Modes of thought

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A writer quickly learns that he must think in a new way: a way that prioritises creativity at the expense of accuracy and technical completeness. When you are learning a new skill it seems obvious that you must improve your technical knowledge. But if continued ad infinitum this leads to a kind of paralysis.

Imagine that you are a general the night before an important battle. It is essential that you gain as much information as possible about the enemy – his position and weaponry, his likely strategy given the lay of the land between you, the weather forecast, the lines of supply you might cut, your own logistics requiring protection. As the battle begins this information demand goes into overload. The changing conditions mean that all information you gathered the day before is now out-of-date and needs constant refreshing. As the battle evolves some information becomes critical and other information becomes superfluous, distracting even.

We can extend this idea to life in general – how often do we get trapped in the past, or see others living as if nothing had changed in the last ten years? We are constantly in a mismatch between our expectations and reality, and this can be the cause of a great deal of unhappiness.

The problem is that there is too much information for the conscious mind to compute. However it has been shown that the unconscious part is far better at processing large amounts of information and coming up with the answer required. But even this has limits.

Consider the magic number seven. Our telephone landlines were traditionally only 6 or 7 numbers because any more than 7 and the mind has trouble remembering the digits. The point is that it is essential not to overburden the mind with too much information at one time.

For this reason, when Word highlights an error as I type I do my level best not to go back and correct it. If I did that my train of thought would be broken, and the destination that I have in mind (0f which I am largely unaware of), would be lost. This is very difficult, but the mode of thought I am trying to access operates only at high speed. Thinking out each word before you write it will never produce the creativity I am talking about. This is a creativity not owned by you or me: small cogs in the great machinery of the world, but is a creative mode of thinking that plugs into the whole world at once. It simultaneously knows the weather and the lay of the land between your army at that of your enemy. It produces what is needed at the time. Sometimes even it may be overwhelmed, then it is the job of consciousness to decide what information to look at; what to feed unconsciousness. Then this unconscious, non-personal way of thinking can learn to do better next time.

You will not see this at work as it happens, but you can be witness to the results and undeniably it does work. Its mode of thinking is a brilliant addition to the slower learning mode. Both are needed – for when I check this though I know my writing will be full of errors. But I also know it will contain ideas I didn’t know I had.

It took only about six or seven minutes to write the basic outline of this piece, and well over half and hour to edit it. This is the proper balance of time between the two phases. It is in the first phase that all the magic happens.

Applied to life as a whole, using this way of thinking can help you stay closer to the calm at the centre of the storm that is life, and keep a little more in touch with how things really are. Some loss of control must be acknowledged in the exact manner of expression and a technical minutia, for it is no longer the little ‘you’ that is doing all the thinking and making the decisions. But then it never really was, was it?

Letting go of our imagined control over the massive number of elements that make up the present moment is, in my view, one of the key requirements for a happier life. It certainly makes for better writing.


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