of Magic
Taking a random direction is not being creative and it’s not acting mindlessly, it’s accepting a loss of control. Random changes, and the thoughts that accompany them, need to be controlled to prevent them from being destructive.
A random change is not expected to solve anything. It’s purpose is to introduce novelty and the more novelty you want, the more blind you want to be. To accept a random change defer judgement, realign yourself, and step into a new situation.
Judgement is appropriate but which judgement and when to judge are not known. Your judgement may be linear but it should be different. Notice if you’re applying the same linear thinking as this may return you to your previous situation.
Random changes are nonlinear, but nonlinear changes may not be random. The weather changes non linearly but it appears to change randomly. Usually we try to undo the changes in the weather by rearranging our environment. In other cases we might make a random change in our routine, such as when the power fails or something happens unexpectedly.
Organic thinking is constantly reevaluating the situation and making choices. You are retaining your thinking, but you are making new choices. New ideas come from the environment and you must be open to them. The organic thinker holds few presumptions or preconceptions. They are attentive to needs and opportunities. They may be unreliable, but they are not irresponsible.
Resilience is the key property of organic thinking. Think of a long metal bar that will bend with pressure but regains its shape when the pressure is released. This will persist up to a point. Beyond that point the bent metal will not return to its original form. This is the metal’s elastic limit.
Organic thinking has its limits too. Below this limit, your way of thinking adapts to stress by deforming but returns to its original decision when the stress is removed. Above this limit your thinking changes permanently. All of this is organic, but the limits vary. There is no one limit that’s right for all situations.
The organic thinker holds no more structure than is required for the present, and will begin to change in response to small pressures. In the extreme, the organic thinker is a complete opportunist for whom the balance is always changing: an entirely mercurial person.
“He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”
― P. G. Wodehouse
To think chaotically is to think without structure. We mistake a lot of extreme behavior as being chaotic, such as psychotic or manic behavior. These are not chaotic, they are radically different. Even hysterical and uncontrolled emotional behavior need not be chaotic.
Chaotic thinking has no structure. Anything can enter into it and it can have any outcome. Obviously, this could be dangerous, so it needs limits in order to be part of a strategy.
Where organic thinking draws inspiration from the environment, chaotic thinking follows any direction. There are always some forces that come from somewhere. There is rarely anything that is truly random. What makes chaotic different from organic thinking is that you cannot recognize the forces affecting you or where they come from. Chaotic thinking is supernatural organic thinking, thinking that’s influenced by elements you cannot perceive or understand.
Chaotic thinking is fertile and difficult. It’s difficult to engage because it has the potential to conflict with everything. It’s difficult to apply because its results may fit nowhere. But if the drift is responsive to needs and opportunities, then it can open you to new patterns and possibilities.
Spontaneous Savant Syndrome is a chaotic change. In these rare situations an unexplainable event triggers the appearance of an unprecedented skill. Restoring a person’s sight would be a chaotic change. It would not be a chaotic process for the surgeon, but it would be a chaotic experience for the patient.
I am always trying to trigger chaotic thinking with my clients. Dreams are chaotic thinking. Past life regression is, at its best, a chaotic experience. A psychedelic experience can be chaotic.
Chaotic does not mean uncontrollable, it means unpredictable. You can throttle it back, but when you release it you won’t know where it will take you.
Your Thinking Potential
What I do is normally seen as therapy, but I’m not comfortable with that description. I work with people to explore alternative modes of thinking in a search for new discoveries. If you think of yourself as disabled, then this might be called therapy, but I encourage people to see themselves as enabled.
This work is just as important for a person who considers themselves able. In truth, it probably doesn’t matter what you think you are. If you lack ability, you can develop it. If you are already able, then you expand your limits. It is not true that you only use 5% of your brain, but it is true that you only use 5% of your ability.
If you have no challenges, then you have no needs. If you do have challenges, it isn’t what you lack that limits you, it’s what you’re able to become. If you’d like to open your potential and your opportunities, let me know.
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