Thinking with the Whole Body

My experience of thinking has changed in the last couple years from what it had been before.  The difference seems to me significant and worthwhile, so I'm going to try to describe the difference, touch on how it may have come about, and then argue for its value both as a way of thinking (and deciding and acting).

I've only registered this change the last couple years, and I didn't use to think about thinking much.  But now that I do, I'm trying to remember what had been before.  So take what I say about the past with a grain of salt; I think it's true, but I'm basically inferring and trying to recollect from ambiguous memories.

In the past, thinking was something that seemed to occur "in my head" or in some abstracted mental-only space.  I thought deliberately when making a decision or analyzing a problem, and non-deliberately when daydreaming or getting lost in anxiety.  But in all cases I usually experienced it happening "up there".  Likely due to my own information sensitivities, when meeting someone for the first time, encountering a new idea, or having any other experience that brings a wealth of new or interesting information, the up-there-ness would grow intense, in the same way and for the same reason that a puppy might recoil from a potentially unfriendly human stranger.

Thinking came in discreet chunks.  I tried to control and manipulate blocks of information, usually as words, and I seemed to generally succeed.  Again, these discrete blocks of information appeared somehow in an abstracted, mental-only space or, if in my body at all, definitely associated with my head.  Thinking was an isolated event, separate from external sensory perception and separate from external events.  Thinking was something I did by, to, and for myself alone.

Now all of this is different.  Instead of thinking with just my head, or with no body at all, I experience thinking as occurring within and throughout my whole body.  The tiny tensions that happen in my leg have meaning.  Even more so sensations in my stomach and chest, and still too, my head. I can feel the potential and actual cognitive implications of various external stimuli as they interact with and affect my body.  Discreet chunks of word-thoughts occur only after these subtler, more sensual impulses. However, these impulses are not necessarily softer or easier to handle.  In fact, they can be more intense, because they feel less mediated, more direct, more personally and emotionally vulnerable, faster, more malleable, less determinate, and less graspable.  They can be harsh and loud, or gentle and quiet. And yet, in all cases, they carry relevant, meaningful information.

Not all physical sensations seem to imply cognitive meaningfulness.  Stubbing my toe is not equivalent to rethinking my philosophy.  However, I can watch how even those painful sensations lead to emotional responses which lead to changes in my momentary thinking and might influence larger views.  Just like small ripples move out to influence the whole pond.  Once the ripples reach shore, it would be naive to say that they don't influence the shore at all; though the degree of their individual impact is small, their cumulative consequence is not obvious, and may be large.

One of the other big differences is that I see myself much less as the controller and manipulator of my own thinking.  My process of thinking is often now a process of listening more than it is a process of doing, changing, building, or maintaining.  I often make decisions not just by "figuring things out" through rationality, but by feeling the entire impact of the question on my body, taking in the whole spectrum of physical, emotional, and rational responses and their interactions.  The decision question is the small stone or raindrop that lands in the pond of my experience, and its ripples are wide and various.

It's hard to know exactly how these changes came about, though I'll offer my hypotheses.  Likely there are many reasons, but four stand out most prominently. The first is having gone through a shift in how I experience my own identity from something that is definable and separate to something that is undefinable, though concrete, and in some ways omnipresent and timeless.  This also feels like a shift out of identifying with mental images as myself and falling into my heart or center of my chest as the primary center of who I am.  When people talk about undergoing a spiritual awakening, we're in the rough ballpark of what I'm talking about. The second is a lot of emotional healing that's letting me be more relaxed in my body.  By being more relaxed in my body I'm able to be more aware of small physical and emotional movements, and to be okay with them.  Both this and the first reason contribute to the loosening of feeling like I need to be in control of the world, and even that I'm in control over all of what I consider 'me.'  Third is a sometime intensive, sometime off-and-on, meditation practice over the last several years consisting of paying attention to the sensations in my body and other subtle interior processes.  And the fourth is the general intellectual maturation coming from increased age, learning, and repeated attempts to understand the world in deeper, more comprehensive, and more accurate ways, including reading and learning from good teachers.

There are two main benefits I find from these changes - one proximate and one ultimate.  The proximate benefit is that I now seem to have access to a lot more information that I did before.  Sometimes this is overwhelming, overly complex, or requires extended consideration.  But this is not necessarily the case.  My decisions seem to be informed by more accurate information and more comprehensive interpretations.  Ultimately, I think this change has led to better decisions.  And by better I mean decisions that let me care for others more effectively, be happier myself, and act in ways that have more long-lasting and more profound affects.  These are what I care about so that's why I think the decisions are better.

Reflecting on all this has often led me to wonder what "thinking" means at all.  Now much more than before the content of thinking comes as whole gestalts, rather than as discreet chunks at all.  On a smaller scale this means that ideas and their implications, like for this essay, come all at once as feelings or as subtle wordless shifts in sensation and perception, which can be thoroughly unpacked into an entire essay, but which more or less "arrived" all at once.  On a larger scale, we can see thinking as one way of processing and responding to information.  In fact, even to say "processing," is simply to say responding.  And from the implicit subjectivity-infused perspective that is the only one immediately obvious to us, we could say that the whole universe is thinking, and we're a part of that.  The whole universe is always learning - always being influenced by events, and responding to those events, leading to more events, encoding more information into these new responses.  This is exactly the same as I how I now view my personal thought process.

So where do we draw the line between the activity of thinking and some other activity?  And where do we draw the line between our own thinking and the rest of the world that impacts on us? What I used to think of as thinking is only a narrow slice of what I now use the word for.  Thinking doesn't happen apart from physicality, it happens throughout the whole body, and also I'd say, throughout everything.