Growing up I believed that thinking was the most important thing I could do. That as long as I was thinking I was living. I was my thoughts, and my thoughts were me. Each one connected to the next in colorful carousel of thought. I equated feeding the mind a constant stream of ideas and memories, feelings, and emotions with success.
When my thoughts were angry or mean, I felt guilt and shame. When my thoughts were positive, I felt happy and self-assured. My mood shifted with the wind because my thoughts ruled over my feelings, actions, and reactions. They controlled my moods and my thinking, cluttering my otherwise clear skies with clouds of doubt. Occasionally, those clouds would part, and the sunshine of happiness could come through.
I did not once ever question where these thoughts came from or why I was thinking them until after cancer. When the oncologist said I was cancer free I recognized a thought I’d been having, “You’ve had it once, it can always come back.” I heard it in a sing-song voice like on horror movie trailers.
That’s when I stood up to my thoughts to defend my dignity. My thoughts had taken it too far. Before that moment, I listened to my negative voice, as if it were a helpful friend. I saw negativity as a form of healthy skepticism that kept me cautious and alert. Now I realized I had allowed my thoughts to grow into a giant fear monster that kept me in a constant thought loop. I realized that my continuous flow of thoughts wasn’t helping me. They were repelling good, positive vibes and experiences away from me. And holding the door open for negative and unhealthy thoughts to live like a virus, like cancer, within me.
Thought loops can be tricky. When you think you’ve caught one and you deem it to appear in your mind’s eye, there is nothing there. They are like phantoms in the night or faeries in the garden. They can shapeshift too. One second, they send you fearful ideas and the next they remind you to stop and smell the roses.
Thought loops hook us, they engage and entertain us. They wind around our brains and through our nervous systems. They ignite adrenaline and coax anxiety. They fill us with fond memories and even make us believe that they are a part of our identity. Then, in the next breath, they have us question the very thoughts that have been keeping us company.
When fear and anger take over the thought loop takes on the dark hue of night. The carousel spins out of control. Feelings and emotions clash. Beethoven’s 5th mixes with Shostakovich in a toxic tonic for strings. The subversive cacophony belies the pretty lights that dance in the backdrop.
“I think therefore I am.” — Rene Descartes
I wanted to understand what Descartes meant when he said his momentous quote. For context, I discovered a crucial part of Descartes legacy; Cartesian doubt — question everything which you know to be true. In today’s world, this idea seems trite. We tend to question everything to the point of skepticism. To Descartes, doubt is the counterpoint to reason. Cartesian doubt helped make the last 200 years of scientific advancement possible.
Medieval society believed that humans existed because God wanted them to exist. Descartes did not doubt the existence of God; instead, he doubted the existence of humans as God’s wish. Using a series of theorems, he proved that God existed and thus matter existed. He proved, by extension that thought is the essence of the mind.
Revolutionary at its time, “I think therefore I am,” supported a new idea. It gave humans agency and with that independent thought and free will, ushering in the Age of Enlightenment. To Descartes, thinking proved our existence as conscious beings. With the question of existence solved, 18th and 19th-century thinkers forged an identity grounded in math and science. Equating thinking with consciousness did not satisfy the thinking mind. Beyond the Age of Reason, we continued to question our existence.
Then in the early 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre said,