Thinkers Anonymous: Gaining Freedom from the Greatest Addiction of Our Time

November 2011

There are many, many things forms of addiction – ranging from substances like alcohol, painkillers, heroin and other drugs to activities such as the Internet, gambling, television, sex and work, But little is said about the one of the biggest addictions for the Western world – compulsive thinking.
My definition of an addiction is a habit that we cannot easily break through willpower, is something we do compulsively and is harmful to us, or to people around us. In other words, it is a habit that is difficult to stop does harm. Intrinsically, thinking obviously isn’t harmful. It is one of the uniquely human capacities that distinguish us from all other species. But we in the West have put far too much stock into our mental functioning. We have assigned our minds an aristocratic nobility so that our thinking often reigns supreme over our feelings and intuitions, which are often denied in the process. This hierarchical structure, which gives disproportionate privilege to our rational and often reductionist thinking, can frustrate attempts to achieve serenity or spiritual awakenings. Thinking becomes harmful when it takes total control of our behavior – so we can’t freely choose but feel compelled to act. In other words, conscious choice is absent.
Clearly, the alcoholic is an addict, a point on which Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) campaigned from their very beginnings over seventy years ago. In the past couple of decades, there has been much written about and many therapies provided for other types of addicts, including people addicted to romance, sex, eating, work and a whole range of other activities.
Twelve-step programs have been formed for almost all these groups; there are Debtors Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and probably more groups that I haven’t even heard about.
But one group that could have the greatest numbers of potential members is those people who give their minds and thoughts an inordinate amount of power, even when they know they’d be better off staying out of their heads and remaining in their hearts and bodies.
Here I am reminded of that Anne Lamott quote: “My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.”
Mystics and spiritual teachers tell us about the trap that our egoic minds represent, and how our egoic thinking prevents us from having “the relationship of all relationships” that so many people yearn for. Yet many of us continue to indulge our obsessive thinking much like the addict indulges his or her next “fix.”
It seems to me that many if not most of people’s problems stem from egoic thinking which leads to worry, anxiety, depression and fear. These people have become so addicted to their thinking that they frequently resort to making chemical adjustments, treating these moods with drugs. We are the most sedated society in the world – consuming record amounts of antidepressants each year in our attempts to ward off these darker places in our minds where our thinking takes us, seemingly against our will.
The founders of A.A. created the 12-step program for people who couldn’t get sober through self-will alone. In the early days of A.A., when members called themselves “drunks,” the popular consensus was that alcoholics simply lacked the fortitude or willpower to stop drinking. Over the last half-century, popular consensus has shifted and people now recognize the power of addiction and the hopelessness of trying to beat it on one’s own. Surrender to a Higher Power – “a power greater than ourselves” – was the answer created by the founders of A.A. along with a supportive community of fellow alcoholics who knew what it was like – who could identify with the hopelessness, fear, and powerlessness that went with the addiction.
Futurists, academics, philosophers and authors work with ideas, concepts and principles which we write and speak about. Our work centers around thinking and some of us are even called “thought leaders.” Our thinking is our work, our professions. So how do we stop thinking? We can’t stop all thinking but we’d be far healthier if we could end the compulsiveness and only engage with generative thinking – thinking that creates, explains, challenges and contributes to wisdom and understanding. Compulsiveness is the problem, not thinking itself.
In my new book – The Great Growing Up – I address many global dysfunctions but elaborate mostly on two I consider quite widespread: the rise in fundamentalist thinking and addictions. Both involve addiction to our thinking.
Einstein told us decades ago that we’d never solve our problems with the same consciousness that created them. The same thinking that made the messes cannot get us out of them. We have evolved to such a degree that we must surrender to a power greater than our egoic minds if we are to transcend the conditions we find undesirable – personally, organizationally and societally.
As mystic Robert Rabbin says, “we must live in the heart, not in the thinking mind.” When we succumb to compulsive thinking we are choosing to live in our heads. We give our “thinking mind” a disproportionate share of power over our lives. Rabbin writes, “the thinking mind has no feeling, it has no soul. It can only calculate distance and weight and price. The thinking mind does not love, it does not laugh, it does not cry. The thinking mind only argues and defends.”

Note: quotes from “Sound Bites from Silence” by Robert Rabbin

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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