Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable. Written by Dr Linda Berman.

‘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.

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