Thinking – is it ever futile?

10 min read

Thinking. It’s something we do all of the time, sometimes without knowing it. What is it to think, to contemplate, to reason? It’s using skills acquired as a young kid on through the teenage years and into adulthood; it’s our intellectual toolset handed down to us from our parents and from our culture, and imbued in us as we flowered as young ones to young adults and beyond. We learned to rely on the tool of thinking to solve all of our problems; we were trained to believe there are answers to seemingly everything, but simply that some answers have not been found yet. Uncanny though it may be to consider the idea that thinking—can it ever be futile?

When we normally think about futility in thought, our minds conjure up ideas of arrested progress and thwarted striving and stymied reaching. Or of a lack of ability portending sad resignation to impeded success. Futility—as we normally think about it—isn’t a beacon of hope in disguise but a red flag showing one’s inability at overcoming; a frustrated desire borne of ineffectuality. This invokes for me ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch: the paragon of “self-overcoming,” as it is emphasized.

Photo by Chip Vincent / Unsplash

But what if a resignation of one’s attempt at striving all-too-ardently could be itself a key to inner liberation from the unpredictably cyclical tides of successes and the seemingly foreclosing failures of life? To entertain futility in this context of altered perception isn’t akin to resigning oneself to a place of melancholic self-despair and eschewed potentiality—it’s but a recognition of the inevitability of life—the spasmodically unpredictable nature of human nature of life and of living. Indeed, an acceptance of the fact that… thinking can itself be a trap—a trap resultant from its overuse in dogmatic, hard-nosed insistence upon the answers to life, as if life were a problem to solve, and not a reality to experience! An examined life is one thing, but examination to the exclusion of experience is not worth having; what is then there left to examine, one might then ask?

This is no different than the overwrought, late-night worries that begin for some, the moment their eyelids finally close… but unfortunately the mind doesn’t also relent to the peace of sweet dreams after a long day, keeping one awake late well into the night, dogmatically insistent upon solving the problems of life and of living…

Explaining this concept in words is somewhat futile since it is not something commonly expressed in the form of language. The less mutually understood an idea beforehand, the less communicable the idea will be when passing the baton over via speech or the written word. Do we often speak of the futility of speaking, or write of the ineffectuality of writing? No! We use writing to express things other than what they are of themselves. Such is the case with life; life lived only for its own examination, and not its experience, is suffocating. It’s too much, too much thinking! It’s too much of a good thing, a valuable tool, a loyal troubleshooter of life. It becomes bad when not used in moderation. The recognition of its futility is the beginning of the end… of the tyranny of thought.

The less mutually understood an idea beforehand, the less effective language will be at passing the baton over via speech or the written word.
Photo by Nathaniel Shuman / Unsplash

Investigating thought-patterns, behavioral tendencies, and cyclical life problems can yield positive results through an analysis of the roots grounding such problems and understanding how they play out day-to-day, and whence these problems originated. Did they begin from a childhood trauma, an abusive relationship, or some type of family dysfunction? This process goes “top-down,” typically analyzing what presents in day-to-day life, and uncovering the roots, sometimes buried deep in the unconscious, long forgotten and, more often than not, long having desired to have been. Thus, analyzing one’s life through thinking can bring about the cessation of (too much) thinking, slowly but surely. However, this subtle shift in topic—from the questioning of thought, to its psychologically helpful remedy—does indeed change the focus. Using thought as a means of deconstructing one’s awareness for greater understanding and the alleviation of neurosis is, principally, the domain of psychoanalysis.

However, this method is “top-down,” and not “bottom-up.” What does this mean?
The “bottom-up” concept elucidated earlier—through explaining the futility of thought—has not to do directly with assimilating an understanding one’s life, through realizing, one-by-one, destructive thought patterns—but of curbing from the outset the pervasive yet damaging process of excessive thinking before it festers, and turns into what psychoanalysis endeavors to overcome (neurotic symptoms). A “top-down” approach may lead to, eventually, the starting point of a “bottom-up” approach, but however this is secondary. And of course, I need not mention that too much thinking is not the only source of a dysfunctional unconscious—but might it contribute to its formation? This sounds plausible.

“I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” So, this is also to say that psychoanalysis is designed to transform neurosis into common unhappiness.” –Sigmund Freud (father of psychoanalysis)

Psychoanalysis uncovers one’s unconscious through a thought-directed focus (as an analysand). A different tradition—which emphasizes a distrust or suspicion of thought, in order to see the world clearly—is Zen Buddhism. It has a focus on examining living itself, through direct experience and exposure via traditional meditation or, simply being mindfully aware of what one is doing as the day passes, and noticing when thought deviates one’s psychical attention away from the task at hand. Whatever Zen Buddhists do, they do it “fully”—with their whole being. That is their signature style of life, which helps to shed light on internal noise. (Although Zen has a rich ritualistic tradition accompanying their mental life, the focus here is on their mental orientation toward the world, and principally, its psychologically beneficent application.) Zen endeavors to see the world as it is, and not as it is described—there is a monumental difference. This is a demonstration of working “bottom-up” to alleviate the toxicity of an overactive, overwrought, mental “echo-chamber” of resounding worry and warped ideals, resulting in the wilting of an otherwise healthy being.

Zen has the benefit of achieving deliverance from unconscious and conscious noise, but in the opposite directional focus of, or characteristic to, psychoanalysis. Although they have different aims, view the unconscious through different lenses, and are enmeshed in drastically different traditions, they do, in certain ways, tend toward similar ends. Both east and west, solving the psychological ailments of humankind—their own ways, and through their own styles and traditions. And, without a doubt, these aren’t the only two! Only, the only two highlighted in this essay.

Consider this excerpt from a Zen Story to help illustrate:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

This is an example of how Zen communicates, nonverbally, a distrust of all conceptions of thinking and of the world. It is through riddles like this, using thought, that they attempt to point beyond thought… by knocking the “house of cards” of our fundamental assumptions to the ground. In this case, they point to the fact that Zen’s conception of enlightenment is not something one can “grasp” with thought, or by attempting to “hold onto” it. This is “bottom up.”

Photo by Emily KenCairn of Apiary Studio / Unsplash

In psychoanalysis, thought patterns are fundamentally realized first, through an awareness which brings them into the conscious spotlight—this is itself outside of the domain of thinking, even though thinking typically leads one to that awareness—highlighting the previously unconscious thoughts. But really, what is an “unconscious thought?” Is it really a “thought” at all, or is it an elusive “something” buried deep in the mind which, by defining it as “unconscious,” we desire to assign it a label (and thus, a thought)? Don’t we confuse our labeling of, for example, an unconscious feeling, with its existence, before we had the label to apply? This is subtle, yet important…

If we can’t speak of an “unconscious thought,” without changing it, firstly, to a “conscious” one (by realization of its existence), do “unconscious thoughts” really exist as “thoughts”? I submit that this is false, and another instance in which thinking is futile, or at the very least, given undue credit! It is only recognized as a thought the moment a ray mental awareness is shed upon the previously obscured internal, psychological state. We take that state, and translate it into what we call a “thought” through the process of labeling. Labels are only pointers, as are words! As such, they have no inherent meaning, only in relation to where they direct our attention.

If we can’t speak of an “unconscious thought,” without changing it, firstly, to a “conscious” one (by realization of its existence), do “unconscious thoughts” really exist as “thoughts”?

Thinking cannot resolve itself of its own accord, nor can the “one who is thinking” bring about a cessation of thinking. Truly, there are not two things here: a thinker and a thought. There is only a stream of thoughts, as explained in Who is asking the question?. In other words how can one who is thinking, stop thinking, by doing the very thing one endeavors to prevent? It’s impossible, strictly speaking! Thought is futile when it is the master, and not the servant of one’s being!

Consider what UG Krishnamurti, an Indian world traveler and philosopher, had to say about the subject. More about him can be found in this video. I transcribed this to the best of my ability from a verbal exchange:

“Even memory, what is memory, I don’t even think the brain physiologists have come up with a very satisfactory answer to the question ‘what is memory’. So as a student of psychology I memorized the statement ‘the capacity to recall a specific thing at a specific time is memory’ but that is questionable, because the memory is always absent except when the need is created by the situation you find yourself in. It is that memory that has created what we call ‘the entity’ or ‘the individual’ otherwise there is no individual, there is no entity. Unfortunately that individual or ‘non-existing entity,’ demands the continuity of and constant use of memory to maintain its continuity. So memory is used for purposes for which it is not intended. The use we are putting that memory, is only to maintain that continuity, or that ‘nonexistent entity,’ whether we are awake, asleep, or dreaming. You see, that is why we don’t have the energy… to meet the challenges of life.”

The Indian guru suggests that our incessant thinking, fueling a false sense of self, is what makes our lives difficult, and drains our energy day-to-day, making life drastically harder. Our insistence on always thinking—borne of continual unconscious conditioning—is a major factor in our frustrated daily existence and experience.

Consider Adam Phillips’s  remark about self-criticism, being also a product of thinking too much. He’s been credited by The New Yorker as “Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer”:

“We are continually, if unconsciously, mutilating and deforming our own character. Indeed, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we are like without it. We know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves (as though in panic). Or, to put it differently, we can judge only what we recognize ourselves as able to judge. What can’t be judged can’t be seen. What happens to everything that is not subject to approval or disapproval, to everything that we have not been taught how to judge? … The judged self can only be judged but not known. [We] think that it is complicitous not to stand up to, not to contest, this internal tyranny by what is only one part — a small but loud part — of the self.”

Thinking too much is not only futile, but distracts us from our ability to judge a situation without first prematurely jumping to a conclusion! The tyranny of thought is also the tyranny of the superego.

The recognition of the limits of thinking, through seeing the world not only as conceptualized, but as it is—the helpful psychological application of thinking, such as investigating one’s unconscious—and integrating the two, may indeed hold the key to resolving a piece of the puzzle beleaguering the culture of our time.

Resisting the world within also necessitates resisting the world without. However we view the world is… really a reflection or projection, however partial, of how we view ourselves. The dissolution of excessive thinking through understanding, awareness, and inquiry, may help one to lead a life more enjoyable for themself, and others alike.

“If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” – Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)

To enjoy life is therefore, seemingly paradoxically, to not resist the good nor the bad in life, fundamentally. However, after all, if we accept who we are—which is identical to not believing we are something we are not (an almost impossible task to complete, but progress is possible)—we then may have a shot at a change in the world that is not a recreation of the past—through denial of oneself and therefore others—but will be one borne of understanding, and newfound wisdom.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on This version has been revised, updated, and improved for clarity and content.