what I talk about when I talk about not thinking
Palengenesis by Lee Krasner
Carver talks about love and Murakami talks about running and I want to talk about the blissful, perfect feeling of my brain going completely blank. I can’t stop marveling at how thinking gets in the way of almost everything and yet all I ever do is think. I read a book where the author talked about how if you really observe your thoughts, you’ll notice that only 20% of them are actually useful. That’s it—20%. The rest is just you fretting, repeating yourself, circling the drain. This applies even for people who think for a living. You get all the useful thoughts out pretty quickly, and then the rest is noise.
Most of our little dramas occur completely in our heads—worrying about something, imagining elaborate worst-case scenarios, being paralyzed by anxiety, then worrying about the paralysis. There are so many times in my life when I look back and I’m like wow, I could’ve just skipped all the mental preamble and done the thing immediately. I was just tyrannizing myself.
I come at this from the vantage point of someone who spent most of her childhood and adolescent years tormented by anxiety. In the very classic lying-in-bed-every-night-spiraling-for-hours kind of way. In the examining-every-social-interaction-for-ways-I-fucked-up kind of way. In the I’ve-been-a-hypochondriac-since-I was-three kind of way. Generalized, generalized anxiety. The joke is that once I started thinking I could never stop—I used to lucid dream spontaneously when I was a kid and whenever I realized I was lucid I would immediately start panicking that I wouldn’t be able to escape the dream. I couldn’t pause my thoughts even when I was literally asleep.
Over time, I’ve learned to quiet my anxiety. Meditation, yoga, psychedelics, daily exercise, CBT—it works, more or less, to differing degrees. My mind is much quieter now. But I still fantasize about the moments of total blankness that occasionally descend like a curtain of snow. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I feel most like myself when I’m not thinking at all.
I know that my occasional desire to think about nothing at all is pretty universal. Evidence: the smooth brain meme. From an Wired article explaining the “head empty” jokes:
2020 has definitely been a year of ‘turn off your brain’ kinda memes,” says KnowYourMeme associate editor Zach Sweat. “Two of the biggest themes we've observed this year in meme culture are nostalgia and escapism. A desire to return to the past is one many people can relate to or share, so thus, it becomes a common trend in memes as well.”
When we’re overloaded we fantasize about a complete and total blankness. Kyle Chayka wrote an essay in January about how nothing became everything we wanted, highlighting the explosive popularity of sensory-deprivation tanks, minimalism, and anesthetic drugs as self-care among millennials as examples of "negation culture”:
This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I’ve come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreat, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic, betrays a grim undercurrent: a deepening failure of optimism in the possibilities of our future, a disillusionment that Covid-19 and its economic crisis have only intensified. It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose.
The desire to escape has certainly been amplified by the anxiety of the past decade (the anxiety of modernity, if you want to be dramatic), but I think it’s always been something we’ve longed for. It’s funny to me that a lot of negation culture revolves around a desire to return to a simpler time, because as far as I can tell there was never a simpler time: back when we were working in fields we just had a different set of problems. We were probably more stressed out, honestly. Even the Greeks were obsessed with “exercise as exorcism.” Humans were always looking for ways to blank out.
Going back to Murakami: I like running because running is a way to stop thinking. It might not happen during the first mile or second mile, but at some point your brain gives a weak little gasp and temporarily grinds to a halt. And I love the Carver book because love is a way to stop thinking: love as annihilation, love as utter absorption, love as your ego folding into someone else’s. The more overbearing your internal voice is, the more desperately you want to get away from it. Writers drink to quiet the neurotic compulsion to analyze. Anxious people are far more likely to experience limerence. Exercise, infatuation, and substances are the holy trifecta for people who haven’t mastered mindfulness.
There’s an essay by David Gessner that I’ve loved for years. He writes about his years at Harvard and how he decided to become a professional Ultimate Frisbee player. For me, there’s no other piece of writing that more powerfully evokes the irrational joy of a certain animal blankness and the desire to live inside that feeling forever.
Out of an old Dunlop tennis racket cover and some rope I fashioned a quiver, in which I kept my trusty Frisbee. On the way home I’d toss it into the wind and run it down, or float it out in front of me and dive after it. “First be a good animal,” said Emerson, and those words became my motto. I fancied myself a noble savage. When my workouts were done I’d cool down by plunging into the icy fall water.
There’s an experience that occasionally happens on psychedelics called ego death, where it feels like the entire construct of self that you’ve gripped onto tightly your whole life, the floorboards and walls and ceilings of the house that is you, suddenly splinters apart. For a glorious half an hour or so you’re totally free from yourself. It’s hard to sustain that experience or recreate it, but moments of blankness—of not thinking—are the closest most of us can get to an ego-less state. Running and love and frisbee: we’ll do anything to recreate that primal animal openness.
The simple fact was that nothing else made me feel so alive; nothing else gave me that sensation that Tom Wolfe, speaking of Chuck Yeager and the other young fliers at Edwards Air Force Base, called “rude animal health.” Playing Ultimate was one of the few times in my young life when I felt potent, and I was quickly becoming an addict of that feeling. Trying to describe the feeling now I keep coming up with words like “primal” or “tribal” and I’m afraid this might reek of the once-fashionable neo-primitivism of the men’s movement, but there was nothing contrived or literary about the feeling I was after, and I knew it to be real. I had been inside of it, and if anything in my world was true and to be trusted, it was that feeling. I was ready to follow it anywhere.
My favorite scene from Anna Karenina talks about the very same thing. This is the scene where Levin goes farming with the other farmers in his estate. They are so exhausted from manual labor that they are unable to think at all. And Levin considers it to be one of the very best days of his life
Thank you for this. Is this similar to the concept of flow pioneered by Mihaly?
I have experienced this feeling of thoughtlessness while playing sports, dancing to music (often but not necessarily drunk), deep into solving a technical problem, even on weed (before the paranoia sets in haha)
I had some weird moments of dissociation along with these thoughtless states in my childhood. I was playing catch with a tennis ball with a friend.. and maybe after half an hour of this I suddenly realized I wasn't thinking at all, and then I felt I wasn't myself, that I was dreaming. It was very unsettling. These moments became more frequent over time until I became permanently dissociated for years