Since I was 21 I was plagued by the question of the meaning of life. This led to a life characterized by a lot of thinking and a lot of reading and a lot of synthesizing of ideas. Now, why a human has to spend so much time thinking about the meaning of life is a good question. It’s not like meaning is hiding under a rock somewhere waiting to be discovered. The obsession with meaning can be a symptom of cultural and personal trauma—an alienation from the direction and immediate experience of meaning.
Nevertheless, I have noticed in New Age thought a definite disparaging of thinking. “He’s so in his head”, kind of thing. I’ve also noticed how challenging it is for many of my contemporaries to focus long enough to read a complex philosophical text. I remember when I first got into philosopher, Ken Wilber’s, writing, he was virtually written off by people I would talk to at a party. Too “in his head”. Whereas, I found him riveting and lucid.
There is a way of thinking that is cut off from the body and Earth and is decidedly anti-relational. When you run across this kind of thinking/thinker a feeling of deep alienation comes over the body, along with fatigue. There is such a thing as mental masturbation.
That said, I’m all for thinking well as a core spiritual practice.
I’m a big fan of Rudolph Steiner these days, partly because he holds thinking in such high regard. Now, he’s part of that German intellectual lineage, along with Goethe, Kant, Schelling, etc. and these guys could think. But Steiner came along and was critical of Kant and other philosophers who posited that there was a limit to human knowledge. The thinking goes that we can’t ever know a thing-in-itself, but only as it’s filtered through cultural world-views, and our own senses and nervous system. There’s truth in this of course, but it grew out of a subject/object, mind/matter, nature/human split that Steiner, (following Goethe) never bough into it.
These two understood that we are the thinking part of nature. We are Earth, in the form of humans, contemplating and seeing into essential reality. This means that there is an intrinsic relationship between us and nature. We can know other aspects of nature because there is an inherent correspondence between us and the other. When we bother to attune to the essential nature, say of a plant, we can actually know the plant in its essence. In fact, Steiner says, we are doing so on behalf of the plant. The plant is being completed by our activity of knowing it (which is thinking). Thinking is, for Steiner, the essential spiritual activity of the human being.
The plant cannot know its essential nature, but can only know its external nature, as a sensate creature without the capacity for complex thought. As we contemplate, and thereby come to know, the plant’s essential nature, it is perfected.
Indigenous people, I think, understood this intuitively. Other creatures come into fullness of being only as they are witnessed, known, and praised in their essence. Their essential nature is mirrored back to them in the way we know them, and they come into a fuller existence, because we have known them, through the spiritual activity of thinking/contemplating.
It makes me think about Jesus’ teaching, “Consider the lily”… To consider, etymologically means to gaze in wonder at, as one would a star (Latin “sider). Through our careful consideration (and Goethe developed a scientific method for this kind of thinking) we overcome the separation between the lily and ourselves, by knowing it. And there are no limits to this knowing. We can know exactly the inner nature of the lily. In the act of doing so we mystically unite with the lily, and perfect it, because it can now be known, through us, according to its essential nature (which is a manifestation of Spirit).
Here’s the redemptive part about all this for me. I feel like I’ve found the point, the goal, for all the thinking I’ve done. It’s not just for me, not just to satisfy some obsessive need in myself, and not an end in itself. The end is to witness to, and mirror back to all of creation, its essential nature. And thereby to praise it into fullness of existence, so it can know itself at a spiritual level. In this process, my thinking is elevated to supreme spiritual activity.
Thinking well is more than just “being in your head”. It is a service on behalf of all creation, and a realization of human vocation.
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