What We Don’t KNOW Can Hurt Us

I think I know enough to use caution when going down a flight of stairs, but forgetting the difference between thinking and knowing still trips me up every day. 

think and know

A New Chip

The last mini-series I watched started out with someone dying because they fell (or were pushed) down a flight of stairs. So, even though I’ve been climbing and descending stairs with a pretty high success rate all my life, I think I know the danger.

It would take something very important to distract me from this hazardous activity: something as important as the instructions my bank sent me on how to use my new chip-embedded debit card.

The instructions weren’t complicated. You insert the chip end into the card reader. When prompted, enter your PIN. If not prompted, select CREDIT.

I thought, wait, what? But this is a debit card? Why would I select credit? I re-read the instruction.

During that mental double-take, I lost sense of the number of steps, slipped off the bottom one, took my body weight on the side of my foot, and chipped my fifth metatarsal. D’oh!

Senseless Behavior

It would be easy to say I learned my lesson. I’ll think twice next time I go down a flight of stairs.

But, wait a minute. I already knew that not paying attention while going downstairs was dangerous. Thinking twice can’t be the answer if thinking twice was what tripped me up in the first place.

Why had I done something so senseless?

The Sixth Sense

Growing up, I learned that we had five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. I was confused when my mindfulness teacher consistently referred to six. Had she made a mistake? No, she hadn’t. The authors of the original mindfulness manual mention six.

The sixth sense is sometimes translated as mental phenomena or mental processes. The corresponding sense organ is consistently translated as mind.

It’s easy to assume that this is just a matter of semantics. There are still only five senses. Thought is something else.

It took breaking my foot to make me realize that the mindfulness authors got it right and the rest of us were getting it wrong.

Senseless Over-Identification

The hazard of viewing thought as something other than one of the senses is summed up by the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”

Instead of think René Descartes could have written see, hear, smell, taste, or touch–therefore I am.

To identify so closely with one sense to the exclusion of all others can seriously distort our perception of reality. In my case, it made me prioritize the possible future threat of a card reader beeping at me over the immediate threat of breaking my foot, or worse.

In this age of Photoshop and CGI, many of us doubt that seeing is believing.

It’s a little depressing that thinking is believing is much harder for us to shake.

Radio Doom and Gloom

In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris describes the non-stop data stream from our sixth sense as being “a bit like a radio, constantly playing in the background. Most of the time it’s the Radio Doom and Gloom Show, broadcasting negative stories twenty-four hours a day. It reminds us of bad things from the past, it warns us of bad things to come in the future, and it gives us regular updates on everything that’s wrong with us. Once in a while it broadcasts something useful or cheerful, but not too often. So if we’re constantly tuned in to this radio, listening to it intently and, worse, believing everything we hear, then we have a surefire recipe for stress and misery.”

Alternative Radio

Compare the programming on Radio Doom and Gloom with Radio Flow, an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”

Which station would you like to tune in more often?

Turning Down the Volume

Harris suggests the most stressful and misery producing programs on Radio Doom and Gloom are the stories about us.

The first editorial my mind issued when I found myself writhing on the basement floor in pain was: I’m an idiot.

Now, if a friend came to me and told me that they had broken their foot because they were reading instructions for their new debit card, I doubt that would have been the first thought that crossed my mind. I might have thought something more sympathetic like: Ouch! That must have hurt.

Despite having access to all the other sense data that our consciousness reports, the staff at Radio Doom and Gloom isn’t very even-handed when it comes to opinion pieces about their employers. So, Harris recommends a three-step strategy for fact checking.

We take the initial report…

I’m an idiot.

Spend as long as we need to notice how this makes us feel. Then add the observation…

(I’m thinking) I’m an idiot.

Spend as long as we need to notice how this makes us feel. Then add the observation…

(I’m notice that) I’m thinking I’m an idiot.

Spend as long as we need to notice how this makes us feel.

Fact checking negative self-esteem can make our lives less miserable. Doing it with high self-esteem can make it less stressful.  Think of the stressful mental contortions I would have to go through to rationalize that breaking my foot was smart.

Know to Tune In

Tuning in Radio Flow requires a different brain activity: shifting from thinking to knowing.    

To think is to have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something.

To know is to be aware of through observation.

The original list of things we should know covered all the daily activities of its target audience:

When walking, know walking.

When standing, know standing.

When sitting, know sitting.

When lying down, know lying down.

Other activities to know: looking ahead and looking away, flexing and extending the limbs, getting dressed, doing the dishes, eating, drinking, tasting, falling asleep, talking, and keeping silent.

Today, there are many more things to do, but bringing awareness through observation to any activity radically changes our experience of it.

The sixth sense still has its role. It would be impossible for me to write this or for you to understand it if I weren’t expressing a particular opinion, belief or idea about someone or something. But, knowing writing can tune me in to Radio Flow. Thinking about writing locks me in to Radio Doom and Gloom. As I mentioned in “A Curious Path to Improved Concentration,” it’s effortless to get caught up in a compelling movie or book. Thinking about watching or reading can interrupt that flow.

Ten Minute Exercise

To experience the difference between thinking and knowing, try the following exercise.

  1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
  2. Set a timer to let you know when you’re done.
  3. Sit in a comfortable position.
  4. Take a moment to be aware of and observe how your mind and body feel right now.
  5. Take a few deep breaths to be aware of and observe where you experience the breath most clearly and focus on that point.
  6. If another sense interrupts awareness of the breath, observe the sensation, then return to the breath.
  7. If the sense is a particular opinion, belief, or idea, like this is boring, then be aware of and observe that feeling.
  8. Add I’m thinking… to the thought, then observe that feeling.
  9. Add I notice that I’m thinking… to the thought, then observe that feeling.
  10. When you’re ready, return to awareness and observation of the breath.
  11. When the timer sounds, be aware of and observe how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

Extra Credit: The breath isn’t the only object you can focus on. Try bringing awareness and observation to any activity. It may not be as easy as falling down stairs, but the more you practice, the easier it gets.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.