Think, Think, Think
By Andy Stanton-Henry
“I’ll have to think about it.”
We often use some version of this response when approached with an important question or invitation. In religious circles, we may use the spiritual version: “I’ll have to pray about it.”
But do we do it?
Do we really take time think about a question or decision?
Or…do we take time to worry about a question or decision?
I you’re like me, you probably do a combination of the two.
Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if the Spirit is inviting us as leaders to hear an invitation through the ancient prophet Winnie the Pooh: “Think, think, think.”
Leaders are thinkers. Not necessarily intellectuals or academics, but people who use their minds in service to the divine, their ministry, and their neighbors.
Quakers have a rich history of education, scholarship, publication, etc. Nevertheless, many Friends are cautious about emphasizing the life of the mind. Some Quaker strands and seasons have seen the mind as a barrier to the spirit.
Indeed, not all kinds of thinking are equally valuable. Some ways of thinking get in the way of our spiritual listening. We could talk about the recovery community’s awareness of “stinking thinking” or the Eastern wisdom traditions’ teachings on “monkey mind.” And just about all of us know the patterns of “overthinking.”
Even with these cautions, however, we still really need leaders who take time to think. Why should we prioritize time to “think, think, think”?
- Because cognitive distortions abound. Unhealthy thought patterns are not a reason to think less but to think better, and more holistically. We need to think about our thinking – to notice mindsets or “soundtracks” that are not serving us well.
- Because unexamined leadership can do damage. If we don’t address those “cognitive distortions,” it impacts the people and places we serve. See…the news.
- Because we need deep leaders. I agree with Richard Foster that “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” There are plenty of gurus and influencers out there with quick fixes and flashy programs. We need Quaker leaders who think deeply, pray deeply, and share deeply.
- Because truth takes work. Quakers insist on the generous revelation of Spirit. We discover truth in contemplative, covenantal community. But sometimes we slip over into “cheap truth.” We think spiritual revelation and intuitive sensing means we can bypass intellectual labor. Truth requires the wisdom of our spirits, our bodies, and our minds.
- Because good thinking is a form of prayer. Jesus reminds us, drawing from the great Shema of his Judaism, that we are called to love God with our mind (as well as our heart, soul, and strength). It honors the divine when we use the brains God gave us. It is a form of prayer because it expresses the divine design for human beings and because we can use it to “think with/in God” about our lives and leadership. It becomes a way we pray, in the words of one Russian Orthodox scholar, by “descending with the mind into the heart” where we behold the divine face.
I know you all are busy and people depend on you. Time to “think, think, think” doesn’t come easily. And it’s more plausible for some of us than others, depending on the season of life and leadership. But here are some suggestions for how you might take time to think – deeply, clearly, and prayerfully.
- Become unavailable. I’m indebted here to Elton Trueblood with his teaching that a public person must learn to hide, because a person who is always available isn’t worth enough when they are available. Might sound a little harsh, but remember that there are really smart, really rich people invested in distracting you with apps and advertisements. It’s their whole job. So shut off your devise and remove yourself from distractions for a concrete period of time for deep thought. Research confirms that we are not nearly as adept at multitasking as we’d hope. So leave the shallows for a bit.
- Write it out. I’m a big believer in journaling. Good journaling allows us to process prayers and feelings. It also allows us to think on paper. Choose a particular topic or specific event. After all, as educator John Dewey noted, we don’t learn from experience so much as reflection upon experience. So write everything that comes to mind about that topic or event, noticing words, images, insights, or questions that emerge. You may access an inner wisdom you didn’t realize you had.
- Clarify your question. Sometimes we have not because we ask not. Or we “ask not” specifically enough. It’s useful to clarify, in detail, what question you are asking, what topic you are pondering, and how you can go about seeking answers. It’s an important part of a clearness committee (at least in many variations) to clarify the question the focus person is presenting to the committee. This detail work doesn’t take the mystery or spirituality out of the process, it allows us to live the questions with intentionality and receptivity.
- Go long (and slow). Psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes that the human mind has two kinds of systems that allow us to “think fast” and “think slow.” System 1 enables us to think quickly, instinctively, and emotionally. System 2 enables us to think slowly, logically, and deliberately. We need both. But living in crisis and distraction means we access only System 1. So slow down and do something long-form. Real a whole book. Join a book study. Watch a lecture. Listen to a long-form podcast. Take a class.
- Get lunch. Ask someone out to coffee or lunch to have a long conversation. Let them know you are pondering a particular question and want to hear their thoughts. People like being listened to and feeling like their experience and expertise matter. They will share things you’ve never thought about and maybe help bring forth ideas hidden inside your brain. So grab a beverage or some food and think with someone else.
- Walk into wisdom. The best thinking is holistic; it engages our bodies and emotions and spirituality. Walking is a great way to engage your whole person in thought. This is why walking the labyrinth is one my central spiritual practices. As I wind around the path, I’m better able to access my whole mind and whole self. Kierkegaard noted that sitting still isn’t always the best place to ponder. “I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” he observed, “and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” He was attesting to the old Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando – “it is solved by walking.”
So, do stay “still and cool in thy mind,” as Fox advised.
But also, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch,” as Jesus advised.
Who knows what we will find there. It might be just what you, or we, need.
What do you think?