Between Thought And Action

Flickr / Riccardo Cuppini
Flickr / Riccardo Cuppini

I’ve never liked the assumed distinction between thought and action. Isn’t thinking an action? When I’m thinking about something, I’m certainly doing something. Thinking involves my body, my memory, my time. It’s not some ethereal event, happening on some abstract plane. It’s work (or, better, play) — my heart rate shifts, my muscles might twitch, my toes and fingers wiggle.

True, thinking rarely involves my sweat, except during anxiety attacks. On the other hand, or on another hand, anxiety might not be thinking at all. In fact, I want to say that anxiety is a kind of non-thinking as it recapitulates the same pattern ad nauseam. I might go so far as to say that anxiety is our ideal of action: pure doing without any thinking at all! But even if I’m very still and my heart rate stays the same, when I’m thinking, I’m acting — I’m adjusting my world view, my understanding of the universe and my place in it. In many ways, what action is more profound?

And isn’t action itself a kind of thought? Watching Michael Jordan play (excuse my out of date references), it was obvious to me that the way he negotiated the court was a kind of thinking. When a painter paints, he’s distributing the relationship between concepts, ideas, colors, moods, affects — even if he’s “just” dripping paint on the canvas. Which is to say, he’s thinking.

For me, writing is surely an act of thinking. Maybe, when I was younger, writing was a transcription of thoughts. But, right now, writing for me is the very act of making sense of the world, of organizing it, metabolizing it, distributing it. Which is why I love it so much, particularly this essayistic writing, this blogging, where I can follow threads here and there, feel out the world and the relationship between me, the non-present world, ideas, words, and moods.

And yet, despite all that, there is still clearly a distinction between thinking something and doing that thing. I can think, “I’m so cool!” But that’s not the same thing as acting cool. In fact, one could argue that thinking I’m so cool is to act uncool. This is all to say that there is an important distinction between thinking and doing but that the two are related and certainly not opposed.

I’ve been seeing this incredible shrink for the last year who has been helping me — or talking with me — about life and death. Our entire relationship, and the therapeutic relationship in general, casts an interesting relationship between thought and action, doer and done. After all, he can’t change me. That would be absurd, even if awesome. I mean, how great would it be if I could go see some dude, have him tinker with me, and I walk out feeling joyous?!? Delighted!?! Ready to take on the world!?! This is the dream of Western medicine: pop a pill and, voilà, you feel great — happy and erect! If only health weren’t an ever shifting calculus of thought and action one performs alone.

But, no, that’s not the way it works. My shrink says things; I say things; we say things together, or not. And I feel the way I feel and he feels the way he feels and on it goes.

Much of what he says feels like an argument. I say to him, “Holy moly! My sister is dead and it freaks my shit!” To which he replies, “Yes, she’s dead. Everybody dies — we’re not here, we’re here, we’re not here. No reason to be afraid of it. That would be absurd as it’s not only inevitable but good because it’s inevitable!”

This is a logical argument. I understand it and find it compelling. I’ve heard and even taught versions of it for years — in Nietzsche (amor fati: love fate, love whatever happens), Leibniz (this world is the best possible world), Kierkegaard (death is not the sickness unto death; anxiety is). I’m persuaded, or so it seems.

And yet, from time to time, I yell and scream and wail my tears at the fact that my sister is gone. And that others I love will go the same way and that, presumably, I will die, too. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

But how can I freak out when I’ve understood that it’s absurd to fear death? Death is as much part of life as life is in that there is no life without death. This is different from desiring death — which need not be a bad thing but, usually, is a sign of a morbid constitution. Am I some kind of moron, then, that I fear death when I’ve so clearly understood that death if necessary and, in its way, beautiful?

From one perspective, I’ve not understood the beauty of death, even if I’ve thought about it and claim to understand it. Even if I can follow its logic, repeat it, persuade others of its enduring veracity. As long as I freak out, as long as I fear the next moment that might bring the demise of me or those I love, I have not understood this argument

There is a doing that must take place, action I must undertake beyond thinking about it. I have to make what Kierkegaard calls an internal movement. I have to redistribute myself. That is, perhaps I need to think! Or is it that I need to stop thinking and make this understanding an action?

It’s funny to me that in order to get me to stop thinking and accept death, accept life as it happens, I encounter arguments that I have to think through but for which thinking is not enough. I suppose this is why there are koans, word-logic puzzles that have no answer but, when contemplated, help bring the individual to a new kind of understanding. In a way, the koan is a trigger for internal movement — a movement from a certain understanding to a different understanding, from a certain kind of doing to another kind of doing, from one kind thinking to another kind of thinking: from thinking to action (even if both remain invisible).

I think again of Michael Jordan or of any athlete, or any person, really, who’s “in the zone.” I’ve always loved this phrase, this idea: entering a temporal and psychic and physical space in which you feel congruent with all that is happening, flowing with the world without friction or hiccup. I think being in the zone is the absolute melding of thought and action, a congruence of understanding and doing (which might be redundant because if you actually understand something, you do that thing, regardless of what your thinking tells you).

The Buddhists, among others, offer another mode of self — or of being — that involves neither thinking nor action: observing. Thinking is a product of human construction, of books and ideas and fears and desires. Action is the movement, even if invisible, of these human bodies. Observation, on the other hand, thinks nothing and does nothing.

We all have an observer inside us, some aspect of ourselves that watches ourselves be the beautiful bozos we are — feeling good, being a douchebag, being pretentious, afraid, brave, passive aggressive. This observer passes no judgment, does not intervene. He, or she (it’s indifferent to gender), stoically, calmly, just watches. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.

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