How to Think Deeply
This world is hostile to serious thought. Our lives are cluttered with barriers that sear our minds with the habit of lazy, shallow thinking. Consider the insipid television and movies that pass for entertainment, transparently hostile toward anything approximating deep thought. Consider the overstimulated, technology-driven, information-saturated nature of modern life. It is too noisy for us to hear ourselves think, yet so omnipresent and addictive that silence disquiets us.
Even within respected circles of society, intellectuals are plagued by fundamental flaws in their thinking. Consider the education and scientific communities, which staunchly stand by the unprovable theory of evolution. Formal education can actually be a hindrance to quality thought—emphasizing the wrong subjects, approaching certain subjects improperly, bullying students into specific political and/or intellectual mind-sets, fostering a destructive social atmosphere. Little wonder that many of the great men and women of history were self-educated.
How we think is critical. Our thoughts govern our moods, our attitudes, our words, our actions. Thinking is the core of our being. Superficial, unfocused thinking produces a superficial, unfocused life. We are what we think.
Trouble is, generally we are not taught how to think. It is a skill we are expected to know, without specific instruction.
What is the quality of your thinking? Are you skilled at analyzing problems? Are you able to concentrate on the things you want to concentrate on, or are you easily distracted? How deep a thinker are you?
In With the New
Vigorous thinking is fundamentally a matter of replacing inferior thoughts with quality thoughts.
You cannot think shallow thoughts and deep thoughts at the same time—it’s one or the other. So first you must push out, put off and purge the one in order to clear space for the other. To think deeply, first you must expunge the shallow thought that so easily fills your mind, and then fill that mental vacuum with quality thought.
We will save for the end of this article a brief discussion on just what “quality thought” is. But first, let’s look at some barriers to quality thought that we must eliminate and some blessings to quality thought we must cultivate in order to develop better mental habits.
The most common barrier to deep thought is distractions.
Life today is chock-a-block with them! hdtvs, dvds, cds, pdas, xm radio, wi-fi, broadband, laptops, mobile phones, satellite, cable, movies, video games—there is always something to keep us stimulated. Television, our third-most time-consuming activity after work and sleep, gives us a hyper world of fast cuts, zooms and pans, noise and suddenness. The nightly news promises the world in 22 minutes. If you can’t wait for that, cable provides “headline news,” with multiple bits of information flashing and scrolling simultaneously. There is so much going on in the world, we want only the essential, only the cream, only the surface.
What price are we paying for such compulsive hyperness? The price we pay is depth.
That’s right. You can’t cover a lot of ground quickly and also go deep; you are either plowing or you are digging.
Realize: Information is not the same thing as understanding. Of course the stupid entertainment that dulls the mind is a distraction. (Proverbs 12:11 in the Revised Standard Version is wonderfully pithy and tactless on this subject: “[H]e who follows worthless pursuits has no sense.”) But anything can be a distraction. Mere information—even good information—becomes another distraction if you’re not thinking about it, evaluating it, analyzing it—if it’s not stimulating your mind in original directions.
Distractions simply crowd our minds with inferior thoughts. So turn off that tacky television, skip that silly movie, mute the mindless music, put down the trashy novel—create some quiet and clear space for something of substance.
Just what is thinking? It is merely a collection of images flickering through your mind, a sequence of associations.
Thinking deeply then is a matter of restricting those associations so as to repeatedly and purposefully mull a particular thing. It requires eliminating irrelevant thoughts: those weed-like musings that crowd your mind and pull you off the subject you want to be pondering.
The Apostle Paul was an advocate of such mental discipline. He spoke of “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This requires a moment-by-moment awareness of and restraint over the images, impressions and ideas that float through the mind and then an expunging of anything unwelcome. That, in essence, is exactly what concentration is.
Good idea, but how do you apply it? Perhaps we all would love to possess greater powers of concentration.
You may not like to hear it, but concentration is a skill acquired with practice (just as poor, petty thinking is a habit strengthened by years of practice). If you aren’t used to focusing your attention, you can’t suddenly summon the knack. It requires habitual concerted deliberation.
But there is a trick to learning it. Recognize this simple truth about how your mind works: We naturally concentrate on what we enjoy.
In a wonderful little book written in 1928 called The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet wrote, “[R]eal interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant. The same boy who goes a-wool-gathering when he has to write a literary essay can concentrate for half a day on mathematics or on a new radio implement” (emphasis mine throughout). Thus, concentrate only on those things you enjoy—or learn to enjoy those things you must concentrate on. At least, you can consciously practice concentrating on the more satisfying things and progressively work toward applying the skill elsewhere.
Paul also understood this principle. To the one who seeks to attain God’s Kingdom, he advises to “set your affection” on it (Colossians 3:1-2).
Ruminate Good Mental Food
So—you have evicted some trivialities from your mental living quarters; the space may now be leased out to more refined tenants.
Dimnet advocated populating your mind with greatness.
“It is impossible to spend an hour in a room with a man approaching greatness without feeling the contagiousness of distinguished thinking,” he wrote. “Such men cannot always be found, or our chances for meeting them may be limited. But anybody with an average knowledge of the history of nations, literature, philanthropy or art, not to speak of the history of great religionists or saints, can people his imagination with groups of superior men in every realm. … [O]ur serious hours cannot be devoted to a more useful occupation than studying the lives or ideas of great men” (ibid.).
Dimnet threw out this challenge: “If, at any moment, you are unable to name a great man who is, or has recently been, having an influence on your conduct, you will be passing the verdict: ordinary on the quality of your own thought and existence.”
Who do you spend your time with? Their influence on you looms larger than you would like to believe. Scripture is filled with admonitions such as this: “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20). Find those wise men and women, and then really converse—meet minds—think deeply together.
When you read, what do you read? What is the quality of the food you feed your mind?
And—just as important—when you read, how much do you think? Studying something to the point where it has “an influence on your conduct” means letting it soak into and saturate the folds of your gray matter. Be honest: How much of your reading is forgotten the moment you close the book?
Yes, read more. But as you read—read less, think more.
How is it that fatal flaws in thinking can pervade whole communities of intelligent people? How, for example, could the untruths that riddled national socialism have pervaded Europe so thoroughly as to have produced the Holocaust? How could higher education be almost unanimously condescending toward the revealed truths of God’s Word?
A dangerous barrier to deep thought is our natural “joiner” mentality—wanting to be part of the group. This tendency is generally helpful in smoothing the progress of interpersonal relationships, but too much concern about what others think renders your mind inhospitable to original thought and can result in your holding on to dangerous misconceptions.
A true thinker must have a certain independence of thought. He or she must not be afraid to stand out from the crowd. Exodus 23:2 contains the sage and generally ignored command, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”
On the flip side, however, when you have found a solid truth, then by all means conform your thinking to it—it is a foundation on which to build. “Prove all things,” wrote Paul, “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). All great thinking is founded upon the thoughts of great thinkers—chief of whom is God.
Once your views are based on great thinking, contribute something of yourself to the process.
Yes, there is an element of originality in deep thinking. When you think deeply, you travel intellectual territory that no one else will travel in quite that way—and you acquire unique intellectual property to offer those around you. You are a distinctive individual. God loves diversity, and there is a reason why each of us is so exceptional—not even in a brood of sextuplets is there a single carbon copy. To the person who understands the incredible human potential, this is an inspiring fact to contemplate.
Deep thinking is that which nurtures something uniquely you, and the unique personality, talents and character that God is developing in you.
This leads us to another essential commodity for the thinker: solitude.
“Solitude produces an exhilaration of consciousness, the consciousness of our innermost, whatever that may be. It never fails of this result,” Dimnet wrote. “Take strong coffee one morning, to keep yourself awake, lie not in bed but on a couch for two or three hours, and try to simplify and again simplify your problems ….”
How much time do you dedicate to private, quiet contemplation each day? Most people would laugh at the question. But if we are eliminating distractions, we will be redeeming some time (Ephesians 5:16), which can then be devoted to secluded thinking. “How can we secure solitude when our path is beset with a variety of undesirables?” asked Dimnet. “There is no answer to this question if we do not really crave solitude” (ibid.).
Yes, we must crave solitude.
King David did (Psalms 63:1; 119:148). Jesus Christ did (Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:23).
A life of worship of the true God should involve daily personal prayer—time spent in isolation communing with God, which requires a certain degree of introspection. Daily prayer is a huge benefit to deeper thinking—not only because of the invaluable contact with the Creator that it brings, but also because it instills the habit of focused, effortful thinking to a purpose, done in seclusion.
Educator and theologian Herbert W. Armstrong recommended about an hour of prayer a day. Secular sources say that even 20 minutes a day of quiet reflection goes a long way toward improving a person’s mental health.
The Bible is filled with directives to think about what you’re doing, to regularly evaluate yourself. For example, Haggai 1:5 says, “Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.” Analyze your life. Think about what is working and what isn’t. Involve God in this process and you can save yourself a lot of problems—and deepen your thinking in the process.
God is the epitome of quality thought, of depth, of substance, of quiet meditation, of everything opposite our shallowness. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
But the wonderful truth is, that great gulf need not remain. Yes, God’s thoughts are much higher than ours—but we can strive to rise to His level. And with the help of God’s Holy Spirit we can succeed—in no small measure.
“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
This is what we’re striving for: God’s thoughts. When we talk about becoming deep thinkers, we’re talking about our thoughts co-mingling with and coming to approximate God’s thoughts. There is no thinking deeper than that.
Consider: God can impact your mind to the extent that you have the capacity for deep thought. If you are a shallow thinker, you’ll only ever be able to have a shallow understanding of the deep things of God.
The deeper thinker you are, the more rigorous your thinking is, and the more you exercise and challenge your mind, the deeper your understanding can be.