How You Can Use Thought Strategically—So Thought Doesn’t Use You
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How You Can Use Thought Strategically—So Thought Doesn’t Use You

Thought is a great evolutionary advance in consciousness, yet it has a sneaky side effect that is mitigated only when it is a skillful follower, not a leader.

How you can use thought strategically – So thought doesn’t use you

By Ginny Whitelaw
Originally published on on June 1st, 2024

Image created by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Dark and cobwebby, the old mansion held some secret the woman had to uncover. There it was, the door—don’t open the door!—but of course she opens the door. Slow and creaking, it gives way and an ax-wielding maniac springs toward her. I recall exactly that moment sitting in the movie theater as a child when I couldn’t take any more fright and instantly went up into my head to think my way through it. “It’s only a movie. These are actors. This is made up,” my thoughts reassured me. Mentally separating from the scene calmed me down and even my 8-year-old self could draw a rational learning: no more horror movies.

Years later, standing on the deck outside the Zen training hall during a week of intensive training, my senses fell open to the breaking point: ginger and jasmine carried on the wind, the swishing sound of leaves applauding, the moon shone brightly behind wisps of passing clouds, as the crickets kept time. The beauty was overwhelming and there I felt it again. I started thinking, giving a narrative to what I was experiencing, rather than just experiencing it. I could actually feel how thought was separating me from the moment in order to report on it like a newscaster. I could feel that this separation is what thought does.

Of course, thought is a great evolutionary advance in consciousness and no leader can function without it. Yet, on close inspection, thought is a dual-edged sword. We can either use thought strategically to realize futures we want to bring into the present or we can be used by unconscious habits of thought to stay a layer away from the present moment, at which distance we cause problems for ourselves and others. Fortunately, we have several allies in taming and guiding thought so that we can use it well, namely: heart, breath and hara.

The stakes for using thought the right way could not be higher. We don’t normally regard the ills of our modern age—from climate to war, racism or runaway technologies—as the consequence of thought, but in fact, they are all sourced in the separation that thought enables. Thought allows us to distance ourself, not only from a scary movie, but from someone we’ve wronged or who has wronged us, a part of the earth we’ve misused, or a catastrophe that has happened to us. By this point in time, our human story and individual stories are riddled with such trauma, which both fosters our shift into thought-separation and is made worse by our very process of separating. Separation may sterilize our experience, but it also erodes our resilience and puts us out of step with reality.

This point was made in a most compelling way by Elder Ilarion Merculieff in the recent Living and Leading with Deep Resilience Summit (hosted by the Institute for Zen Leadership, which I lead). “We have an upside-down society,” he says. “The heart should tell the head what to do. But now the head is telling the heart what to do.” The heart represents not only an anatomical organ, but our felt sense of beingness, our subjective experience, whereas head speaks to our objective thought process. When we lead with connected, heartfelt intention and thought figures out the details, we’re using thought the right way.  When the head leads from a place of separation and forces heart to go along, we get messed up and make messes. So why do we do it? “We separated from our hearts,” Merculieff explained, “Because we didn’t want to remember the bad things that happened to us.” Or the bad things we did, individually or ancestrally.

But remembering is exactly the path to healing and deep resilience, as another summit speaker, Kosha Joubert, outlined. As CEO of the Pocket Project, she works globally to witness and heal collective trauma. The first step to that healing is, in her words, “Turning toward, not away from, what is happening; stretching our ability to stay with it.” One of the core practices of the Pocket Project is Global Social Witnessing, in which real-world stories of trauma are shared within a trusting circle of listeners. Not only is there healing in the listening and witnessing itself, but listeners are encouraged to notice in themselves those moments when they want to separate from the pain of their empathy—catching thought in the act, as it were.

Zen practice also activates important tools for supporting the state of no separation, namely breath and hara. Hara is centered in the lower abdomen but, again, is not just an anatomical part, but a center of balance, groundedness, power, rhythm and coordinated activity. It is also host to the enteric nervous system—hundreds of millions of neurons—and a key activator of the parasympathetic nervous system that settles us down. Hara gives us a more grounded, centered way to handle stress and difficult feelings instead of fleeing up to our heads. And the best way to develop and activate hara is to use it to regulate breath. Using the muscles in our lower abdomen to regulate breathing from below the lungs gives us the deepest, slowest, most relaxing breath possible. Moreover, when our exhale slows down, so does the rate at which thoughts develop. Just as it’s easier to see through the blades of a ceiling fan once they slow down, so as we slow down, it’s easier to see through thoughts and not let them separate us from the moment.

A strong sense of centeredness in the hara, breathing to and from the lower abdomen, creates a strong foundation for supporting an open heart. It confers a deeply felt courage, where we allow ourselves to feel what is happening, rather than think about it. In feeling what is happening, we are more sensitive to its contours: we can catch the wave, dance to the beat, or light up with inspiration. Once we sense a future worth working toward, we can bring in thought to figure out its planful elements: What’s the budget? Where are the resources? But the more we stay in a state of no separation, the better we’ll connect with others who can help and the more we’ll be guided by the connected intuition that sensed the idea in the first place. As Merculieff concluded, “The most unselfish thing you can do right now is to heal yourself.” And that means remembering your whole, connected human beingness, healing the separation that thought would otherwise impose. Elder Iya Tahirah Abubakr reinforced this message of healing and “re-membering that which we have forgotten.” Accepting evenly the good and the bad, the joy and the pain, the ups and the downs, as she put it, “It’s all okay, as long as you dance your dance.”  As anyone who dances knows, you don’t catch the beat by thinking about it but rather feeling it first. Likewise, feeling first is how you dance with life. Only as you put thought in its rightful place as a useful follower will you be able to use it strategically, rather than it using up your life, staying one protective and damaging layer away.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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