Over Thinking

 You overanalyze everything.

This is from an email a friend recently sent me, but frankly, it could be attributed to any number of  friends from pretty much any period of my life. Hi, my name is Bruce, and I’m a thinker. This habit of overanalyzing leaves me prone to indecision as well.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve built a career on thinking. Teaching and writing, as well as promoting Sudbury schools, have for years required constant cultivation of my ability to craft and convey messages—all the more so when the message is complicated and/or foreign to the recipient’s experience. Over the years, my Sudbury work has frequently thrown me into novel situations with demands well outside my comfort zone.


Source: Destination Hollywood

While I relish such challenges, I do recognize the limits of an analytical point of view—but that growth was a long time in coming. When Star Wars: Episode I came out fifteen years ago, I distinctly recall my aversion to Qui-Gon’s advice to Anakin prior to the big pod race: “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts.” Put feeling first? What was that Jedi master thinking?

In searching for that quote, I also discovered this exchange between Obi-Wan Kenobi and his master:

Obi-Wan: But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.
Qui-Gon: But not at the expense of the moment.

It may be cliché, campy, or otherwise questionable to uphold Star Wars as a source of spiritual wisdom, but interestingly, in recent years I have found my way to a much older tradition.

Step aside from all thinking and there is nowhere you can’t go…

The more you think about these matters, the farther you are from the truth.

As a member of the Austin Zen Center, I chanted The Mind of Absolute Trust on a regular basis. And gradually, through this practice, I have come to a new perspective on the role and limits of thinking.

Yet I don’t believe the dichotomy of thinking versus feeling quite captures the dynamic I now perceive. Rather, my understanding of the term prajna comes closer to what I consider the counterpart or complement of analytical thought.

As a student very conscious of his Beginner’s Mind, I must emphasize that any explanation of prajna I advance is to be taken with several grains of salt. Often translated as “wisdom” or “understanding,” my Zen practice suggests it’s less about “cognitive acuity” (thanks, Wikipedia) and closer to intuition. Cultivating prajna makes one more likely to know spontaneously what to do in a given situation, without having to think about it.

With practice, one’s ability to still the mind increases and one’s vision clears. Feeling and thinking yield to just-seeing, just-connecting with one’s heart as well as the demands of the moment. Analysis of the situation, of causes and contingencies, is pre-empted by a more immediate kind of knowing inextricably linked to mindful awareness so strong, it’s like one (the small “I,” the ego) is hardly even there (though I suspect this may be what being fully present is like).

I’ve hardly got Jedi or Zen master skills, but I have noticed glimmers, every now and then, of something breaking through my analytical shell, times when I instinctively act without pausing first to consider my options. Knowing what a friend in need actually needs, knowing how to take care of myself in a given situation—let me tell you, having become estranged from my intuition growing up, these are victories worth celebrating, signs of real growth. I may well have found a path to a more authentic, fulfilled life.

Or so I think.

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