Why How We Come to Conclusions Is More Important Than The Conclusions We Come To

How you think is more important than what you think because how you think is the skill that creates your thoughts, while what you think is an idea that only exists in your imagination.

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
Christopher Hitchens, from Letters to a Young Contrarian (2009)

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)

What is the “lubrication” that enables us to come to a smooth and balanced conclusion? When we’re confronted with a disturbance and get knocked out of our usual orbit there are many places we might land. Some conclusions are more obvious, immediate, accommodating, reassuring, and comfortable. Some are more subtle, complex, destabilizing, and honest. What gets us past our confusion?

We make our first judgements based on what we think the choices require. We secondarily focus on the truth. But we rarely focus on the skills that enable us to think, feel, act, and be resolved.

Yet it is clear that if we cannot think, act, or feel resolved, then we can never commit to our conclusions. I am calling that “thing” that enables us to move through the thicket of our thoughts “lubrication.”

If I can help you to the end of your paved road, or if you’ve been there and beyond, contact me.

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It’s not clear. Lubrication is not an idea or a thing, it’s an engagement. It’s about holding two or more thoughts in mind at once.

Consider how you learn anything. If it’s something new, you can’t understand it in an old way. But if it’s entirely new, then you can understand it at all. We learn by fitting round pegs into square holes and enduring the irritation until our boxes break. Real learning must change something, and this means passing through a place of not knowing. The longer you can stay in that place, the more you learn.

Lubrication is being able to retain your awareness in between the state of being attached and oriented, and being lost and confused. Understanding emerges from confusion, not from what you know.

Knowledge is a confusing term. Does it mean what you know or what’s known? And if you don’t know something, how can you be sure that anyone else does? And if you do know something and it doesn’t work, then what do you really know?

I like thinking about the foundations of physics. I’ve read the explanations of hundreds of people, published over the course of 100 years, and still neither I nor anyone else has any more knowledge than I had on the first day the fundamentals of quantum mechanics were “explained” to me. And this includes all the celebrated physicists and their weighty, mathematical tomes on the subject.

This is a metaphor for many other puzzles we encounter, psychological ones in particular. Like these physicists, psychologists write weighty tomes that explain how we think. They are famous, they win awards, and they don’t know fuck-all.

At least the physicists admit it; those who really think about it. Good thinkers are always reticent, and that’s long been recognized. The challenge is this: how can you distinguish between a sage and a fraud? To whom should you listen? The answer is easy: no one.

I’m publishing my next book, “Instant Enlightenment: Awakening States of Mind.” One publisher graciously responded with a lengthy critique, the gist of which was that the book is disjointed and confusing. I should find test readers and start over.

With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
Ray Bradbury, from Fahrenheit 451

Charlie Townes, one of my physics mentors and the inventor of the laser, said that you should think seriously about criticism that comes from people you respect. And I did think seriously about this criticism until I realized that I didn’t respect this person. The publisher was basically saying, “I sell hammers, and your book is a pointy thing with a contraption at the end. Go back and create a heavy stick that’s good for bashing. That’s what readers want.”

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Hammers and Screwdrivers

This is the way most people react to a new idea. To most of us, everything is a nail and we want a big hammer. When I offer you a light stick to turn your problems round and round, you give me a queer look and laugh.

The key insight, in this case, was that the criticism offered to me was leading me back into “the box.” It was offered with no recognition of the real problem, solution, means, or engagement. There was no recognition that content might play a role. To fail to recognize the confusion is to miss the point and the opportunity.

Why did the publisher bother to write me? Their criticism could be addressed to anyone who wrote anything? For most of us, manipulation is its own reward. We want to fit our problems into our preconceptions and have the world change around us. That way, we can ingest anything, turn the handle, and feed the beast. Like dogs, we’ll be happy eating whatever we find and, if our personalities are as acidic as a dog’s stomach, we could digest shit. Life is much easier when you have low standards.

Engagement is a key word. Authentic engagement allows you to slip past your preconceptions. I’m authentically engaged with reality. I have spent 50 years reading explanations of quantum mechanics and rejecting them because I’m not satisfied with their answers. I’m engaged with a process that’s meaningful to me, not a puzzle of someone else’s making.

Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
Thomas A. Edison

If finding meaning is the central problem in our lives, and thinking could get us there, then Thomas Edison’s estimate of 85% failure is generous! How many people do you know who are going to figure it all out before they die? Fifteen percent?

Thinking is not enough. Life issues require more than approaching each problem as if it’s a nail. Not even a screwdriver will solve life’s problems. But if you can build a tool that connects your outer world with your inner self, a thing that engages you and that you create for yourself, then that tool could be the key.


In brain training, the optimal target state is one of attentive disengagement. A state in which you are perceptive and aware, but unencumbered with thoughts, anxieties, or preconceptions. This is a brain state, not an idea. It is something you can learn to do and apply everywhere. It’s a state of full engagement.

In emotional training, the optimal state is one of deep feeling without action. Taking no action from a state of full engagement feels unstable because strong emotions call for action, like sirens calling you into the sea. Odysseus wanted to hear the sirens’ call but knew that no one can resist it, so he had himself lashed to the mast and his sailors ears plugged with wax. Can you imagine a feeling for which you would risk your life? Can you be triggered without reacting?

Imagine that feeling, and imagine that you can resist it. Encounters like this bring people to me in frustration. They have been traumatized and they’re in distress. Their relationships might be collapsing and they cannot escape, or dissatisfaction is consuming them and they don’t know which way to turn. They are ever more clearly seeing what they want, but cannot reach it.

I encourage them because I see they are engaged. If they persevere, they may prevail. Their success is not assured. They must still fashion a new craft for their transition, but with engagement enlightenment is possible. I encourage them because what they need—I think what we all need—is to see beyond our limits, through the confusion beyond, to something greater on the other side.

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Your True Self

Lubrication is none of these things, it comes from a commitment to your true self. It can come from deep dissatisfaction. For some people this means going to the bottom, a siren’s call to abandon ship. A lucky few are connected to deep satisfaction. For them, this is a call to creative engagement. I’m sad to say these people don’t come to me.

You don’t need to know your true self, which is good because you never will. It’s not knowable in the captured and contained sense, but you can connect with it. It’s like an aquifer; you can’t live down there in the dark waters, but you can tap into it. What you get is a flowing spring that provides an elixir.

Your connection with your true self is alchemical. It is a balanced power of emergence and personal growth. You only find it when you search for it. You get no more of it than you’re willing to accept on its terms. If you misuse it, it will disappear. Lubrication is inspiration, and you find it when you become it, losing your form and become fluid.

Human beings… don’t use the knowledge the spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere–a paved highway which they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they’ll find at the end.”
Lame Deer, Lakota shaman


Hitchens, C. (2005 Apr). Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books.

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