Philosophers, unsurprisingly, have a lot to say about thinking, much of it so tortuously wordy and circular it is hard to make sense of in terms of everyday life but I do like this idea from British philosopher, writer and speaker Alan Watts because it offers something concrete:
“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. …”
The brain’s incredible work rate and capacity for thinking gives humans a considerable evolutionary advantage over other species but this also has its less positive side and can be hard to manage. Unhappiness, or even mental illness usually involves a pattern of thought and/or behaviour that does not serve the individual’s everyday wellbeing and optimal function and very often this pattern relates to not being able to switch off excessive, negative and mood depressing thoughts and to rest the brain. Many therapeutic approaches incorporate ideas and techniques that aim to calm and help people to control and use their thinking to help them be in the present, gain perspective and reframe negative experiences into opportunities for learning and development. For this reason I think the idea of ‘making things more concrete’ or turning thought into action and/or material reality is a good one for looking after your own psychology. Definitions of concrete include: “existing in a material or physical form, i.e. not abstract”; “a very hard and durable material with which to build made by mixing various combinations of cement, sand, small stones (aggregate) and water” and “clear, certain, real, existing in a material form that can be seen and/or felt”
Sometimes the flood of information coming into our brains, a lot of which just boils down to the views of others, is so overwhelming that it is a relief to engage in practical, routine and everyday matters. During the pandemic I found my screen time increasing and despite my best intentions have been starting and finishing the day listening to, watching and reading news. I realised it was causing, at best, a kind of ‘brain fog’ in which I felt so saturated by largely negative and worst-case-scenario news items and at worst, low mood, lethargy and even anxiety. I decided to put some limits on this activity and to try to eliminate it for at least two hours before sleep and two hours after waking. I am a strong believer in the positive psychology principle that it makes more sense to introduce positive elements as opposed to banning or reducing the negative so I needed to replace this largely cerebral news consumption activity with concrete activities. The ones that usually work for me include exercise, personal care, domestic tasks, appreciating nature and communication with others. Even in lockdown all of these are possible. The communication with others has had to involve indirect means on the whole such as messages, emails, video calls, letters and writing in general, including creating posts for my blog site.
Another thought about concrete that comes to mind is the way in which it is used by Jean Piaget in his stage theory of child development, which consists of a number of age-related and sequential stages of cognitive development. One of the stages is called “Concrete Operations’, which Piaget believed children generally went through from about seven to eleven years. This stage is largely about the child’s development of logical and rational thinking and the understanding that physical objects have qualities and characteristics that do not change, for example the mass or weight of a piece of rock does not change even when the rock is broken up or ground down. When we are clear that thinking is a non-physical and therefore non-concrete activity but that it occupies us, uses our energy and affects our mental health and wellbeing we are in the right place for making some choices and decisions that may reduce the toll of over-thinking, negative thinking, catastrophising and worrying that most of us experience, especially in a pandemic. Perhaps it is useful to extend the concrete metaphor and think of these kind of health and joy-sapping thoughts as like a particular kind of stone and then perhaps imagine your more positive mental energy, i.e. the optimistic, hopeful, loving, practical and creative type as being another kind of stone and mix up a batch that has a lot more of this good stuff then build a better moment, hour or day with it?
You could try this exercise:
Either take a pice of paper and write by hand or make a note on your phone or computer and ask yourself what ideas you have for making your day more real, more concrete? It’s a strange thing but by writing down your thoughts there is a much stronger likelihood of actually doing what you’ve thought about. Here are some ideas:
Write a short message to someone saying you’re thinking of them – either on your phone or on a postcard
- Write a short message to someone saying you’re thinking of them – either on your phone or on a postcard
- Plan and make a nutritious snack/meal
- Order and tidy some aspect of your home
- Do something good for your body/skin – exercise/bath/massage
- Read or watch something uplifting – it could be a short Youtube clip by someone you admire or a page from an inspirational book – one of my favourites is ‘Zen: The Art of Simple Living’ by Masuno, Shunmyo
- Plant a seed – look after your plants or garden
- Feed the birds/look after an animal
If you can’t decide which appeals most or what order just number the options and choose through the roll of a dice.
Keeping things real and solid as much as you can in your own life is better than trying to fit the whole world into your head.