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The Tinkered Mind
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March 31st, 2021
With all due respect and reverence for children, at the end of the day, they can be a bit of a nag. Any parent, teacher, or babysitter knows this. At the end of the day, often what a child most wants, and often needs is, some attention. If you’ve ever had your name on repeat in the mouth of a toddler, you’re probably familiar with the experience of finally turning to that toddler in the midst of other chaos to finally give them their due turn, only to find out that they don’t actually have anything to say or show you. They just wanted you to focus on them for a moment. And of course there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s healthy and important, and not all shared attention between people needs some tertiary object of discussion or interest. Sometimes we just need some company and the acknowledgement that, hey, we’re both here right now.
Thoughts are a bit like children. They pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, and often with less than ideal timing. Dissonant thoughts in particular can hang around, as though carved into the vinyl of a broken record played by the mind’s gramophone. And they continue to stick around, like a child with a distracted parent’s name on repeat.
Often the thought, just like the child simply needs to be acknowledged. For whatever distracted reason, however, we seem unfortunately adept at bearing the buzz of an uncomfortable thought that hovers just on the edge of consciousness.
Much of meditation is simply dealing with this unholy queue and orbit of nagging thoughts. It’s much like having a long line of children that are all vying for your attention. You have to give each kid their due and sometimes, finally, you get to the end of the line. By acknowledging each thought, each lingering worry and consideration, the end finally comes and there’s a brief respite before the swirl of life generates more. For a brief moment there is no dissonance, and the mind is at peace with itself.
At this point in the description it might seem that we are each just unlucky factory workers in the production of thoughts. But, like creatives, writers, and even miners, it’s necessary to go through a lot of useless material in order to get something good, and this is the most important detail. Some dissonant thoughts really do need a bit more than simple attention. They require thoughtful consideration, planning, strategy and most importantly, action.
What’s odd though is that there crucially dissonant thoughts don’t necessarily have automatic salience above and beyond other dissonant thoughts that are of little consequence. The mind can fail to highlight what is important due to the fog of dissonance it’s swimming around in. Sometimes you don’t realize how important an issue is until you’ve productively moved through a few meaningless ones that were somehow in the way.
These dissonant thoughts that are truly concerning are perhaps our brain’s most productive function, as least from a personal and subjective standpoint. These crucial dissonances lay out the stepping stones to a better life. We improve our experience not by adding things, but in this case finding solutions that remove such dissonant thoughts. For example, an ambient stress about a financial situation requires real planning, thoughtful action, and hard work.
The true value of a clear mind at peace is that it creates a clean and present space for problems to be effectively recognized, analyzed and solved. Many people suffer simply because they are working very hard on the wrong problems, which are often a proxy for real productivity when overwhelmed with a menagerie of mental dissonance. Clearing the clutter of the mind smoothes the path towards the real problems of one’s life.