The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’

1389.9 Holocaust A

Eichmann takes notes during his trial.

‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

1961, Jerusalem: the year of the Eichmann trial. Hannah Arendt, philosopher, political thinker and journalist, was there.

She subsequently reported on the trial for The New Yorker and her perceptions are important to consider in terms of ways of thinking.  She was surprised to find that Nazi war criminal did not look outwardly monstrous or brutal; on the contrary, he appeared bland, ordinary and rather unintelligent. Yet this seemingly unremarkable man had systematically organised the sending of millions of Jews to their death.

How could one adequately describe such a state of mind as that of Eichmann? Hannah Arendt called it ‘thoughtlessness,’ but this has connotations of everyday inconsideration or lack of concern for others’ feelings. This is just too mild a word to describe the behaviour of someone like Eichmann. I know, from her own writings and from her recordings, that Arendt did not intend in any way to diminish the evil of Eichmann through using this term.


Hannah Arendt

Indeed, she was exceedingly angry when, later on, her use of this word was   misunderstood and her critics accused her of excusing his crimes.

In actuality, there are no words to describe this mindset adequately. It is a fact that Eichmann was without thought. The term ‘unthinking’ will not suffice, as it tends to denote a thoughtless, inconsiderate, uncaring attitude; maybe un-thinking is a little closer.

Principally, however, what Eichmann displayed was a subversion of the idea of duty, of how human beings relate to others, of what it is to be human. His behaviour represented a total failure of empathy (Laub and Auerhahn):

‘At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man.’

(Elie Weisel quoted in Failed Empathy,.)

Failed empathy is explained as the refusal of another to help in desperate need. Thus the ‘idea of man’ as a fellow traveller through life, the sense of an ‘other’ who will be alongside us, is destroyed. In its place is an emptiness, an aloneness, created by the trauma and the sadism of the other in the place of empathy and love.

How was it that such apparent mediocrity belied Eichmann’s capability to commit atrocities? Arendt concluded that it was this very mediocrity that produced the lack of thinking, the ‘thoughtlessness’ which led to him blindly following orders from his Nazi superiors. He was unable to reflect and he lacked the ability to think through, critically and independently, the orders he was given. He needed to follow ‘routine procedures,’ without which he floundered.

Arendt wonders in her book whether our ability to recognise right and wrong is, in fact, directly connected to our ability to think.  She comes to believe, as she witnesses Eichmann’s behaviour, that ‘absence of thought’ is the cause of evil.

His unthinking, unquestioning submission to the demands of a despotic authority led to the committing of heinous acts. Arendt found no thoughtful profundity in this man, only a ‘cliche-ridden language’ and a superficiality of evil that spread ‘like a fungus on the surface…….Only the good has depth ….’

(The Jew as Pariah.)

Arendt used the term ‘the banality of evil’ to describe Eichmann’s way of mechanically obeying orders without guilt or a sense of responsibility. He could not think for himself. The phrase is used as a subtitle for her book on the subject, written in 1963.


However, there are those who think differently from Arendt about Eichmann; in 2014, Stangneth used evidence and research, in the form of newly discovered documented and recorded conversations by Eichmann, to reveal his blatant anti-semitism and his own murderous ideology. Deborah Lipstatt has also emphasised the central role that Eichmann played in planning the genocide; he was more than a follower of orders.

Some critics feel that these new findings contradict Arendt’s view that Eichmann was merely unable to think for himself.

‘What is most missing is the recognition that a thinking person is not necessarily inoculated against committing evil acts.’ (Douglas)

Arendt, it continued, “grasped an important concept but not the right example.”

The concept is indeed important; whether or not it applies to Eichmann is for another discussion, another time.

Yet such ‘normalization of the unthinkable’ still continues to this day. It is all around us and mostly we do not notice it. In his book ‘Triumph of the Market,’ Edward Herman describes this concept as ‘the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”’  He identifies such behaviour in those who produce and manufacture poison gases and instruments of torture and in the sanitized reporting of war and its casualties by the media to this day.

It is disturbing to realise that our thinking often reflects our culture and that we become imprinted with attitudes that might be cruel or racist without us even being aware of it. We may see this in the demonising of ‘the other’ in matters relating to ‘illegal’ immigrants today, where barriers and ‘defences’ are erected against desperate, traumatised people who attempt to enter another country, as if they were wicked enemies. This issue will be further developed in a future post.


Syrian refugees, Budapest railway station, 2015.


Anti-Trump Protestor. London, 2017.


Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.

‘When there is true no-thought, no-thought itself is not.’

A Zen teacher

If we think about it, the above statement implies a total void. So what is there, in our minds, if there is not thought? Can we ‘not think’? If we are not thinking, does this mean our minds are blank, devoid of thought?

Let us pause for a moment and turn the concept of thinking on its head. Let us consider this state of ‘not thinking.’

It would appear that not thinking is as difficult to contemplate as thinking. Could lack of thought, lack of no-thought, be a positive experience? Such an empty mind is what some who meditate aim to achieve: a relaxed state, without the intrusiveness of thought, a freeing experience:

‘Thinking no thing will limited-self unlimit.’ (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)


Is this state, then, better described as a quiet mind, or is it an empty mind? The term mindfulness has its root in Buddhist practices. Yet mindfulness has the word full in it, implying we are full-of-mind.

In her research paper, Susanne Semb Thunes suggests that mindlessness is the actual opposite of mindfulness; this is a state of witlessness, of brainlessness, of the empty-headed, a foolish vacuousness that is quite different from the Buddhist state of serenity, which is a rarefied and enlightened state, free of worldly thoughts.

In a less spiritual way,  unthinking may also imply a more careless and carefree casting off of cares and worrying thoughts, as in Dryden’s poem ‘The Secular Masque.’ He refers to

‘A very merry, dancing, drinking,
Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking time.’


‘The Wedding Dance.’ Peter Breughel the younger.

In a less wanton vein, the poet Denise Levertov in her work Relearning the Alphabet,’ describes the feelings of delight when one goes back to beginnings, the magical sense of renewal.

Joy-a beginning. Anguish, ardor,
To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking
joy; the beloved stranger lives,
Sweeps up anguish as with a wing-tip,
brushing the ashes back to the fire’s core.


The ‘unthinking joy’ mentioned by this highly regarded American poet refers to the potential recovery from the anguish of the Vietnam war; the whole poem is one of several that represents the poet’s responses to this and other human tragedies of her time.

In an earlier blog post, the idea of unthinking in terms of driving a car, playing a musical instrument, or practicing a sport was discussed. Often, in these circumstances, people resort to an ‘autopilot mode,’ which involves suspending thought and not utilising the conscious mind.

There are obviously several interpretations and meanings of the word ‘unthinking’ and some differ greatly from automatic thought or the Zen notion of no-thinking. Is it possible for us to ‘unthink,’ in the way that  Shakespeare’s character Wolsey exhorted Queen Katherine to do in the quotation from Henry VIII?

‘Remove these thoughts from you. The which before

His highness shall speak in, I do beseech

You, gracious madam, to unthink your speaking,

And to say so no more.’

Shakespeare meant the word ‘unthink’ to imply a kind of forgetting, a conscious removal of the material from one’s thoughts.

This plea to ‘unthink’ is reminiscent of a judge’s courtroom injunction to sustain an objection and strike off from the records a comment already made or a question posed. The jury must not include the comment in their deliberations; the implication is that they have to unthink it. I suspect that this is practically impossible.

The more one tries to unthink something, the more one will think about it. Oliver Burkeman, quoting Dostoevsky, in his excellent, thought-provoking book The Antidote, says in this regard

‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that
the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’


The word ‘unthinking’ is often used to mean inconsiderate or insensitive. This might be an appropriate way of describing, for example, someone who speaks loudly on their mobile phone in public, or those who might thoughtlessly disrespect another person’s feelings or wishes. These behaviours may often be difficult to challenge and may need a strong approach.

‘Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.’ John Maynard Keynes

The importance of examining one’s own thinking is paramount here. How easy it is to slip into ways of thinking that might be destructive and hurtful, perhaps without conscious awareness of the implications and effects of what one is saying.

‘We must unthink our thinking lest our thinking become unthinking thinking.’
Steven C. Scheer

‘Unthinking’, in the sense of not thinking, may also be used to refer to someone who cannot think or self-reflect. Not being able to think for oneself can have the most unthinkable consequences.

What does the word unthinkable imply, then, when defined as unimaginable, inconceivable? Here is a word that features strongly in descriptions of atrocities, acts of barbarity, crime and horror.

‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Unthinking behaviour or mindlessness, the inability to reflect on oneself and one’s actions, may lead to the committing of heinous acts. We do not need to look to the future and simply imagine the results of being unable to reflect; there are decidedly sinister examples throughout history and in the relatively recent past.

What might be the consequences of this state of mind, when it becomes extreme? This, and other related issues, will be explored in the next post.

Thinking and walking: A Transformative Partnership (2)

‘Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.’

Henry David Thoreau


Claude Monet. ‘Le Parc Monceau.’

The last blog post explored the inspirational effects of walking outside; in this post we will work towards an understanding of why these effects occur. What is the connection between Thoreau’s legs moving and his flowing thoughts?

Recent scientific research directly supports Thoreau’s perception. In 2017, scientists at New Mexico Highlands University discovered that

‘…relatively low foot impacts during walking significantly affect carotid blood flow.’

They thus found a direct link between brain and foot during walking.

‘New data strongly suggests that brain blood flow is very dynamic and depends directly on cyclic aortic pressures that interact with retrograde pressure pulses from foot impacts…..There is an optimising rhythm between brain blood flow and ambulating. Stride rates and their foot impacts are within the range of our normal heart rates (about 120/minute) when we are briskly moving along.’

In a paper entitled ‘Give Your ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effects of Walking on Creative Thinking,’ the researchers Oppezzo and Schwartz used scientific experiments to show how walking and creative thinking are linked. Some of their participants walked indoors on a treadmill, yet the benefits to their creative thinking were still apparent. The writers also commented on the mood-boosting potential of physical exercise, which might also enhance creativity.

The researchers found, however, that it is the brainstorming, free kind of thinking that is enhanced by walking, not the more focussed thinking that requires single, correct responses. It is that divergent, multiple-aspect kind of thinking, characteristic of those who explore options and possibilities that walking facilitates.

This is the kind of thinking that Gros describes in his book A Philosophy of Walking. He explains how writing that is done whilst walking is lighter in tone, its thinking freer, and more original, away from the stuffiness of an enclosed study.

‘An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is a thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition. The result will not be long and meticulous exegesis, but thoughts that are light and profound. That is really the challenge: the lighter a thought, the more it rises, and becomes profound by rising – vertiginously – above the thick marshes of conviction, opinion, established thought.’


The ‘light’ and ‘profound’ ways of thinking that walking promotes, the freedom from the constraints of the indoors and the escape from societal pressures of which Gros speaks, are well recognised and reported by many walkers.

Peace, anonymity, movement and a sense of well-being are all part of the walking experience that contribute to creative thinking. Whilst we may choose to walk with others and gain from their companionship, solitude is most often conducive to deep thought.

The psychotherapist Anthony Storr speaks of the importance of such solitude and regards it as a crucial factor in terms of personal growth and change. In his book of The School of Genius, he describes the ‘oceanic feeling’ of being ‘totally at one with the universe.’ Such feelings may occur on ‘solitary journeys.’

Looked at from a psychoanalytical perspective, these powerful emotions may be connected with ‘early infantile experience of unity with the mother.’ This is not difficult to imagine, when one sometimes looks at the peace and contentment of a feeding baby. At this stage, the baby is merged, at one with the mother. In the words of psychoanalyst Mary Ayers

‘During the initial stage of emotional development, the environment is “not yet separated off from the infant by the infant.” (Winnicott, 1971:111). This phase is marked by the infant’s absolute dependence on the mother that exists in a psychological as well as a physical sense……The infant is in a “facilitating environment,” relating to the mother in a merged state. In this state, “the environment is holding the individual, and at the same time the individual knows no environment and is at one with it.”’


At some level, for those who experience such ecstatic feelings of oneness whilst walking, there may be a connection with a deeply unconscious memory of a sense of unity with the mother.

It is this ‘oceanic feeling’ which opens up our minds when we walk in nature, helping us think differently. There is a sense of personal power, a feeling of unity within the self and with the outside world. This frees us to contemplate ourselves and the world around us in a larger and more productive way.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau captured the essence of such an experience.

‘I feel an indescribable ecstasy and delirium in melting, as it were, into the system of being, in identifying myself with the whole of nature.’

Such powerful feelings were experienced by Monet as he learned to paint the countryside around him, enlightening and inspiring him, stimulating feelings of love, bringing him new insight. He commented “Eventually, my eyes were opened, and I really understood nature. I learned to love at the same time.”


‘Irises in Monet’s Garden.’ Monet.

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‘We are no longer quite ourselves.’ Thinking and Walking, a Transformative Partnership.

The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh.

‘The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.’

Street Haunting: A London Adventure. Virginia Woolf.

Does walking influence our thinking? Conversely, might thinking affect our walking? Virginia Woolf speaks of a kind of transformation of the self as one leaves the house to go for a walk. She is walking though London, but still finds the city experiences inspiring.



Couple in the Park at Arles. Vincent Van Gogh.

Many artists, writers and poets have used walking through the countryside as their theme, pointing to the fact that such walking inspires us, feeds the soul, enhances and encourages creativity.

I have chosen to illustrate this post with some beautiful Van Gogh paintings, as he captures so wonderfully the magic qualities of the external world around us, the spiritual, reflective and transformative aspects of the universe as we walk.

’No matter what people say; we painters work better in the country, everything there speaks more clearly, everything holds firm, everything explains itself…’

(Van Gogh in a letter to his sister)

For Van Gogh, then, the surroundings actually speak, communicating something of their clarity and solidity. They appear to function as a container; that is, a safe, holding environment for this troubled artistic soul. It is as if the external merges with the internal, confirming the existence of a holistic world where everything functions as part of a whole.

Thomas Traherne, in his poem Walking, emphasises how crucial is the thinking process to walking. Without this facility, we might as well be made of wood, immune to the joyful inspiration of the countryside.

‘To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet. ‘

Again, there is a reference to this connection between outer and inner. It is as if the surroundings express something of our inner world, speaking to us and for us, helping us think and feel, mystically nourishing our imagination and our soul.

Wordsworth, a great walker, also speaks of his deep bond with nature in his sonnet Sweet Was the Walk:

Now, too, on melancholy’s idle dreams
Musing, the lone spot with my soul agrees,
Quiet and dark; for through the thick wove trees
Scarce peeps the curious star till solemn gleams
The clouded moon, and calls me forth to stray
Thro’ tall, green, silent woods and ruins gray.

The ‘lone spot’ communes with him, affirming his own, sad mind-wanderings. The moon itself calls to him from behind the clouds, urging him to wander on through the woods. Nature appeals to all our senses, stimulating us mentally and physically through colour, temperature, tone, sound, scent, movement, form and texture. Van Gogh seems to capture all these aspects in his painting of olive trees.


Olive trees with yellow sky and sun. Vincent van Gogh

The painted landscape seems to vibrate with life and tremble in the shimmering heat as we ‘walk’ through it. We can gaze longingly beyond the trees to the pale and distant hill, the triangle of perspective in the painting drawing us in. Van Gogh’s statement that, in the countryside ‘everything explains itself,’ is dynamically reflected here; Nature mystically helps us understand itself and ourselves.

This painting connects for me with Rilke’s poem A Walk, in which he speaks of the power of the landscape to alter us.

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

Seeing the distant hill transforms the poet, although he cannot reach it. It is also interesting that Rilke talks of being changed into what he already is, without knowing it. The change brought about by the sight of the hill is, he is saying, a greater self- awareness. So the hill changes our thinking only to the extent that it releases something hitherto hidden from our consciousness.

This notion of the far off and somewhat unreachable hill is reminiscent of experiences of being inspired by another person, perhaps a therapist, teacher or lecturer. Sometimes, a way of thinking, an idea, is put forward that is just outside our full understanding and it is not quite grasped in its entirety.

However, despite the unreachability of the thought, there can still be learning and change, even if, like Rilke’s hill, it goes mostly over one’s head. Some kind of process occurs in which the idea, although on the horizon of our comprehension, is still inspirational, even if not fully grasped in the moment. Perhaps, at some unconscious level, some aspect of the distant truth, a fragment of this half-digested idea, has entered our mind.

As we walk, as we focus on our surroundings, the act of walking appears to increase our knowledge. Many different cultures have recognised this fact.

‘To the Thcho people of North-Western Canada, walking and knowing are barely divisible activities: their term for knowledge and their term for footprint can be used interchangeably.’ (The Old Ways. Robert Macfarlane.)


Macfarlane further comments on the idea that ‘walking might be thinking or that feet might know.’ Most interestingly, he points out that, etymologically, thinking and walking are inextricably linked, in that the verb to learn originally meant ‘to follow a track.’

Questions remain. What is this magical link between thinking and walking, which has the power to change our mindset as we walk? How does walking inspire us to reflect, write, paint, dream? Is there an evidence-base to explain and confirm our thoughts about the intricate connection between the physical and the psychological?

In the next post, we will find some answers, as we develop and explore these issues yet further.




Attacks on Thinking: in Society and in Therapy.



A poet’s work….. is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

(Salman Rushdie , The Satanic Verses.)

Rushdie’s poet, Jumpi Joshi, mentioned in a previous post, advocates freedom of thought and its expression.

However, such freedom of expression is not available to all. Autocratic societies prevent individuals from expressing thoughts that in democracy would be regarded as acceptable; there is often suppression of ideas merely because they do not concur with the state. Such regimes declare themselves inviolable, their ideologies sacrosanct and unchallengeable. Ideas that do not accord with their beliefs are strictly censored. Often such societies attack and manipulate the ways of thinking of their people.

Research has indicated that what is termed ‘cultural tightness’ inevitably affects what thoughts and ideas can be written or expressed, cramping ‘cognitive style’ and ways of thinking.

‘Tight cultures promote narrow socialization, with highly developed systems of constraining, regulating, and monitoring behaviors (Arnett,1995), and deviation from established norms is readily identified and sanctioned. Additionally, justice systems in tight cultures often impose stiff punishments for crimes (e.g., the death penalty for corruption in China). In terms of everyday life, tight cultures are also linked to situational constraints that embody a restricted range of appropriate behaviors (e.g., in Singapore, eating and drinking are not allowed in the subway). Over time, these institutional practices collectively foster individual-level psychological adaptations, such as self-regulation, cognitive styles, and propensity toward change, all of which have implications for creativity.’

(Recently, Gelfand wrote in The Guardian, about ‘the science behind the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise,’ using his concept of tight cultures to explain the cultural cause of these contemporary political changes.)

In Waiting for the Barbarians, JM Coetzee describes an extreme example of a ‘tight culture’ in the form of an imaginary place, ‘Empire,’ in which the people are told that there are barbarians outside, waiting to invade. These are the ‘others’, who are different and speak an unknown language, depicted as savage people who should be tortured, eradicated. The novel is an allegorical story about apartheid, the oppression of black people in South Africa.

The fear of the other, inculcated into their people, strengthens the rulers’ control of Empire, making the people terrified and dependent. There is a need to create an enemy, in order to feel some kind of dysfunctional sense of ‘safety’ within the walls of Empire. Thus the oppressors think themselves into existence; their own identity as masters of Empire depends on their projection onto the barbarians of denied aspects of themselves. What Coetzee creates in his novel is a kind of memorial to the victims; he cannot insult them by attempting to historicise their experience:

‘Waiting for the Barbarians does not recover history as a fully narratable subject, but bears witness to it by refusing to translate the suffering engendered by colonial oppression into historical discourse. In “bringing to speech an impossibility of speech” (Agamben, Remnants 164), in maintaining rather than negating the unsayability it says, the novel can be seen to embrace an anti-historicist ethics of remembrance, an ethics of testimony….’ (J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and the Ethics of Testimony)

Coetzee portrays an example of thought control at its most powerful, for any thoughts that do not concur with Empire’s masters are prohibited. This destroys individuality and choice, determining what people are allowed to think and censoring those who dare to contradict the ‘laws’ through the use of torture and murder.

That Empire has no definite article is crucial, for this generalises the imperialist way of thinking, making its milieu unspecified. Thus the implication is that the discourse of totalitarianism can be found anywhere and everywhere.

George Orwell was also well aware of this fact; ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,’ he said. In his seminal novel, 1984 he creates the ‘thought police,’ those who will closely monitor the thoughts of others, through omnipresent television monitors, minute observation of facial expression and other subtle surveillance methods. The menacing image of Big Brother is everywhere. Any deviation from the party line is regarded as thoughtcrime and thought criminals are severely punished with torture or death.

Sadly many forms of persecution, maltreatment of others, and tyranny are to be seen in the real world and their threat is pervasive today. Under the guise of religion or politics, and long after the year 1984, people around the world are tortured, brutalised and oppressed for their ways of thinking.

Such physical and psychic trauma often result in difficulties with thinking, remembering and certainly with speaking thoughts. Extreme suffering such as this often renders speech impossible, creating numbness and an inability to think. Subsequently, painful memories may be repressed, as a way of defending against the resulting psychic pain.

When such pain becomes unmanageable, some people might decide to engage in psychotherapy. There are many examples of how patients in therapy unconsciously find ways of suppressing the thinking process as a defence against very painful thoughts and repressed feelings and impulses.


In group psychotherapy, this can be particularly striking; psychoanalyst Robert Hinshelwood, in a book entitled Ring of Fire;Primitive Affects and Object Relations in Group Psychotherapy , describes attacks on what he calls ‘the reflective space’ in the group:

‘The term ‘reflective space’ indicates that aspect of the group in which members link emotionally and from which personalities can emerge. In contrast, primitive states reveal themselves in attacks on the capacities for thinking, for reflecting and for making emotional links.’

Such attacks may take the form of ‘primitive processes of violence and paranoia,’  which disrupt the group’s thinking.

In individual therapy, the patient may also attack thinking, for buried emotional truths can be extremely upsetting. The task of analytical therapy is to help the patient bring into consciousness such difficult issues, which may be adversely affecting aspects of his current life. The therapist’s empathy and understanding will, it is hoped, enable a committed patient to work through such difficulties.

Further examples on attacks on thinking will be discovered in a future post about the effects of digital media on thinking.

Thinking and Poetry: Can poetry function as a therapeutic container for our thoughts?


‘Among the Old Poets’ by Walter Shirlaw.


Many writers have commented on the intricate connection between poetry and thought. What is the nature and meaning of this connection? On what basis are the two related? Could this connection be seen as therapeutic?

Poets and writers have grappled endlessly with the notion of thinking, its meaning, its power.

Some regard the kind of thinking required to write good poetry as of necessity deep and considered. Poetry for them is a kind of distillation of thought, a pure and refined, intense essence of the process of thinking. Keats observed that poetry ‘should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.’ Others, as we shall see later in this post, use their poetic thinking in a free, almost experimental way. Poetry can amply contain the most refined and the most unprocessed of thoughts.

Generally, thinking is what makes poetry meaningful; without it one could not interpret the nuances and implications of poetic form or language. Auden has to write his thoughts down in order to understand them. It is as if the poetic written word crystallises meaning for him, giving structure, containment and solidity to an amorphous thought process, making nebulous ideas comprehensible. He asks ‘how do I know what I think until I’ve seen what I say?’

The poet Thomas Gray stated that ‘poetry is …..thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.’ It is as if he is saying that through poetry we can experience real,‘breathing’ thoughts and words which seem to emerge, smouldering, from the depths of the inner self. Perhaps the poetic structure gives necessary boundaries to such smouldering thoughts, so that they do not burn out of control.

There is something elemental for Gray about the relationship between poetry and thought; poetry for him is an almost primal experience, a way of touching thought in its most sensitive, unprocessed and natural form. It is as if thought has dissolved in breath itself, as if it has become an autonomous part of ourselves, a living, intrinsic constituent of the air we breathe.

The work of Alice Oswald reveals the use of poetry itself as a way of thinking, a contemplative and exploratory endeavour. It has a tentative feel, a little like an experience of ‘free association’  in psychotherapy. She says:

‘A human being is a thinking, deciding creature, and that is what I think is worth investigating.’


In her poem ‘Flies’, the flies buzz questions: ‘What dirt shall we visit today/what dirt shall we re-visit?’ They are thinking, trying to work things out. But somehow language- and thought- fail, as sometimes they fail us all:

They lift their faces to the past and walk about a bit
trying our their broken thought-machines
coming back with their used-up words

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter
what should we
what dirt should we

The cadences of the poem, its rhythms, patterns, pace and frequent gaps are the very fabric of the thinking process in her poetry. This work is disturbing, challenging and somewhat experimental, in that it feels as though Oswald is experiencing the poem as it unfolds itself. Each poem is a developing idea, unfurling, new-born, happening almost autonomously. The poem is both the thought itself and the container of the thought.

Oswald’s poetry represents thinking at its most intense level. She comments:

‘I think it’s often assumed that the role of poetry is to comfort, but for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don’t mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull.’

(The Guardian, 12.12.2011)

For Oswald, then, poetry is a challenging, disturbing experience, reaching the depths of her psyche, a little like Gray’s ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn.’ Perhaps this may be seen as a kind of therapeutic, growthful experience, as she faces the disconcerting questions that poetry produces. Perhaps also, these thoughts are most safely expressed through the poetic medium.

Poetry gives us a kind of permission, through its form and its expressive nature, to experiment with and investigate our half-developed, muddled thoughts. Seeing poetry in this way provides a stark contrast to Keats’ view of poetry as embodying our ‘highest thoughts.’

An interesting and unusual way of seeing the thought/poetry connection is described in Kendall Walton’s article ‘Thoughtwriting – in Poetry and Music.’ He explains his term ‘thoughtwriters’ as ‘writers who compose texts for others to use in expressing their thoughts (feelings, attitudes.)’ He compares the thought writer to the speechwriter.

He feels that readers can and do use poetry to express their own thoughts, the poet having formulated them. These poetic thoughts are borrowed where necessary, with people appropriating them for their own use. This idea furthers Keats’ view (above) that the poet expresses the reader’s thoughts.

Kendall points out that poetry is often easy to memorise and can be called to mind in various situations that require expression of thought and feeling. As an example, he quotes a familiar line from the 23rd Psalm, easily remembered, called on by many in times of strife:

‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…….’

Robert Frost said :‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.’ However, not all of us can always find the words; we may need help sometimes to do this. Perhaps it is sometimes comforting to have our thoughts readily expressed for us.

It is almost as if the poet might become a kind of therapist, supportively ‘lending us his ego,’  providing us with the words for our thoughts at times when we lack our own clarity and expressiveness. Thus the poem may serve as a kind of container, a safe place where our difficult and needy thoughts can be expressed and held by the poet on our behalf:

‘The notion of “lending ego” derives from the psychoanalytic tradition; and broadly conceived, it refers to a therapist’s functioning as an “auxiliary ego” for the patient. The patient is allowed to use or “borrow” the therapist’s presumably well-working mind and psychological capacities in order to enhance his or her own, relatively deficient, psychic functioning in particular domains. In effect, the patient is encouraged to think like the therapist, who presumably represents a good role model for mental health.’

(Donald Misch)

Thinking and the Stream of Consciousness



‘Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.’ William James.

There are several subtly different interpretations of the phrase ‘stream of consciousness,’ coined by psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. It is used both in psychology and literature. Those who have sought to clearly define and refine the term through formal research still appear not to have found consensus.

For example, in their paper The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness,’ the writers largely bracket these two functions together. In contrast, in his paper Focused Dreaming and Mind- Wandering, Dorsch regards mind-wandering and focussed daydreaming as different. He sees each of these functions as ‘segments’ or elements of the stream of consciousness and regards focussed daydreaming as having more agency and purpose than mind-wandering:

‘The other classical example of what we sometimes take to be daydreaming is mind- wandering. Just like focused daydreaming, mind-wandering involves sequences of connected mental episodes. But, this time, the connection is not—or not primarily— due to imaginative purposiveness and mental agency, but instead to association and similar causal factors.’

In actuality, the boundaries between focussed daydreaming, mind wandering and stream of consciousness are, across the research literature on the subject, rather fuzzy. They overlap. However, there is general agreement that, however they are classified or subdivided, in the right circumstances, all these activities can be creative.

They all involve the experience of a free-flowing, uninterrupted process of thought and feeling, unencumbered by concerns about convention, structure or explanation, whether in a psychotherapeutic or literary sense.

Psychotherapeutically, James’ stream of consciousness may be similar to, or include Freud’s term ‘free association,’   in which the patient is encouraged to verbalise any thoughts or feelings he experiences, without editing or censoring these. This enables previously repressed, hidden unconscious material to emerge into consciousness more naturally, as psychological defences are lowered.

Gestalt therapy also uses the stream of consciousness to help the patient be mindfully aware of what is happening ‘now,’ in the present moment. The concept of ‘flow’ is used here, as it is in the inspiring book by Barry Stevens entitled Don’t Push the River (it flows by itself.)


This book utilises the stream of consciousness both in a literary and therapeutic way, intimately revealing the author’s inner feelings as she experiences life and learning at the Gestalt Institute of Canada in 1969:

‘Light from the desk lamp is shining on my typewriter, the bluish color gleaming, fading into dull away from the lamp. The carriage handle shadow moves along this dullness, then slides away. The little square criss-crossed light which shows that the motor is running (as though I couldn’t hear it-and even if I had no eyes, I feel the vibrations) is steady orange, more sturdy than the machine itself. Hands touching keys. When I notice this touching, my hands become softer than they were, more gentle, using just enough pressure to move the keys, no more, and then there is no kickback against myself. It is more like music. I feel in harmony.’

In a literary context, the stream of consciousness is a flee-flowing narrative technique used in a novel, poem or other written work, that aims to create a sense of being inside the mind of the characters. It is a method of portraying a character’s inner world that aims to make them more familiar and more real as people. It produces a narrative that is less encumbered by what might be regarded as artificial strictures. Free from the imposition of punctuation, grammar or sentence structure, there is less to inhibit the natural flow of thought and feeling:

‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’ (Virginia Woolf)

The writer might use reported speech, or create a direct interior monologue, with the character’s thoughts expressed in the first person.This technique was utilised by Modernist writers in the early twentieth century such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

The internal narratives Woolf creates reveal the private and secret thoughts of her characters, those thoughts that reside on ‘the floor of the mind’ :

‘For now she need not think about anybody . She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expensive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.’ (To The Lighthouse

David Lodge also uses the stream of consciousness technique in his  novel, Thinks, previously mentioned in an earlier post. This is a work of fiction, yet it sheds light on the reality and complexity of thinking. Lodge researched the whole area of thinking extensively for this book.

As we have seen, Lodge’s principal character records his own thoughts in a stream of consciousness, as a way of researching into the ‘structure of thought’. He questions the difference between being and thinking, and wonders, ‘against Descartes,’ whether one can ‘be without thinking:’

Can I just am without thinking? The verb to am…..meaning to merely be without thinking…. but is thinking the same as being conscious, no….’

This is an important point. Thinking is not the same as being conscious, but the stream of consciousness is surely different from consciousness itself. It is more active, it is more than merely being, more than having an awareness of one’s existence. It is sequential, fluid, dynamic, a moving procession of memories, ideas, sensations and impressions. The term is, as its originator first stated, referring to thought itself, in all its many forms.

A final thought: what might be happening in this digital age to our streams of consciousness? Will this concept of creative flow be relevant in the twenty-first century? Or will consciousness itself undergo a radical metamorphosis?

In the book Reframing Consciousness:Art, Mind and Technology, (edited by Roy Ascott) contributor Christiane Paul says:

‘In the age of the Internet, the notions of fragmentation, multiplicity and ‘streams of consciousness’ are revived in a different context and carried to further levels. The networked society has profoundly affected our concepts of self and identity. The on-line self is now commonly understood as a multiple, distributed, time-sharing system…..The computer age promises to open up new dimensions for consciousness: the ultimate (utopian and dystopian) dream is to download consciousness into the machine and stream it live over the network.’

The concept of consciousness, flow, and the digital age will be explored in more detail in a future post.