Smart People and Bad Thoughts

As some of you know, I am a devotee of a spiritual teacher named Mata Amritanandamayi, or “Amma,” sometimes known as “The Hugging Saint” in the West.

One of the reasons I love her is that I am, quite simply, crazy. I have a whole lot of thoughts and ideas about myself and the world that are completely ill-founded. What’s worse – I’m smart. And smart people’s Achilles’ heel – or more accurately, Achilles’ Hell – is that we have a tendency to fall in love with convincing arguments, and cling to them like dogs gnawing on used-up bones. Once a ‘smart’ person gets a logical, well-constructed argument in their head, they’ll often follow it slavishly, long past the point of accuracy, common sense, or even personal happiness.

Imagine that your mind is like a party. When you’re smart in a certain kind of way, all those seemingly-rational (but deeply flawed) arguments sparkle like those mean-girl hotties. They outshine good ol’ Common Sense, who would totally love to talk to you, if you would only give her a minute of your time. But she’s over there, by the back, almost crowded out, poor thing, and you only learn what a good conversationalist she is once all the shiny girls have already left.

We “smart people” love the comforts of our if-then statements. We feel they provide stability, and even structure. But often, they are so rigid and so paralyzing that, instead of providing the positive structure of a scaffolding — that is to say, a foundation for improvisation and growth — they provide the negative structure of…a prison. So-called logical thinking often becomes so draconian and rigid that it only provides limitation, stagnation, and fear.

For example, when I was a teenager at boarding school, my mother — a very smart person — decided to take a one-year teaching appointment in a far-away state. At the beginning of the school year, she found an unfurnished apartment, and said, “You know, moving my furniture down will cost a lot of money. I’ll move it down later. And you know what? I slept on the carpet last night, and it really wasn’t that uncomfortable! I don’t mind it for a week or two, especially with some blankets underneath me for cushioning. I’ll deal with the furniture soon, once I get settled in my new department.”

A week or two became three months, and when my Christmas vacation came, I had to ask my mother to buy me a mattress. Spending Christmas in an empty apartment, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, I begged my mother to move the furniture down at last.

She said, “My one-year appointment might not be renewed, and moving is so very expensive. The year’s half-way over. I’ll wait until spring, and then if my contract is renewed, I’ll move it down.”

Summer came, and her contract was renewed, but again she rationalized, and I spent a summer sleeping on the floor in an empty apartment. All told, she would spend three years in that state of suspended animation, all the while promising to move the furniture down “soon.”

My mother was the most intellectual of all my friends’ parents. While her peers had more ordinary pursuits, my mother read voraciously, and talked at length about art, literature, and culture. But the thing is, if you had asked any of my friends’ ordinary parents, “Do you think it is a good idea for you and your daughter to sleep on mattresses on the floor in an empty apartment for the next three years?” they would have said something like: “Don’t be ridiculous. As long as I am not completely destitute, I will make sure that my child and I have a decent home.”

By the end of my mother’s strange time in limbo, her refusal to provide me with that decent home had pushed me far away. She had also, by the by, ended up spending at least as much on storage fees as she would have on moving expenses. But her fear had latched onto a convoluted “logic,” and trapped her in a bad decision. The kind of bad decision that wouldn’t even have occurred to someone who wasn’t, you know. Smart.

In this way, smart people become prisoners of their own minds, and their strengths become their weaknesses.

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One comment on “Smart People and Bad Thoughts

  1. I think you have seized on some truth here.. some would even say it’s a mental illness, brought on by thinking too much and not being able to see the forest for the trees.

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