Heart Murmurs – Beyond The Tyranny Of Compulsive Thinking

By: David Edwards

It is one of the wonders of the internet that anyone can communicate with pretty much anyone, more or less instantly. Over the last decade, we at Media Lens have received thousands of emails from readers, supporters and critics all over the world. We can’t help noticing trends in the flood of human communication passing through our inboxes.

Surprisingly perhaps, we tend to receive more criticism from people who fundamentally agree with us than from people who think we’re ‘loony lefties’ (we don‘t get much emailed criticism from the right). Among these critical supporters, some of them very reasonable, we encounter a small number of a broadly similar personality type. These are intellectuals (by which I simply mean people who clearly spend a large part of their day thinking and writing about intellectual problems) – their analyses are meticulous, detailed and articulate, but also (from our perspective) wildly irrational. They might best be described as clever rather than intelligent.

Their style of communication is relentless, insistent and cold, characterised by an almost complete lack of human feeling. The sense is of people who live entirely in their heads – they are thinkers, analysts, above all else. It is as though their minds have been completely hijacked by their egos. And the ego’s primary concern, as we all know, is to be ‘right’, ‘the winner’, ‘special’.

Thinking is of the ego, feeling is of the heart. The reason I’m mentioning these critics is not to hit back at them, but because they indicate a risk in activism, dissent, and intellectual work generally, especially in the age of the internet, to which I also am not immune. If we live too much in our heads, if we devote our lives to thinking, analysing, to writing endlessly critical commentaries and emails, the emotional supply lines to our hearts can become stretched, strained, even broken.

Excessive thinking has a constipating effect on our emotions: there is a dry, lifeless quality to it. Just as our digestive systems need fruit and vegetables with a high water content to work happily and well, so our souls need juicy emotions and feelings. If we live in our heads all day, every day, we can become rational monsters – mechanical, cold, relentless, almost inhuman.

The risk in political activism is that we can lose connection to the emotional centre that acts as our moral compass, that acts as a navigational corrective to our ego. The ego doesn’t give a damn about moral direction; it just wants to win the argument. So we can easily lose sight of the bigger moral picture, becoming obsessed with being ‘right’, even though it is of almost zero moral significance, or even harmful, in the grand scheme of things.

If we live totally in our heads, then our egos, our sense of self, can come to identify so closely with our ideas that defeat in an argument can feel like a threat to our existence. If we believe, with Descartes, ‘I think, therefore I am’, it is not such a big leap to believe, ‘I am right in what I think, therefore I am.’ If someone tries to kill our argument, we can feel as though they are trying to kill +us+ as individuals. The argument can seem of life-and-death importance, of earth-shattering significance.

A tiny step back and we can perceive the utter absurdity of taking an email exchange, or a swapping of posts on a message board, so seriously (and have you really taken stock of the sheer number of comments posted on a million threads on a million websites on every imaginable subject?)

Of Great Thinkers And Great… Feelers?

Our culture lauds the “great thinkers” and people love to consider themselves “intellectuals”. But I have always known that my own thinking and writing are rooted in feeling.

As a child, I felt there was something wrong about having my intelligence periodically “examined” at school to determine whether I was “bright” or “dim” so that I could be “streamed”. I had no idea why it felt wrong. I assumed the wrongness was in me, in my way of seeing things – perhaps I was lazy or frightened of doing badly. I +felt+ there was something wrong about people being really happy when they came first in exams, and being really unhappy, deeply ashamed, when they came last. But why +wouldn’t+ you feel happy at coming first? I had no idea; it just seemed problematic.

I felt there was something wrong about wearing a suit-uniform and conforming to the rules of life in a corporate office. When I smiled at my boss, or at people who worked for me, or at customers, something was wrong, something ached inside. When people asked each other on a Monday morning if they had had a good weekend, there was something curious about the way the question was usually answered, about the way the question in a sense +had+ to be answered. But what was wrong? and why? I had no idea.

Later, I felt there was something wrong about the conventional idea of happiness. I recently saw a girl walking outside a supermarket wearing a T-shirt that read: “I’m Happy When I Get What I Want.” It seems to me that the whole problem and wonder is that this +isn‘t+ true for any of us. And then there was something wrong about the way journalists seemed to delight in the presence of the presidents and prime ministers they were interviewing, and so on.

It is rather like waking up in the morning with the subtle emotional afterglow of a dream in your chest – you know you have dreamt something that has affected you in some way. But what was it? The mind has to gently explore without stirring up a level of mental activity that will completely swamp memories of the dream. In a similar way, it is as though my mind has to sit quietly, respectfully, and try to interpret the murmurings of my heart: ‘Ah, whether I come first or last in my exams, I feel separate from the people around me – winning is also tainted with the misery of isolation, loneliness. “Success” brings a feeling of separation, but friendship, love and happiness all arise from belonging and closeness.’ The reality is that all of us are ‘ordinary’ – the idea that we have proven ourselves to be ’special’ in some way separates us from reality. To live apart from reality is to suffer various kinds of torment.

The heart is aware of this; the head is not. This is why it has always seemed to me that my heart educates my head, rather than the other way around. The head, actually, can be brutal, even barbaric. Any interesting ideas or realisations I have had have originated in my heart – my head just puts them into words.

When Spring Rushes Forward

As children, we have a million thoughts, of course, but there is space for a million feelings, too. Some of these are compassionate, kindly, loving – these are the feelings that cause us to think about others, to engage in some kind of activism. As we get older, the problems we face can generate a momentum of thinking that causes the mind to become all-powerful, domineering – feelings can start to seem like a distraction.

Ironically, people may find themselves fully engaged in trying to change the world and yet be entirely empty of compassion and kindness inside. As XTC’s inspirational singer-songwriter Andy Partridge sang of his musical career:

“I’m soaring over hushed crowds, the reluctant cannonball it seems. I’m soaring over hushed crowds – I’m propelled up here by long-dead dreams.”

How many activists end up propelled by “long-dead dreams”, by feelings of compassion that have long since vanished? It is not that we become more cautious and conservative as we get older; we become more head-stuck – we lose touch with our feelings. This is why we lose our concern for others.

In my teens and early twenties, I loved the rich, lyrical writing of the English novelist and short story writer H.E. Bates. In one story, The Grass God, Bates wrote:

“Outside he walked some distance before realising how warm and beautiful the evening was: that the oaks, merely sprigged with buds a week ago, were now in full flower, lovely tasselled curtains of olive-yellow, already browned at the tips by the great burst of sun. All among them, too, big hawthorns were in solid pillowy white blossom, and he could smell the heavy vanilla fragrance of them as it weighted the warm wind. Spring seemed suddenly to have rushed forward, too warm, too leaf-rich, too flowery, out of the cold tight distances of a week ago.”

This is the kind of awareness and wonder that is bludgeoned senseless by compulsive thinking. Bates’ concern was not so much with nature as with his awareness that sensitivity of feeling was the source of all aliveness and love.

As the contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has said so beautifully, when we regard any other being without the interference of thought, love naturally arises. Why? Because when the mind is silent we can become aware that the heart feels a deep identity with the aliveness and being of the other, and this resonance of identity is the source of love and compassion: ‘He or she is alive, as I am alive. In this we are the same.’ This is not thought but sensed, and our being smiles, as it were, at the recognition – it is this smile of recognition that we call love. (I feel this strongly, at time of writing, as I see the Chilean miners trapped below ground for more than two months being released from their hell. These are poor, hard-working folk falling to their knees in gratitude that they are somehow still alive – the recognition of our shared aliveness as human beings is very clear).

It is this love that guides and humanises the thinking mind. By contrast, when we regard others +with+ thought, the ego-driven mind quickly labels and judges, emphasising difference and hierarchy – any subtle resonance of identity is drowned by the cacophony of mental noise.

We often wonder at how much happier, how much more alive, we were as children. Adults seem to be carved of stone by comparison. One reason is that, as children, we noticed the world. We lay in bed listening to the sound of the wind in the trees at night and of the traffic in the mornings. But how many of us adults are able to listen to these things for even a moment before our attention is sucked back into a vortex of thoughts about past and future – into the infinity of problems surrounding both – and away from the present moment where reality, and compassion, actually is?

This is why the great teachers of human culture have told us that liberation +has+ to involve freedom from compulsive thinking. We cannot be free, if we are not here, now, living in the present moment. The ultimate price we pay for excessive intellectuality is that we are not fully alive, not truly awake, and not fully human.

What are we supposed to do about this dehumanising effect of excessive intellectuality? The answer is staggeringly simple and readily available. And like everything that is simple and available, it is the sworn enemy of the people who would keep us bewildered, on our knees, and head-stuck. I hope to return to this theme in a future Cogitation.