Thinking vs Non-Thinking

 I’ve been painting up a storm and using a different “part of my brain.”  You know EXACTLY what I mean.

These past couple months I’ve been learning about how

  • Stepping up to the canvas is like stepping up to the golf ball: Aiming at the target and not having a thought.
  • Critical thoughts creep in at critical times. Have you noticed this? Critical thinking at critical times seems to be a habit.

So, here are my observations on the uses of thinking and non-thinking while doing art, or any activity…


When I step up to the canvas I am in non-thinking mode. The benefit is that this lets me access and use all the wisdom in my body, such as…

  • all my observations (e.g. ability to perceive balance in a painting)
  • all my skills (e.g. how to handle the brush and ink…)

It’s the same as when doing other activities, too, like golfing. In this state, I’m very perceptive. I trust my body. When I step up to the tee, not thinking, I can discern things like wind direction, the lay of the green, because I have a heightened sense of perception. Plus I can access the skills of my body. I have the ability to act.

The problem of not thinking is when I get trapped in doing only things that feel good, or are habitual, or are right in front of me. It’s a wandering around, whether on Facebook, Instagram or in a mall window shopping…or, at Smith’s, in the hair color section, nail polish section, or smelling the soaps or candles….


Thinking, on the other hand, is the act of making choices. You are putting your hands on the steering wheel.  The value of critical thinking is in its use to make choices, to analyze, to see the difference between ideas or courses of action. Thinking mode changes direction. In thinking mode, I decide what I’m going to paint, and how, before I “attack” the canvas.

The problem with too much thinking is that, since it’s “steering,” it results in a lot of turns. Thinking makes it hard to move forward. Constant choosing and turn-making “scrubs off energy.” That’s why skiers, bikers, skateboarders…even rivers make a lot of turns as they are coming down a steep slope—it’s to slow down.

When I’m in thinking mode I am not in “doing mode.”

When to Think vs Not Think

You might not know, I’m co-teaching a Rifle Marksmanship Class (Zen and the Art of….). I came up with this analogy: Thinking is loading the gun, making sure that the gun works, and making sure the gun is aimed in the correct direction. The thinking mind aims the subconscious mind, the body. Then, once the aiming is done, once the decision is made, then it’s up to the mind to not be thinking and for the body (the subconscious mind) to take over, for the doing.

Once you’ve aimed the subconscious mind (the body), the thinking mind must let go because if you step up to the painting, or the golf ball, or the aiming the rifle at the target, and if you’re still thinking

  • you’re still making choices
  • your mind is still wiggly, loose, moving one way or the other
  • your hands are still moving on the steering wheel

and you are not

  • present
  • alert
  • perceptive
  • sensing minute distinctions and changes in the physical environment (you are in a trance)

and you are not able to access

  • clean and clear muscle memory
  • smooth movement
  • your learned skills

and that’s when problems can happen!

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