When I was 17 years old, a guy in a pub back in Dublin made the following observation about me -‘you think too much’. I’ve spent the last 24 years listening to gurus, following the advice of experts, doing spiritual practices, participating in recovery programs, and reading the self-help books, but none of it has improved upon that observation by a guy in a bar who was most likely drunk when he gave it. If anyone is deserving of the title of ‘my guru’, he has to be it.
The powerful insight given to me by my guru was flawless, but in the style of a Zen master, he left it to me to work out the implications. His words initially fell flat on my ears – at the time they seemed about as helpful as the recommendation ‘to cheer up’ given to somebody battling severe depression, but I never forgot what he said. In fact, my guru kept appearing to me at regular times throughout my life in the form of friends, girlfriends, and strangers all offering the same wisdom. It has taken me all these years to unravel the amazing truth my guru handed me that day.
Looking for Something Tasty in a Pile of Manure
If I had fully reflected on what my guru told me that rainy afternoon back in Dublin, I could have saved myself a lot of suffering. Maybe, if I’d understood that the problem was actually my thinking, I would have avoided wasting so much time looking to my thoughts, and the thoughts of other people, for answers. Instead, I went on a futile hunt in the world of thought not realizing that this was just fueling the problem.
At this point, I think it is important to distinguish between two different types of thought. There is type of thought that is needed to do stuff like figuring out how to use squat toilet. This flavor of thinking is incredibly useful, I couldn’t survive without it, and best of all, it is under my control – I give my brain a problem, and it has the job of producing a solution. I would also include creativity under the category of ‘good’ thinking although this is less under my control. I would say that much less than 1 per cent of my thinking involves this type of useful thought.
There is another type of thought that is more sinister, and it is there as a constant soundtrack playing in my head (people who meditate refer to this as the ‘monkey brain’). This inner-voice is always make judgments about me and the outside world, and it has an opinion and beliefs about everything – it is this type of thinking that my guru was referring to when he said I do too much of it.
Shit My Brain Says
Thinking too much has at times made my life a living hell. It has been the source of my episodes of depression, and I spent almost two decades as a habitual drunk in an attempt to escape this constant mental chatter. In the past, my response has been to add even more thoughts, beliefs, and opinions into the mix but of course this was the last thing I needed – it was like trying to put out a fire using a flame-thrower.
The key to escaping my suffering is to stop thinking so much. Unfortunately, I can’t just tell my brain to just shut up, but I can put my attention wherever I want it to be. I do this by switching my focus to physical movement and sensations in my body. Right now when I’m typing this, I can feel my fingers hitting the keys. When I’m walking, I feel the soles of my feet coming into contact with the ground. When I focus like this, I’m free of my thoughts, and the more I do it, the freer I become.
This simple change in my approach to the world is far more powerful than any spiritual/religious/therapeutic advice I’ve ever been given – it makes all that stuff seem meaningless and surplus to requirements. I can’t use thoughts to convince you how much better this could make your life, but I invite you to try it for yourself. I’d like to thank my guru for sharing this wisdom with me, and I hope he was able to benefit from it himself.