Yes, I think too much

Thinking “Gray”

with 2 comments

A few posts back, I mentioned that I believe that people who experience things like UFOs and ghosts are having what I would term a “perceptual event”. I created this term as result of what I would call “thinking gray”, and it is a process which I believe helps not only in adopting a different perspective toward information and how to interpret it, but also can lead to greater self-awareness.

As an example, I’d like to consider how a basic statement is generally regarded by the majority of people. That statement is, “I saw a ghost”. The usual interpretations are as follows:

  1. The person is of sound mind, but imagined it for some reason.
  2. The person is mentally disturbed.
  3. The person actually saw a ghost.
  4. The person misinterpreted some existing phenomenon or stimuli.

Each of these thoughts falls into what I consider “black and white” thinking. That is, the information is to be regarded as fact or fiction. Each statement rationalizes the experience to help categorize it as one or the other. If one were to “think gray” one would set aside the possibility that such a statement is to be placed entirely into the “fact” or “fiction” or “truth” or “lie” categories and seek an alternative line of thought. In regards to this topic, I mentioned my thoughts in the comments on the aforementioned post, but I realize fully that my thinking may be completely wrong. I’m good with that, because this isn’t about finding a “correct” answer.

Gray thinking isn’t about distilling experience, reality, or information into tidy categories to make order of the chaos of life. It’s about thinking outside of rigid mental boxes in order to expand perspective and seek other possibilities, or to form more interesting questions rather than to close the door of inquiry. It sets aside the need to validate one’s existing preconceived notions and the box they place us in. Note that I don’t believe that jumping to conclusions such as “ghosts must actually exist” when you are skeptical is “gray thinking”. It is merely the other side of the coin. If “black” is saying the statement is a lie of some sort, then “white” is saying it is the “truth”. “Gray” is considering the possibility that it is neither a lie nor the truth, but something of another order.

The process of thinking gray requires one to consider the “true” and “false” answers or issues and to find something between or beyond. The method is slightly different depending on the issue at hand. In regards to self-awareness, I often try not to gravitate toward the obvious answer to questions of “why” or “how”, but rather follow other lines of thinking. For instance, in the argument with my husband that I discussed in the previous post, I did not concern myself with “blame”. When most couples argue, the preoccupation is with who made the mistake and who was harmed by it. It’s about figuring out who was “wrong” and then getting that person to act in a more “right” fashion. This handles the issue in a very superficial (though crudely pragmatic) manner. It’s expedient, but yields no deeper meaning and squanders the opportunity for enhanced self-awareness.

Rather than look to blame the party who has made an error, it’s of more value to approach the issue from multiple angles. I question why my husband forgot, but I also question why I’m so upset. It’s easy to conclude that I’m frustrated because this has been a pattern and indicates he has not changed, but it’s more valuable from a personal understanding viewpoint to ask why my pattern of response had not changed. Shouldn’t I have adapted to his forgetfulness by now? What is so persistent about my character that I become so troubled by such behaviors? Rather than address “right” and “wrong” or “blame” and “victim”, I try to look at the entire dynamic of our exchange and  how our respective characters and histories come together to create a particular undesirable experience.

To offer one final concrete example which some of my readers may relate to more readily, I would also say it is worthwhile considering how black and white thinking undermines weight loss. For example, people focus on the fact that they eat as a result of stress (and they do), but this is a dead end and does nothing to help alter behavior because stress is an immutable part of life. You may think, “if only I could escape my stress, I could lose weight,” because you are (correctly) linking stress and eating, but this link does not help you. You are “right” about the issue, but it is of little value to you to be so. When I dealt with this issue (and subsequently overcame stress eating through time and applied effort), I looked not at the stress and eating angle, but at the aspect of routine and routine breaking. Yes, we are biologically compelled to eat when stressed and stress stimulates appetite, but addressing habitual behavior when stressed and focusing specifically on what can be done about that behavior is coming at the issue from a grayer angle. It’s not about finding “correct” answers and direct connections, but about an angle that is of value in improving your quality of life.

If you want to start to think “gray”, the first thing you need to do is divorce yourself of the idea that you need to be “right” or validate your viewpoint. You need to abandon notions of “fact”, fault, blame, and responsibility and focus on the complex components of any issue or problem and then further focus on the components of the components. In essence, you need to set aside the thoughts that are ego-driven and deal more open-mindedly with whatever topic is at hand.

Consider the idea that you are presented with a tree and told to think about it and its existence. Don’t focus on the branches, the tree or even its roots, but rather focus on the nutrients in the soil, the water, and the weather patterns. Think about where the seeds that the tree grew from came from and how they got there rather than the seed itself and how it grew. Consider the myriad ways in which the seed may have landed on that spot, including esoteric or absurd ones. It could have blown there, fallen from another tree, or been carried in the matted fur of an animal. It may have been carried by a stream of water during a hard rainfall or been dropped from the beak of a flying bird. Think about seeds as a method for plant reproduction and the evolution of this way of spreading plant life. Think about other ways in which it could have happened that might have been better or more effective or the things which may have prevented it from being there. Step far afield of the most obvious to find other perspectives. Thinking gray means not focusing so much on the tree that you can see, but rather on every possible thing (and some very unlikely things) that lead to it being there and things that might have been.

So much superficial thinking is linked to thinking in black and white that I’m sometimes surprised at how many people continue to apply such perspectives well into adulthood. I think that most of our thinking is lead by a need for validation which in turn is fed by insecurity. We seek to prove our perspective is “right” and to make sense of the world based on our default position. This locks us into a perspective, lifestyle, and behavior patterns and make us feel that there is no escape because we do not even realize that “gray” thinking is possible or that other options exist or are equally valid. I know many people believe they “think outside the box”, but what they really are doing is inhabiting a different box. It’s still about “black or white”, but it’s just a matter of switching sides or choosing another justification. The first leap is the hardest in terms of changing polarized thinking, but it is very much worth making.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 30, 2010 at 12:32 am

Posted in psychology, reality

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2 Responses

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  1. This essay reminds me of the commencement speech (2005) given by one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace. It’s quite delightful (your essay and his). His can be found here:

    Wallace also talks about a “default setting” of our minds, one in which we each play the central character in the universe, seldom or never considering alternative perspectives.


    I’ve never thought about “gray thinking” but it is very similar to what I learn as a communication student studying under several esoteric, make-no-assumptions kind of professors, the kind who don’t seem to survive in academia much anymore. One prof had us spend an entire semester speculating about the contents of a black box (if indeed it had contents). The point was to help us realize the ways we arrive at that which we assume is knowledge. It was called “Perspectives on Inquiry” but was really a sort of student-driven epistemology course. And that was just one class among several, all designed to help students unlearn everything we thought we *knew* about human communication. I was a very lucky student to be at that college, in that department, at that particular time.

    I’ve been fortunate throughout my life, in fact, to encounter persons (some teachers) who really do “think outside the box.” Also, I straddled several cultures simultaneously while growing up. In some ways, I endured a horrifying childhood. In another way, I was gifted with everything I needed to survive it…and to eventually thrive.


    September 30, 2010 at 2:17 pm

  2. What a serendipitous post. Drop by my blog tomorrow where I ask the heretical, “grey” questions once again.

    Oh, and thanks for your comment. Always appreciated.


    September 30, 2010 at 11:36 pm

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